Tools Versus Toys - Musings on the “No Phones” Rule

By @Culliope

Peter makes a great case in the “No Phones” article for why phones should be allowed for neurodivergent players at the TTRPG table. I completely agree! However, I think that his article is the seed for an even bigger conversation to be had about tabletop manners and play.

I call this issue Tools versus Toys. A tool helps you to concentrate, do a job, assists you with a task or makes life easier. A toy is there to entertain or distract.

Each person has different tools that work and toys that do not. The problem with a blanket “No Phones” rule, is that it takes away the autonomy of the players to determine if the phone is a tool or a toy.  Ultimately, we want all people to be able to have the self reflective capacity to know whether other activities they engage in while at the TTRPG table are helping or hindering the experience of each player, and the group as a collective. And perhaps an even bigger conversation is to establish what a successful session looks like, sounds like and feels like so we all know how we are doing!

A group norm that I often enact is “Do what you need to do to be present.” This is this same concept as Tools versus Toys as seen through a different lens. As a mom of three children, sometimes having my phone on me allows me not to worry that I am missing something important and focus on the game at hand. The same is true of allowing bio breaks and snacks. How can we be present if we are too hungry to pay attention, or really need to pee?

Maybe it would be helpful to introduce a term here. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow”.  According to Csikszentmihalyi flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (1990). Others might describe it as hyperfocus or just having a great time.

Part of the fun of the TTRPG experience for many is that creative immersion that comes from a flow state. For me, one of the reasons I love being a DM of a TTRPG is that it is one of the few activities that lets my ADHD brain fully commit to a flow state without distraction. But if I am not quite in a flow state,  my brain will float right over to my phone, the moment I hear a notification, or think of a funny meme that seems relevant. Distractions and breaks in the fiction can be very detrimental to a flow experience.

Flow is not necessary for the enjoyment of the TTRPGs, and there is some evidence that different people can achieve this state more easily than others. Other people might appreciate the social interactions, logical thinking required, or mathematics involved in the experience. So, the trick is not to enact blanket rules, but to have ongoing conversations. Are we using tools or toys at the table? Does the thing I am doing allow me to settle my body and brain into a shared experience that is also fun for others? And lastly, what does settling in look like for each person, and what might be keeping people from being present?.... (I’m looking at you 3.5 hour D&D boss battle!)

So, as in all things, the Tools versus Toys conversation comes down to having clear conversations where we set expectations, talk to each other and keep it real. Remember, we’re all here to tell a good story together and have a good time! ....Now, sorry to interrupt but I check out this funny D&D meme from Peter on my phone.... What was I saying?

If you are interested in learning more about the concept of flow, and Csikszentmihalyi, here is a good place to start!  https://.com/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi-father-of-flow/