So, I need to research this some more, but I just read a FASCINATING thing about conversational backchannels.

(Backchannels are the acknowledgements we give when someone else is talking to indicate acknowledgement and engagement. Things like “yeah” and “uh huh” and so on. These are a whole thing in their own right, and it’s something you can get better at if you want to.)

So here’s the thing: someone did a study of the impact of backchannels on STORIES. That is, they had people tell stories to varying levels of backchannel quality and level, and they discovered that it had a direct and palpable impact on the QUALITY of the story. Without good backchannel, endings were delivered poorly, over explained, and lots of other stuff went off the rails. The bottom line is that the speaker is not the only one on the hook for things going to pot when everyone is looking at their phone.

This intrigued me. Obviously it’s related to being a good listener, but “giving good backchannel” offers a space for active improvement without going all the way into active listening. That’s valuable because there are lots of situations (anything one-to-many) where active listening is the wrong tool, but we still would like improvement.

Which in turn leads to RPGs. We spend a decent amount of effort telling GMs to give engaging descriptions and keep player attention, but if the listener is also responsible for the quality of the outcome, maybe we also should consider some player guidance as well.

Which leads to the question of what good backchannel looks and sounds like at the gaming table. It’s probably a little specialized, but the bad backchannel (phones, side conversations, wandering eyes) remains pretty recognizable.

This prospect excites me because it offers a practical route to better games (because it is easier to fix specific things like bad backchannel with action than broader things like bad listening) but it also offers a very concrete manifestation of the philosophical idea that it’s everyone’s table and we’re all responsible for the fun.


(Apologies for typos. I was so excited by this prospect that I wrote this out on my phone. Will review when I get to a real screen.)
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