Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Technique: The Language of Gesture

A core strength of our hobby is the fact that we sit face to face with each other and can interact on that primal human level (I apologize for leaving out those of you who play online, but this technique is purely for face-to-face play). That simple fact opens a whole range of rich communication options that are not available to us otherwise. I mean, of course, kinesics, or body language.

You can give your play a little extra punch and color by using body language selectively to emphasize a feeling at the table and add spice to interactions between characters, particularly if your play style tends toward first person, "in character" portrayal. The technique is a bit less useful for players who tend to guide their characters' actions and interactions in the third person, though it can still be used to great effect in certain instances. You can get by with just a handful of simple gestures and postures, though players who are really interested in portrayal may want to do more. But really, the most important thing is to make an effort to stay more aware of your own body language and that of the other players in the room with you.

So what can you do with body language? I suggest selecting a gesture/posture or two that corresponds to a particular character, based on the role the character is playing. It will make the character stand out and provide cues to everyone else about the character. Choose the number of gestures/postures based on how important the character is. Simple walk-ons should only have one. Important antagonists will probably have a few postures and gestures that stand out, while the protagonists will probably use many. If you play multiple characters in the course of a session, a list of gestures/postures and the attitudes they convey could be a handy resource.

For instance, you can signal your character's respect and liking for another character through the use of Angular Distance. In general, people square up, address and aim their upper bodies at people they like, admire and agree with. Conversely, people tend to angle their torsos away from people they dislike or disagree with.

Angular distance can be used to reinforce a message of animosity when a character is dealing with an enemy. You can also use it more subtly. For instance, perhaps you are portraying a character that is supposedly friendly or an ally, but is in reality working to betray a character with whom he is interacting. Angular distance can be used to telegraph the coming betrayal.

If you wish to communicate that a character expresses dominance, superiority, confidence or haughtiness, you can use Antigravity Signs. Use palm-down gestures when speaking to signal authority, and square your shoulders, lift your face and chin, and otherwise raise yourself up to indicate that you mean business. Tilting your head back by lifting your chin and leaning backward to look down your nose is an example of an antigravity sign that can be used to signal superiority, arrogance and disdain.

Crossed Arms can indicate a number of things. If you hold your arms and elbows close to your body, it can indicate nervousness and defensiveness. On the other hand, if you hold your arms and elbows less tightly to your body, with the elbows slightly elevated and pointing outward, it can indicate a guard-like stance, suggesting arrogance, dislike or disagreement.

A Hand Behind the Head, including grasping or scratching the ear, or touching the side of the face or neck, can indicate uncertainty, conflict, disagreement, frustration, anger, or dislike. It can also telegraph unresolved issues that need to be verbalized and explored. In fact, the hand behind the head gesture is an example of a Probing Point. Other examples include pursing your lips, shrugging your shoulders, clearing your throat or bobbing your adam's apple (assuming you have one, of course). Probing points signal that a word or phrase has touched a nerve, and represent a strategic opportunity to search between spoken comments. If you want to telegraph that a character has unvoiced agendas, unrevealed attitudes or hidden uncertainties, a probing point can do the trick.

A Gaze Down, either by looking downward with the eyes or tilting the whole head downward, can be used to convey defeat, guilt, shame or submissiveness, while a Head Tilt to the Side can be used to indicate friendliness, rapport, coyness (as in courtship), or submission.

There are obviously many other signs as well. The Non-Verbal Dictionary can serve as a quick and ready source, and you can find other examples here.

Use this technique sparingly, like a spice, and don't get too caught up in it. Afterall, paying attention to the others at the table and what they're saying should be your number one priority. But a little non-verbal communication can really help everyone get into the mood of what's happening at the table.

This technique was inspired by Keith Sen(k)owski, creator of the role-playing games Conspiracy of Shadows and untitled.

If you have an idea for a technique you'd like me to share, write me at wellofurd@gmail.com


Keith said...

The one thing I would mention is how we naturally use those signals when caught up in the moment. Particularly when creating characters on they fly. A key is to identify that and learn to use it again for the same character...

Rich said...

No need to limit your advice to the face to face crowd, Thor. I use those exact techniques when describing how characters speak in PBEM games. Working those kind of details into your writing is as evocative as working them into your FTF performance.

Fine post!

Jason said...

Great post. One thing I would add is that is that by using a simple gesture at the table, you can often communicate a complex message with fantastic economy. In the struggle to get as much data into the game as you can, while not taking up too much of the spotlight, the effectiveness and economy of gestural communication cannot be underestimated!

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