In Search of Player Engagement

A moment of triumph, but we all know Will experienced his own player engagement woes. ©Netflix.

While wasting time on social media recently, we came across a comment deriding gamemasters for complaining about how hard their job is. We certainly believe running a game requires a great deal of time, effort, and organization, which ultimately culminates at the table. Whether running a published campaign or just-in-time homebrew, you expect some payoff during the session. How does a gamemaster measure that return? We tend to look for player engagement. If a player shows up, plays, and wants to play again, then we feel satisfied at the end of the day. This relationship with engagement, though, remains complicated and requires examination so that gamemasters set reasonable expectations for themselves and their players. 

Before proceeding any further, let’s define player engagement. From the outset, this is a tricky proposition, and we turn to a wordy definition from an academic article evaluating player engagement in digital games:

[P]layer engagement is understood as the level of continuation desire experienced in-game, during play, or over a longer period of time, when players dedicate themselves to coming back and playing a game again and again… Player engagement is related to a range of emotions (enjoyment, fun, satisfaction, etc.) and experiences (e.g. the feeling of being immersed, present, or in the flow) which may or may not be part of a player’s experience of engagement, depending on both the player and the type of game played. 

In short, engagement is highly personal to the individual with influence from various emotions and experiences. A key point to identify is that engagement does not necessarily require enjoyment. When running a game, we hope our players enjoy themselves, but we cannot expect this. Conversely, simply because a player does not display overt signs of engagement or verbal expressions of satisfaction, we cannot assume they are not enjoying themselves at the table. 

While working towards engagement, it helps to align everyone’s goals for the game. Sitting down for a session zero avoids stark tone mismatches between players and gamemaster, especially if undertaking a campaign with a new group. A collaborative selection of system, setting, and content helps ensure players engage with the material you prepare. Style of play is very important. Unless otherwise agreed upon, avoid adversarial relationships with your players. If they wish to create new characters every session thanks to traps, brutal monsters, infected toenails, and poor life choices, then lay it on them, but otherwise don’t play to crush the group.  As play progresses, maintain an open mind to player choices and suggestions to craft a continually engaging setting. 

Taking time to discuss the system helps avoid rules fatigue for new or easily distracted players. We love Call of Cthulhu since it allows new players to jump in quickly and grasp the system. If introducing a new, complex system, gradually introducing new elements allows time for everyone to grasp the fundamental concepts. In our current zero-prep pirate campaign using Honour and Intrigue’s relatively simple system (based on Barbarians of Lemuria), we heavily rely on the group’s established roleplaying skills while slowly integrating additional elements and increasing the combat complexity. If you intend to play an exceptionally crunchy system, encourage the group to do some reading beforehand (ha!) or craft simple adventures to highlight certain rules. 

In the provided definition, an unspoken component of engagement is attentiveness. Attentiveness when playing a computer or video game is assumed, but at a social game table it can be fleeting. First, allow time for socializing and phone-checking before, during, and after the game. When playing online, we prefer to utilize video to facilitate personal engagement. It also allows the assessment of body language during the game. Whether in person or online, we try to watch our players to see if they are listening and responding to events at the table or glazing over. Once we start losing a player’s attention, we perform a diagnostic followed by an intervention, if necessary.

Dammit, Jim! I’m a GM, not a doctor. (©CBS)

Attention and Engagement Assessment:

    1. Have I lost one player’s attention or is the group starting to drift?
      • Is the player or group tired, hungry, distraught, or otherwise distracted by real-life concerns? 
        • Yes, take a break and check in with the table
        • No, one player: Introduce an opportunity to the player (NPC engages the PC, an unexpected clue appears before the PC, a threat targets the PC)
        • No, two or more: proceed to 2
    2. Are other players sidelining the “inattentive” player(s) or hogging the spotlight?
      • Yes:
        • Cut to the other players by using suggestions detailed above
        • Challenge the dominant player with a skill another player possesses
        • Introduce a situation compelling the party to split or cooperate to solve a problem using unique skills
      • No: proceed to 3
    3. Is this scene boring?
      • Hit them with a Whammy
      • Facilitate a cut to the next interesting scene
      • Re-assess engagement following interventions  and proceed to 4
    4. Is this plot boring?
      • Modify pacing (skip filler, accelerate the timeline, spark climax)
      • Branch the plot, introduce a new hook to a different adventure
      • Gather feedback from the group (new plot, new game, new system?)

This algorithm provides an approach for potentially re-engaging players at the table. It relies on the importance of teamwork in tabletop roleplaying, and the team consists of everyone at the table. It also depends on a player’s (or PC’s) desire to engage—if they don’t have the bandwidth or energy for maximum engagement, it’s ok. Most importantly, it’s critical to avoid assigning blame to oneself or other players for the situation. As stated above, some players may draw enjoyment from the shared social experience or other elements of the game distinct from the interactive gameplay. Recognizing and respecting this allows the gamemaster to develop a wider understanding of their group and broaden their skills. It also permits the gamemaster to relinquish the crushing pressure to see everyone exhibiting rabid enthusiasm for the entire length of the session. 

We aim to craft situations where our players find opportunities for their characters to shine. Knowing the player’s inclinations and strengths, as well as their character’s skills and interests, helps create circumstances where they will seize the chance to do something really cool. Facilitating these awesome, memorable moments inspires players to return to the table for more. When players return to the table, encourage them to recap the last session allowing them a chance to revisit the unexpected and exciting moments from the prior session and carry that energy forward into the latest installment. 

On the other hand, if our last session felt flat and disappointing, we return to our roleplaying team with renewed, hopeful enthusiasm intending to engage with our players once again. More often than not, the events that unfold during play completely reframe our perspective on the last session. Ultimately, engagement is a dynamic process involving individuals on both sides of the GM screen. 

1 thought on “In Search of Player Engagement

  1. Owen says:

    Great article with lots of food for thought. Will definitely keep that assessment algorithm handy!

    Just had a D&D session zero where I was really surprised by the DM’s incredible thoroughness. However, it also occurred to me how well this established the group mindset for the game ahead in regards to tone, boundaries and roles.

    On the CoC side of things in regards to gradually introducing systems; my recent trilogy of games was a learning curve where I started with only the most vital rules. It was mostly for my benefit (going from knowing nothing to running a game in under a month), but I think it also worked well with my players. Over the course of three scenarios we’ve gradually worked in magic, chases, more offbeat skills and automatic fire.

    Thinking about it now, this may have actually augmented story escalation as well since there’s been something new in the systems alongside the developing narrative each scenario.


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