Therapeutic Meeples: Depression and Heroes

I was impacted by the news of Chris Cornell’s death. Soundgarden had been one of my favorite bands as a teenager, them and Pearl Jam. So a lot of my developmental history was framed by those bands, also by delving into DC hardcore bands like Fugazi, Bad Brains. In many ways these bands shaped who I am as a professional in mental health and also a board game designer.

I encounter depression on a daily basis. It does not always come through the door in the same form each time. Sometimes it comes in the form of rage, sometimes in the form of sadness, sometimes in the form of numbness.

Chris Cornell photo
Photo by eldh

I don’t know Chris personally, I have only an outsider’s perspective and I am not trying to suggest he was depressed. What I am suggesting is that life is difficult. It is hard getting through every day as it is. Music for a lot of us is an escape from that. For others, board games are an escape. In a previous post I wrote about identity and how board games can allow us to pursue different identities. In itself, this is a sense of an escape.

My dear friend, Mark Rivera wrote about a board game I want to touch on briefly, he talked about The Adventurers game (AEG) in the guise of fun and frivolity and the experience he had while playing. He felt captivated by the experience and drawn into the game and the game’s world. I probably need to ask Mark which character he chose. This may not be relevant as most of the time the characters are distributed randomly. The excitement and dread of that game though are often a huge draw for potential players. Many gamers can see the parallels with adventure movies like Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider. Few of us will ever get to explore the world much less explore for lost artifacts. We love it though, the excitement, the thrill!

There is worry, but it will not actually happen in real life. For folks experiencing depression, the dread is real.

Image courtesy of Board Game Geek

The escape. The dread is manufactured. It isn’t real. I wrote about Forbidden Island (GameWright) as an ideal game in therapeutic settings because of this. There is worry, but it will not actually happen in real life. For folks experiencing depression, the dread is real. Same too for social anxiety. With those particular games, the player is immersed in the avoidance, the stepping to the edge and looking down at the doom, but not jumping.

This is the scariest thing for humans in the world. We are often put to the edge of our own experience, we could jump to grand experiences, but something holds us back. For others, there isn’t anything holding them back. Reading Chris Cornell’s bio this week brought me back to that. It made me think to of Amanda Palmer. There was no “plan B” for them. It was go for the musical life because of their creativity and their drive. Success was not guaranteed, for every Chris Cornell there are a million bands that gave it all and never made the leap.

Game designers too face this conclusion. Game design has never been my “plan A.” Shocking right? I like my day job, i like what i do. Game design is always a hobby for me. But others have made that leap, which is good for them. A “household name” in board games could be Antoine Bauza, he has had a number of “big hits” in boardgames. To that end though, his level of success is tempered by the hobby not being as big as music. A quick example, Soundgarden’s Superunknown, their hit record sold 5 million copies in the US. Mr. Bauza’s hit game, 7 Wonders, had sold 500,000 copies by January 20th of 2015. You can all see the difference there. To that end, there are fewer board game designers than musicians in the world.

imposter photo
Photo by thewikiman

The creative process is not an easy one, I recall reading interviews over the years with different artists, designers, etc who described running from their negative thoughts, those feelings of “imposter syndrome”; that someone is more talented or better or that they aren’t deserving of their gifts or their fame.

This all creeps back into the realm of depression. That feeling of dread pulls so many down and under. I’ve talked to artists in various genres who gave up. The feeling of dread was too great. The feeling that the creativity wouldn’t last, that the fans would leave, that they weren’t deserving of the success.

Here’s how we combat it! Bust out those board games, grab Forbidden Island, Adventurers, what ever you want. Look at what you have to do to avoid those pitfalls. Plan! Plan for them. See what leads to those moments. Forbidden Island is sinking every turn, your dread is legit. You gotta get to that chopper, fella! This means careful planning and use of skills.

Assess your skills regularly! Write a list, recite it in the mirror. You can do this! You are mighty!

But depression creeps back in, the negative thoughts swarm. I picture dementors from the Harry Potter movies when i hear folks talking about their negative thoughts. It may not be socially acceptable to pull out your wand and wave it around chanting away the negative thoughts. Maybe do it in your head or when you’re getting ready for the day?

Fight back! Keep fighting! You are not alone. There are people who care about you. Who want to help. Dylan Thomas wrote about “raging against the dying of the light.” This is the same idea. Grab a friend, your cat, a book, a board game! Arm yourself against those thoughts and tell them off! You wouldn’t quit on your favorite board game, you would persevere! You would continue to battle until the end came.

You can do this! We can do this! I believe in you! ^

4 thoughts on “Therapeutic Meeples: Depression and Heroes”

  1. The first time my wife and I played Forbidden Island was my most vivid experience with that game. Despite our best efforts there were sinking tiles left and right. My heart was racing as my wife and I determined the best way to secure the remaining treasures and escape the Island before all was lost. As the minutes passed I felt even more tense there were only a few tiles remaining… and then… we lost. I had never had so much fun losing a game. The feelings that emerged from the game made it a poignant experience that continues to take me back to that game.

    We all have choices to make and sometimes things don’t work out. As a therapist at a residential treatment center I often tell clients that I know they are ready to go home, not when they are no longer making mistakes, but when they know how to bounce back from them. I think playing games such as Forbidden Island can help teach this principle! Learning to brush off the mistakes and learn from them helps us play the game better the next time and those mistakes can be important memories, even teaching moments.
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you, Dustin! Yes, that level of learning from mistakes is key especially leaving a highly structured and safe environment to return to the environment that caused them to have difficulties previously.

  2. But what if board games are one of the sources of your depression? Board games have been a part of my life since I was a kid, but I often had to play alone unless I could talk my mom into Trivial Pursuit. As I grew up, connecting to people became harder and harder. Now as board games are booming, I once again am alone with basically no one to play with. Going to board game meet ups is unfulfilling as I feel like an outcast in a sea of people who all know each other. Groups where I felt comfortable have moved on leaving me behind to fend for myself. So here I am wanting to play, feeling alone and getting depressed because I can’t fulfill the need I have in my life.

  3. hi William,

    Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I can certainly understand this feeling. One of the ways i got myself past that was to reach out to different game companies to be on their demo list. It gave me a footing to go to various game nights, board game groups, and local games stores and conventions. I would show up with the featured game, maybe have a couple of giveaways, a lot of companies will offer dice. I offered to play a game some one else was interested in as well as demoing the featured game. I know this is not everyone’s forte. You may reach out to board game twitter folks as well, you can find me there as @benny275 there are a lot of really kind and wonderful folks who are into board gaming. Another possible option could be to look into the online/asynchronous play on sites like or tabletopia. Depending on where you live, there may also be some options like Nerd Night or board game cafes. I’ve often found gamers to be a welcoming sort. I wish you the best with this, i know it can be tricky!

Your turn. Share your thoughts: