Tech At The Table: Yea, Nay, Or Maybe?

Technology is a wonderful thing. Thanks to our laptops, tablets, and smartphones, plus widespread WiFi, we’re able to keep in contact with the world around us anywhere we go. But as we all know, there are times and places where it’s just not appropriate to have your laptop up or to whip out your smartphone.

Is the game table one of them?

A few months back I wrote about whether having your character sheet on paper or on your laptop was better, and one of the points brought up in the comments was whether you could/should even have your laptop or tablet at the game table. Some posters noted that their game groups were completely wired (or wireless, as it were) with laptops for everyone and IM playing an important role in the game. Others were adamant about no tech at the table, not even for the GM.

I’m of the belief that if you address all the problems that might come from tech at the table, a happy medium can be found.

I’ll roll for initiative…as soon as I finish squashing these piggies.

There’s no denying that tech can be a useful tool in gaming. Beyond electronic character sheets, consider the popularity of PDF versions of game rulebooks. More and more gamers are realizing that PDFs are cheaper, take up zero shelf space, and can be transported with no effort whatsoever. Gone is the 50-pound backpack full of rulebooks that you used to have to lug with you to every game – now you can just take your laptop. Let’s not forget all the great gaming references available online, either. With your trusty laptop (or a powerful enough tablet or smartphone) at your side, you could game entirely without books.

So what’s the problem? Distraction. Lots of gamers have a little bit of magpie in them, and can be easily distracted by shiny things. When the game isn’t focused on you, and your mind wanders, the temptation to check Facebook and YouTube, or play a quick game of Angry Birds, can be too strong. The next thing you know, you’re either so engrossed in what you’re doing that you don’t realize your attention is needed back in the game, or – even worse – whatever you’re doing distracts your fellow players. Even something as innocent and quiet as sending a Tweet or Facebook update with a cool quote from the game can lead to distraction, as invariably someone will reply with a witty comment or a related link that will get you giggling, which will pique everyone’s interest and suddenly the Droid is being passed around the table. (My own husband is terribly guilty of this. I love him anyway, though.)

Personally, I’m very distracted by visual things. I like background music when I play an RPG, and can handle other noise, but if I can see something on someone’s screen, that will disrupt my attention like nothing else. One of the guys in our game club likes to have music videos playing on his laptop while he GMs, and I could never play in one of his games because of that. When a smartphone playing a Family Guy clip gets passed around, or I can see someone playing Farmville out of the corner of my eye, I’m going to be worthless as a player until that distraction is gone.

So what should be the ground rules?

Every game group is different, so there are no hard and fast rules about tech that everyone should follow. The GM has ultimate say, so he should decide what he wants to allow/disallow and let all the players know up front. The time for discussion/questions about what is or isn’t acceptable is before the game starts. If you are really passionate about using your laptop for the game, but the GM – or an easily distracted player, like me – is hesitant, plead your case and promise to be good and stay off the interwebs. And mean it.

But if the GM says “no tech at my table”, abide by that, no matter how difficult it may seem. It may be hard to believe, but it was only about a dozen years ago that cell phones and laptops were things only rich kids had, and tablets were still just a glimmer in some computer developer’s eye. You really can live for a few hours without Twitter. (If you can’t, go check your phone when you take a pee break.) If you’re truly waiting for an important call or text (like about a sick family member), keep your phone in your pocket on vibrate, and excuse yourself from the table when that call comes.

I have yet to run my first tabletop game, but when I finally get around to it (which better be soon, since 2011 is half-over and it’s on my list of resolutions for the year), the first rule I will lay out will be that the second I hear the Angry Birds theme from your smartphone, you pass your tablet across the table to share a YouTube video, or I catch you playing another game on your laptop, you either put it away or hand it over to me until the game session is done. (I’ll put on my best sexy librarian look/voice to lessen the blow.) You can have your tech, but you have to use it responsibly.

And I think that’s a fair stance to take.

What are your thoughts on tech at the game table? Have you had to lay down the law with your players?

About c

By day, Connie Thomson (aka Ariel Manx) is a mild-mannered shoe salesgirl, geeking out about insoles, outsoles, and shanks. But when night falls, she takes her turn at the helm of 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, where she writes, edits, and does layout for table-top RPG products. Regardless of her persona, C is always a fangirl, bookworm, and craft diva. (Email C or follow @arielmanx on Twitter.)

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