Lockdown Level-Up: Mind Over Matter

I was chatting with Pat, part of the old school Story Games Seattle braintrust, about how the online games I’ve been in have gotten so much better since the lockdown.

And the logical thought is, yeah, practice makes perfect. We’re playing all our tabletop games online instead of at, y’know, a table, so we’re getting better at all the methods and techniques that are unique to being online (and also getting better headsets, natch).

Buuuuuut, I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think something more subtle is going on.

Whenever we played games online before the lockdown, they were… fine? But we always knew somewhere in the back of our minds that it would have been better to be playing in person, at a table. We knew we were settling for second-best.

But role-playing games — particularly ones that require lots of creative contribution from the players — hinge on attitude. If you come into a game with reservations or doubts, you’re going to have a worse game because you’re distracted and holding back. You’re judging the experience instead of freely participating, and a creative game needs everyone to contribute.

So while there are disadvantages to trying to talk and play online, thinking about those downsides makes you play even worse. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: expecting an online game to be worse causes the online game to be worse.

In any situation, you can overcome a bad starting attitude or distraction, but it’s an uphill battle — which is also why we used the welcome spiel of Story Games Seattle to set the mood and get people in the right mindset. A similar thing happens when people playtest games: they go into the session sitting back and analyzing everything, looking for flaws, instead of leaning in and playing, which naturally makes the game worse (which is why the one piece of advice I always give is to never think of a game as a playtest: just play normally).

But once the lockdown hit, playing in person was off the table, so to speak. There was no point even thinking about whether gaming in person would have been better because it wasn’t an option, so you stop coming to the game with an unspoken feeling that it’s a compromise. The same problems are there, you just don’t think about them. You just play, so you have more fun.

And you get to play in pajamas…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s all in your head: only half of it is.

Gaming online is more difficult than playing face-to-face. It’s harder to communicate, there are reduced social cues to understand how the other players are feeling, there’s a layer of detachment because you’re staring at a tiny window on a screen instead of a real person, etc. etc. etc. You can get better at those skills but to some degree they’ll always remain.

There are advantages too, mostly regarding logistics: you can play with anyone anywhere, there’s no travel time, no need to arrange a venue. And you can play in your pajamas. But the advantages are things that are outside the session (aside from the pajamas), whereas the disadvantages are things that happen during the game and actually impact the quality of play. And the quality of play is the point of the whole damn thing.

It’s kind of a magic trick: yes there are disadvantages, but they hurt the game more if you think about them, so forgetting they’re there makes the game better. It’s no different than if you were playing in person but the seats were hard and the room was loud: you’ll have a quantifiably better game if you just forget about the inconveniences and focus on playing.

Does it work? I look back on the awesome games we’ve played during the lockdown and say yes.

What about you?

    Ben Robbins | April 27th, 2022 | , | show 3 comments