Boardgames may be good for your mental health

As developers — especially game developers — we are naturally attracted to digital games: after all, video games are what we do; right? We are immersed in that world, we thrive for it, we learn from it, we discuss it. Because of that, we tend to forget physical games; in particular boardgames. However, boardgames may be much more than a simple alternative to multiplayer video game; they may be the best defense against mental health problems.

Mental Health problems for the Developers

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash
Figure 2. Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Life, for a developer, is full of small seemingly innocuous issues that put a toll on physical health. We all know that: we have been warned, and we all agreed to that. We live a sedentary work that increases risks of cardiovascular problems and obesity; we stare at a screen for hours increasing eye strain, eye problems and sleep rhythm; we write a lot, and we move around the mouse a lot, and we end up increasing risk for muscular issues, RSI, and general pain.

We all know that and it is for this reason that we take precautions: the most powerful of us are able to take regular breaks, keep constantly a good posture, eat like eremites, and so on. Most of us, instead, do their best trying to squeeze physical activity whenever they can, stretch, and take long breaks.

Unfortunately, the developer life  also affects mental health. Developers are likely to be stressed, burned out, and to develop anxiety and depression. However, in contrast with physical health, we do nothing to defend our mental wellbeing. Not only that, we consider precautions for mental health as a weakness.

One of the causes is that developers are often deprived of meaningful human interaction. We can have small chats with colleagues, we can also have some laugh during lunch break but the reality is that we spend 80% of our time fighting with a machine by ourselves. Moreover, many of use have other programming related hobbies that can isolate us even more.

The boardgames antidote

Photo by Robert Coelho on Unsplash
Figure 3. Photo by Robert Coelho on Unsplash

We leave in an era in which video games are an increasing entertainment medium; nevertheless, boardgames are living their renaissance: since the starting of European-style strategic games in the mid 90s (e.g., Settlers of Catan, Carcassone, etc) the boardgames market is increasing and new boardgames are developed every year. Why?

At first, we may think that boardgames are something old. Howe they can compete with fully fleshed 3D interactive games or VR experiences? Because, unconsciously we thrive for social interactions. Boardgames are the perfect mix between gaming and sociality. To quote David Sax in his book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter:

Tabletop gaming creates a unique social space.

Boardgames are a perfect antidote to the mental poison of developer life. Boardgames are a healing mechanism for the mind in the same way exercising is a healing mechanism for the body.

The reason why I say so are the following:

  1. Boardgames, as games, tickle the inner nerd side of a developer. Maybe do a theatre course is good enough (I really think it is), but it has a much higher entry barrier. Board games are games: you should be able to find someone with which to share a game night much easily.
  2. By design, boardgames are based on social interaction. There are boardgames that can be played alone, but they are a minority. As we have seen before, we are usually surrounded by low-quality social interaction; boardgames forces us to have a better one.
  3. They encourage sane competition. Human contact during competitive activity is like superfood for the brain. In face-to-face games our brain continuously scan the opponents for clues about their strategy, we try to predict the opponents’ behaviors, we plot our next move. All these activities trigger complex emotions in our brain, they enhance creativity and amplify mental relaxation.

You can say that multiplayer video games are competitive, and they let us interact with other people too! Unfortunately, this mediated interaction is not what our brain is designed for. You cannot look for subtle facial expression in an online game. Real world interaction is much more intense and, at the same time, is much less toxic. Again, in Sax’s words:

On a social level, video games are decidedly low bandwidth compared to the experience of playing a game on a square of flat cardboard with another human being.

Conclusions

Anyway, what I want to say is to pay attention to our mental health in the same way we do for physical health. It is my experience that boardgames are the perfect mix between our passion for nerdy activity and the necessity of deep social interaction. Of course, it is not the only one. What it is your experience? What do you do to cultivate your social brain? Let me know in the comment and have a nice — playful — day!

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