What do my playtesters’ nonverbal behaviors mean?

Jessica Berlin Playtesting 1 Comment

You’re running a playtest of your game and you look around at the players and notice a few things. One is on the edge of his seat, leaning forward, looking intently at the board. Another player is leaning back, legs crossed, arms crossed, and frowning slightly. And the other person is holding her head up with her hand and tapping her foot on the floor.

What do all these different nonverbal signals mean and should you be paying attention to them? What do these players say (verbally or in writing) about the game after the playtest is over and is what they’re saying verbally matching what their nonverbal behaviors are saying?

I recently read a book called “Body Language: How to read others’ thoughts by their gestures” by Allan Pease. Instinctively, I think most of us have an idea of what different kinds of nonverbal behaviors mean. But, the book put some labels on certain kinds of behaviors for me that I think will be helpful when we run playtests of our games in the future.

“… the total impact of a message is about 7 percent verbal (words only) and 38 percent vocal (including tone of voice, inflection and other sounds) and 55 percent non-verbal.”

Body Language, Allan Pease

So, I think it’s safe to say that paying attention to what our playtesters are saying nonverbally is an important skill to master if we really want to understand the full message our playtesters are sending us.

Pease also states, “Gestures come in ‘sentences’ and invariably tell the truth about a person’s feelings or attitudes. The ‘perceptive’ person is one who can read the non-verbal sentences and accurately match them against the person’s verbal sentences.”

People’s verbal and nonverbal communication is not always saying the same thing, but our nonverbal behaviors are usually more truthful about how we’re really feeling. It’s hard to hide your nonverbal behaviors because often you do them without thinking, whereas it’s a lot easier to not quite tell the truth with your words.

Paying attention to your players’ verbal and nonverbal communication should be a part of your playtesting sessions. Game designers should be watching their players while they play and taking notes of things they see.

Chris and Joe from the Cardboard Architects podcast talked about this in their Feedback episode, which I referenced in my last blog post about feedback forms. They said that there are two main parts of the feedback they’re collecting during a playtest: the answers to questions on the feedback form and also players’ nonverbal behavior or body language.

They said, “I don’t necessarily care about the answers to the questions (in the feedback form). I care more about looking at the people. A lot of feedback we care about is physical, visual feedback that they don’t say out loud. We watch them. Where they scoul, cringe, smile, sit back and gloat.”

Chris and Joe also said, “Body language feedback is more valuable than anything verbally from a playtester. One thing that isn’t lying is the body language. You can see if they’re thinking. Tapping foot… You know they’re engaged, thinking. You know you’re on to something.”

So, we know we should be doing this, but what kinds of body language are we looking for and what does it really mean?

Here are some gestures you may see among your playtesters and their meanings as described in the “Body Language” book:

Positive Signals
Open hands

“Let me be completely honest with you.”

  • Open palms: complete honesty

“… when people wish to be totally open or honest they will hold one or both palms out to the other person and say something like, ‘Let me be completely open with you.’”

  • Rubbing palms together: positive expectation

“The dice thrower rubs the dice between his palms as a sign of his positive expectancy of winning, the master of ceremonies rubs his palms together and says to his audience, ‘We have long looked forward to hearing our next speaker’, and the excited sales person struts into the sales manager’s office, rubs his palms together and says excitedly, ‘We’ve just got a big order, boss!’”

  • Closed hand resting on cheek: evaluation/interest

“Evaluation is shown by a closed hand resting on the cheek, often with the index finger pointing upwards. … Genuine interest is shown when the hand is on the cheek, not used as a head support.”

  • Chin stroking: decision making

“As you come to the conclusion of your presentation and ask for the group to give opinions or suggestions about the idea, the evaluation gestures will cease. One hand will move to the chin and begin a chin-stroking gesture. This chin-stroking gesture is the signal that the listener is making a decision.”

Negative Signals
  • Hands-clenched together: frustration

“Research by Nierenberg and Calero on the hands-clenched position brought them to the conclusion that this was a frustration gesture, signalling that the person was holding back a negative attitude.”

  • Hands on mouth, ear, eyes: deceit, uncertainty, doubt, lying, exaggeration

“One of the most commonly used symbols of deceit is that of the three wise monkeys who hear, speak and see no evil. The hand-to-face actions depicted form the basis of the human deceit gestures. In other words, when we see, speak and hear untruths or deceit, we often attempt to cover our mouth, eyes or ears with our hands.”


Holding your head up with your hand – a sign of boredom.

  • Hand supporting head: boredom

“When the listener begins to use his hand to support his head, it is a signal that boredom has set in and his supporting hand is an attempt to hold his head up to stop himself from falling asleep. … Drumming the fingers on the table and continual tapping of the feet on the floor are often misinterpreted by professional speakers as boredom signals, but in fact they signal impatience.”

  • Folded arms: nervous, uncertain, lacking in self-confidence

“By folding one or both arms across the chest, a barrier is formed that is, in essence, an attempt to block out the impending threat or undesirable circumstances.”

  • Crossed legs: negative or defensive

“Standard leg-cross position: One leg is crossed neatly over the other … may be used to show a nervous, reserved or defensive attitude.”

“American figure 4 leg lock position (top leg bent, ankle on top of knee): Indicates that an argumentative or competitive attitude exists.”

And while this wasn’t mentioned specifically in the book, I think we can assume that people who are checking their phones while the game is going on isn’t a positive signal for their interest in your game. It probably means that they’re bored with the game. Maybe there’s too much down time between turns and not enough player interaction while it’s not their turn. But, whatever it means, I wouldn’t take it as a good sign for your game!

I know that I’ll be watching our players during our next playtest. I’d like to look for some of these kinds of body language  both while they’re playing and while they’re giving verbal feedback after playing to see what I think they’re really saying and how they feel about the game. Is what they’re saying verbally matching what their nonverbal behaviors are saying? If not, then maybe they’re just trying to be nice to you even if they really didn’t like the game.

Do you watch your playtesters for body language while they’re playing your game? What kinds of things do you look for and what do you think they mean? Let us know in the comments.

Comments 1

  1. We usually look around the table during playtesting to gauge how interested the playtesters are. It usually isn’t too hard to get a grasp of it. You get a pretty sudden sinking feeling when you notice some of the cues you’ve mentioned in this post.

    One of things not mentioned on your list that we look for is silence (we suppose that qualifies as “non-verbal behaviour”). Quite often a silent playtester is mixed amongst a group of very vocal playtesters so they’re easy to miss (especially if the vocal are giving positive feedback). However, a silent playtester post game is usually not a good sign and they need to be paid attention to (usually they’re frustrated or bored, although sometimes they’re just shy). We always make sure to directly ask them what their thoughts were so we know why they’re silent. We have gotten a lot of good feedback from silent playtesters once we make it known we care about what they think regardless if it’s positive or negative.

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