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Board Games and Social Isolation

Board games have a powerful role they can play in alleviating social isolation. They're social experiences that are non-stigmatic, and in this post I discuss how that can be a valuable and powerful combination that could very well save lives.

Michael Heron, Blogger

November 27, 2018

14 Min Read

This is a modified version of a post that first appeared on Meeple Like Us.  

You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog, or the Textual Intercourse blog over at Epitaph Online.  You can some information about my research interests over at my personal homepage.


A few months ago I took part in the AxsChat twitter hour, acting as the kind of ‘guest of honour’ for the topic of accessibility in boardgames.   I got access to the questions in advance, which was great – the pace of the chat was so fast that it was easy to get lost in expressing an idea and also responding to the great comments other people made.  Each of the questions asked was good, and a few made me think ‘That would be a great topic for an editorial’.   As such this question set formed (or is forming) a kind of informal series for these editorial posts.  The last question from the chat that I addressed  was regarding the universal inaccessibilities in board games.

Here was another question:   Can playing board games help address social isolation and loneliness in a way that digital games cannot?

And yeah, that’s also a great question with a typically nuanced and frustrating answer – yes, and no.

First of all we need to address what we might mean by the term social isolation.   It’s a deep and profound disconnect between people and the societies in which they exist.  By and large it is chronic condition although it also has episodic manifestations.    Social isolation isn’t just loneliness.  It’s prolonged loneliness without obvious redress.   Sometimes it’s a result of real-world geography.  Sometimes it’s a consequence of physical capability.   Sometimes it’s due to estrangement.  Sometimes it’s linked to issues of mental health and negative self-esteem.

This isn’t just the absence of friends.  A lack of a social context will cause social isolation, but it can happen in the busiest places and the friendliest cities.    It’s often linked to depressive episodes, where the simple act of being around people is too much for someone to reasonably bear.   Social isolation in those circumstance perhaps has its cruellest manifestation as it can be intermittently alleviated in the short term.  In upbeat moments someone might reconnect with friends and rekindle relationships only for them to become something to dread and avoid during intense depressive states.  The ebb and flow of this creates its own frictions that can lead people to feeling even worse because of its irregularity.   For others the edge of ongoing isolation  becomes dull through familiarity.

It’s important to note here that social isolation isn’t the same thing as solitude – it’s possible to be alone without being lonely, and it’s possible to be lonely while being surrounded by people.  The proximity of humanity is only somewhat correlated with social isolation.   It’s about the connections we form, or not.   It’s not about the mere presence of others. Social isolation is a profound lack of intimacy – both physical and emotional.

It’s caused by a large number of things.  Disability is an obvious proximal cause because there are logistical and psychological barriers standing between people with disabilities and a full social life.   It’s sometimes caused by a change in life circumstances such as being unemployed, losing a partner, or financial distress.  Sometimes it’s inflicted from without, such in the case of domestic abuse – isolation is an incredibly powerful tool for abusers.    Kids being bullied often avoid making friends with others because of the risk and stigma.  It’s can also happen because of a lack of appropriate transportation opportunities, or severe social anxiety.  There are a lot of causes, but it all comes down to the same thing.  It’s being desperately alone when you don’t want to be, but being withpeople isn’t a possibility.

Sounds grim, yeah?   It really is.

There are a whole host of reasons too why people don’t break out of this harmful pattern of behaviour.  I don’t want to imply at any point that what I talk about in this post is a miracle cure – it most certainly isn’t.  However, there is one incredibly powerful thing that board-gaming offers as part of a package of interventions.   It’s non-stigmatising when dealing with a condition that is absolutely swimming in stigma.

Here in the United Kingdom, I think we have a big problem with platonic intimacy.    We’re just not very good at saying straight out that we want to spend time with people.  There always needs to be a reason.  There always needs to be an excuse.  ‘I’m feeling lonely so I would like to spend some time in your company’ is a stark and uncomfortable thing for someone to say, and it’s not much easier to hear.   We all feel that way on occasion but as a society we often look for ways to not admit it because that admission is a mark of vulnerability.  This is a problematic state of affairs, but it’s just not in our national psyche to have that honest exchange.  Even if you leave out the bit about being lonely, everyone still hears it.   It’s risky to say that you want to spend time with someone, even if both of you would like it to happen.

As a result we make use of props that make the request socially acceptable.  Props that also make the reason for a rejection ambiguous.  Historically within Britain and other countries that prop has been alcohol.  ‘Fancy going for a pint?’ is a way of saying ‘I would like to spend time with you’ that doesn’t have the same connotation of seeking out company to avoid being alone.   It’s about the drinking, and the other person is just invited along for companionability while you get on with the business of getting drunk.   That can be good and healthy but it can also be destructive.   A pint with a friend is a good way to spend an evening.   Heavy drinking to dull the loneliness though can easily tip over into alcoholism and worse.   Other props include the cigarette break, ‘going out to get laid’, and basically any situation where you spend time with someone as the optional result of some other expressed intended goal.    Inevitably the companionship, expressed as it is as a secondary benefit, can sometimes get left out in pursuit of the primary.

That’s a problem though for people dealing with loneliness.  In such circumstance we are often by ourselves, in company, while those around us get on with the business for which we all gathered.   Social anxiety or shyness might push us to the periphery.  We may become the quiet and nervous friend  The friend whose main contribution to the evening is remarking on occasion how much fun we’re having in the hope that saying it out loud will make it true.   One of the barriers to addressing social isolation is that its presence alone can be the very thing that undermines its banishment.   People can feel like it clings to them like an odour, perceptible to everyone.    Our own need for companionship can be the thing that drives people away as they perceive our hunger.  So we look for reasons to gather that don’t stress our need for people.   If you get past that, it piles on pressure.  If you invite someone out for a reason, they’re going to expect some results.

Where does board-gaming come into this?  Well, it comes in as a healthy way for a group of people to spend mindful time with each other.    It’s not the companionable silence of going to a movie, or the gradual quest for the oblivion of drugs or alcohol.    The awkward secret at the heart of game criticism is that in the end the game doesn’t matter – you can have a terrible time with a great game and a great time with a terrible game.  What matters is the people around the board – they’re the ones that are going to determine whether you have fun or not.   The jokes, conversation, and banter can have an alchemical effect on even boring, uninspiring games.   They can make your time magical.   That simple truth shunts a lot of criticism and review into the periphery of irrelevance.  A lot of us don’t like to admit that the quality of a game is, in the end, usually only a secondary factor in how much fun you’ll have when playing.

Everything about a board game has a focus on the people around the table, but the amazing thing is that games do it through a conduit that lessens social anxiety.     It can put a lot of pressure on someone to be enjoyable company when drinking, especially if the people around you have different interests.  I’ve often sat quietly letting the football chat wash over me just because I knew my own passions would get nothing more than a polite nod at best.    The common cultural touchstones are useful because of how mainstream they permit your enthusiasms to be.  Those of us with more niche interests can often find it hard to have meaningful conversations because the common ground simply isn’t there.

However, have you noticed how almost every successfully designed social system has frustrations built into it?   It’s almost as if it’s intentional – that those weird, boneheaded blunders exist and continue to exist as if nobody is prepared to fix them.     That’s because nobody is – it turns out, frustrations are useful as a way of smoothing out the difficulties of human engagement.   They sometimes exist, purposefully, to give people a shared thing about which they can complain.   They’re the irritants around which the pearl forms.  As Raph Koster says in the linked article, ‘forming a new social connection is a risk’, and shared grievances give us a little bit of friction around which to warm our metaphorical hands.    The thing is though, it’s the sharing that matters – not the grievance.   What we need, to ensure ease of a social environment, is a thing upon which everyone can focus.  It’s why camaraderie is at its most profound when external factors are at their most desperate.

That’s the magic of a board game – it’s that focal point.  By its very nature it’s common ground.    Whatever else we may find interesting, we all share the fact that we are sitting down and playing this game.  We are all guaranteed at least one thing we can talk about and in which we are all invested.  You don’t need to be a witty conversationalist to be good to play a game with.  The bar associated with being ‘fun to be around’ is much lower because the game itself is pushing it downwards.   If it’s a terrible game, you can laugh about why it’s bad.  If it’s a good game, you can enthuse about why it’s great.    If someone does something interesting in the game, you can talk about that.     The people around the table are vital, but they’re not the focus.

Board games then can serve as an excellent ‘prop’ that doesn’t exacerbate the stigma of being lonely.  Importantly, they also function better in this respect than a lot of the alternatives.  You can drink alone.  You cango ‘out on the pull’ by yourself.   You can’t play (most) board games alone and so it can be framed as a thing of pure necessity.  ‘I need three people to play this game, are you in?’.  That knocks down a lot of the psychological barriers.   It gives you ‘cover’.  If you receive a rejection, you can also find comfort in the fact that maybe they just didn’t want to play the game.

So, yes – board games can be a great way to address social isolation.

You may have noticed though there’s something of a flaw in this argument, and the severity of the flaw is linked to the severity of the social isolation.  What happens if your biggest problem isn’t the stigma of asking people to spend time with you?   What happens if your biggest problem is that you don’t have that option at all?

Unfortunately, in that circumstance it turns out that board games can actually exacerbate issues of social isolation.  They become a visible, unavoidable symbol of how isolated you are.  Video games, where they have multiplayer, are usually mediated through an internet connection.  That makes geographical distance irrelevant while making genuine intimacy extremely difficult.   Whether multiplayer or solo, video games offer a game experience this is available regardless of social circumstances.   Board games, with their focus on the magic of people, do a much poorer job of that.   I’ve seen more than a little evidence that suggests this can be a contributor to loneliness.    After all, we’ve already talked about the inaccessibility of social capital on the blog and it’s not surprising to find it being a major barrier here.   If the people aren’t available, for whatever reason, you can’t use games to bridge the stigma gap.

However, that doesn’t mean that board games don’t still have a role to play.

Community responses to social isolation are incredibly valuable, but often they neglect the role that stigma-avoiding plays in society.  Community engagement programmes often forget that many of the terms and phrases we use in life are euphemisms – that people look at the hidden code behind the way we invite ourselves and others to events.  Everyone worries about what their participation reflects about them.   Those programmes that are subtler in the way they pitch themselves are correspondingly less likely to be attended by those that would benefit the most.   The trick always lies in bringing people together naturally in a way that offers cover – essentially, ‘embracing ambiguity‘.   The answer to the question ‘Why are you here?’ always has to naturally offer a reply that does not put someone in a position of social vulnerability.   They always need to give people a chance to be dishonest with themselves because we are often our own worst bullies.

‘Why are you here?’

‘I wanted to learn more about these board games that apparently are so great these days’

We need to give people all the benefits of a strong social context with none of the risks usually associated with seeking out the same.

And do you know what organisations are incredibly well suited to address this kind of thing?

It’s exactly the same list as we saw when we talked about the various axes of inaccessibility.  Libraries and other communal resources can be vital in defeating social isolation, and board gaming is a massively useful weapon they can have in their arsenal.   It’s not easy though – the people that need reached may be unreachable, and the civic infrastructure they need may not be available.   We can’t address all of that with a copy of Sheriff of Nottingham, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good place to start thinking.

There are all sorts of challenges that need to be overcome in  this area.   How should play groups be created and sustained?  Where should they be organised?  What tools and support can we put in place to get people where they need to go?   How do we deal with the motivation gap between ‘wanting to play’ and ‘learning the rules’?    How do we address the perception problem that boardgames are for kids?

Beyond that we have a lot that we need to consider to really optimise the experience.  What games are best for mixed-ability groups?   Are there particular mechanisms that should be stressed, or avoided?   What is the actual positive impact that regular gaming has on social isolation, and how does it compare to more ‘traditional’ forms of intervention?  Are board games good for this in their own regard, or is their primary role purely as a facilitator?

There’s lots of great stuff that could be done to use board-gaming as a way to bring people into their community in a way that ensures they do not feel like they are exposing themselves to stigma.   That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but that’s a secondary consideration.  People are dying from loneliness – straight up dying.   Imagine we could stop that while also getting to play some great games with people.  Who wouldn’t want to do that for a living?

It’s no exaggeration in this respect to say that libraries and other communal resources could save lives.   Might it not be worth getting in touch with your local library to see if there’s something you might be able to do to help make it happen?

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