I grew up playing board games with friends and my family and also enjoyed playing board games when volunteering in a refugee centre. It’s a great way to connect with different people and bridge barriers!
So when I was particularly struggling with my concentration, memory, sequencing, mood and speed of thinking, due to poor mental health, I thought that playing games might be a nice, low-pressure way to build up my focus, memory and gently socialise.
I saw a ‘getting together coffee club’, inspired by Jo Cox’s work on loneliness, was meeting at Board in the City, a board games café not far from where I lived, so I popped in. We mostly chatted and played very light card games like Uno. I made a good friend, who also told me about a nearby peer support group, which I still regularly attend years later.
Then a local branch of Mind, the mental health charity, started a short-term Board Games and Wellbeing group at Board in the City and I invited a friend, who came regularly, despite insisting he doesn’t like games to this day! After the group stopped meeting we kept going every other Monday and joining in with others. I found games helped gently rebuild my cognitive skills, boost my mood and simply get out of the house (and bed!).
My brain can be quite loud, distracted or overwhelmed. Focusing on playing games really helps calm my thoughts down. I like games that don’t have too much of a learning curve but have strategic thinking. I am not fixed on strictly following the rules, not least because I often struggle to get my head around them. Instead, I prefer to adjust games to be more inclusive to the needs and preferences of the players. This includes the effects of mental health illness or other conditions or disabilities on concentration, memory and confidence, as well as physical difficulties and disabilities such as dexterity problems or visual impairment.
OK Play is a favourite of mine because it is generally easy to teach and learn, I can easily carry it with me, it feels nice, and doesn’t require much shared language to play. The simple, contrasting coloured pieces, also make it relatively accessible for my Mum who is visually impaired (so long as we don’t use both pink and orange). Yet it still has enough strategy to still allow me to enter a state of more focused concentration. I call this focused state ‘gamefulness’, as a play on the concept of mindfulness.
Having a game in my bag comes in handy! @Beckygriffinmusic_ won this impromptu game of OK Play at the end of a Mental Health Mates walk. We discovered quite a few of us in the group enjoyed games, so later arranged a social event at Board in the City.
I think different games can be gameful at different times and for different people.
I find gentle games with nice themes and beautiful art or components are particularly appreciated when people are struggling with their mood. They bring a bit of light and beauty to dark times. Games can even help in a crisis. I’ve found playing simple board games with friends can be a good, low-pressure way to sit with someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts. It gives a gentle distraction and space for unpressured conversation. It’s important in these situations to remember the purpose of playing and not take the game part too seriously. Often games like dominoes, connect 4, pairs or simple roll and move games are better than a fancy new game, as it is not a great time to learn something new.
Just before the pandemic hit the UK I started an Instagram account called @being_gameful to share about the benefits of board games for wellbeing and mental health. I arranged to bring games to a local mental health drop-in, but as everything shut down I didn’t get the chance. During the first lockdown, I had secondhand games sitting there, that I was unable to play as I was living alone.
As the pandemic has progressed I got more creative about opportunities to play. I bought my first roll and write game to play over video and socially distanced outside and played Hive and dominoes over the internet. I also got into playing Mölkky, a Finnish skittles game, which has some board game-style strategy and was great to play outside, distanced. I love playing games outside, so I have enjoyed the increased opportunities to do that during the pandemic. Obviously, not all games lend themselves to being played outside, but more than you would think.
Last Christmas I braved the cold to meet a friend in the park for a mince pie and played Mölkky (top right) and hive (bottom right) until our hands and feet were numb!
Since I don’t drive and currently haven’t got much space to store games or play them where I am staying, I mostly own smaller games, that I can bring out with me, and play bigger games at board games cafes or friends and families homes, which is also cheaper and less wasteful.
I love that Big Potato Games has removed single-use plastic from their games and they have mini versions of some of their games that are portable and great on a budget. I also get quite a few of my games second-hand, through eBay, charity shops and second-hand sales at board game cafes. I like to give games as a gift, especially to newlyweds. I try to customise the game choice to the couple or family.
There are so many games out there I think there is something for everyone, even those who aren’t really into games, don’t forget there are creative and non-competitive games too.