Therapeutic Meeples: Identity in Games

Mental health challenges are something that confront roughly 1 in 5 people in the United States right now. Being able to talk about those challenges in a meaningful and caring away is very important.

anxious photoLet us consider for a moment, social anxiety. This is a diagnosable condition in the DSM-5 and ICD-10, however, a person can be socially anxious without having the mental health challenge or diagnosis of social anxiety. We live in a very complex world; computers in our pockets and on our wrists, cars that can be the target of hackers, genetically engineered foods.

For the average person confronting these things can be trying in and of itself, now let’s suppose that you are a person who has a sensory sensitivity or an environmental sensitivity, including an allergy. There is a significant level of risk now associated with their interaction with the world.

A large number of people in the board game community are likely now nodding their heads in agreement. We all face particular challenges without even having a mental health diagnosis. Our world is often one, especially in the US, where minority groups are made to feel unsafe by certain persons and institutions. This adds a further level of challenge for those folks. Ramping that up even more, looking at folks who have been diagnosed with a mental health challenge, this makes the interaction with the world increasingly strained.

So what do they do, how do they find safety and security? We are encouraged as a people by our very natures to pursue hobbies or activities where we feel happy and we find enjoyment. For some people, this can be found in board games. The very act of playing a board is a social experience. The brain is being directly engaged at a purely cognitive level to move pieces about in an effort to achieve a goal. In doing so, you are communicating with others who have joined you. It may be a two player effort where you and another player are engaged in the task together, it may be a bigger effort where many more people are involved. Even in solo play, there is an element of this. Many solo gamers are involved in social media interaction with each other discussing what they learned and how they felt about it.

Cognitions are directly tied to feelings, this is why Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is so important.

You might be saying, i just contradicted myself, i referenced “purely cognitive” then said “felt.” Cognitions are directly tied to feelings, this is why Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is so important. It ties how we think to how we feel. A person who is engaging through the milieu of gaming with another person likely is having thoughts which are directly tied to feelings. The expression then of the feelings can be given in relation to the game. “I played well, i feel good about what i accomplished” or “I could have played better, i feel sad or frustrated at myself.” It has to do with the person’s thought (perception) of how the game went, which then plays into their feeling. What it effectively does is limit the feeling or thought being directed at someone else. It is a time then for introspection.

The “play space” within the game allows the player to be present in an identity that may be more comfortable for them.

This allows for sportspersonship to be present and an opportunity to thank the participants for playing. Play is an important part of this. Humans are meant to play, to have fun, to be free. Notable lines of course should be observed and discussed as with any social context. Board games can lend to this discussion. The “play space” within the game allows the player to be present in an identity that may be more comfortable for them. They do not have to be something other than themselves, the game drives that. However, the players may look up from the game and be involved in the world again. The identity in the game does not always match the identity seen.

This is the important part of the discussion, because while in the game you are directly competing or interacting with this character, it is not a direct interaction with that person. There is a disconnect. This is more apparent in video games such as the MMORPG or MOBA games where the person is not in the same physical space. This can work well in keeping the players engaged in their character or setting much more easily than board games.

The part that is important then is to be respectful to the other participants when the game ends. Maybe you didn’t win, hopefully the other player didn’t cheat, on and on. But you cannot take that frustration outside the game space. It has to stay there. I think back to a DM i had during a D&D campaign many years ago. He would remind us that we as people knew things that our characters did not. Using the human knowledge a character did not have was then forbidden. This can be increasingly hard for people though. Respect. Give it, receive it.

earth photo
Photo by empiredude1

Our identity as humans can be complex in this regard also. There are a huge number of people in the US alone who play board games. It is in fact a billion dollar industry. It continues to grow because of this ability to be present to be an identity in a game where you can be someone else or you can be a more true version of yourself. Board games are more restrictive in this sense than video games or even RPGs. While this is a point of conversation more along the lines of a therapeutic relationship, it can be had in the guise of board games, but only if the other person is comfortable. If they aren’t, let it go. Be okay with being told no. Respect. Give it, receive it.

The issue of respect is one that is particular with this. We can support each other, we have the modality at our fingertips. Offer a complement to someone when they did something good in a game. Players in sports do a good job with this, showing positive regard for another player when they did something good. Encouraging another player who did a good job will reflect in them and it may reflect in the game as well. Avoid the sarcasm, unless the others are down with it. Some may see that as patronizing, so be careful how often it is said or directed at a certain person.

Support and respect often go hand-in-hand. The encouragement of someone else may help someone feel more comfortable. This is the goal right? Comfort/safety/happiness/enjoyment. That’s what we all ultimately want. If someone feels safe, they can be themselves more, hopefully in an appropriate manner, remember, not everyone thinks CAH is hilarious. Also not everyone has seen (insert popular cult movie) and may not know the lines. We can discuss it, you can share why you find certain things fun or funny. Sometimes it’s best to listen, not everyone is going to be ready to talk. Though the game space can be the safest place for conversation in terms of the metagame (discussion of the game and what is happening in the game). Again, not every thought about a certain thing needs to be uttered. Marveling at the muscle bound Conan on the cover of the game is maybe a thought to keep to one’s self.

We’re all here to learn about ourselves and about each other. Let’s go for kindness and be respectful of our fellow humans.

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