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Are Board Games Good For You? (An Exploration of Board Games, RPGs, and Tabletop Experiences)

Introduction: Are Board Games Good For You?

The video gaming world appears to be split into two. On one side of things, video games are often the centre of campaigns around suppressing the art form for reasons of ill repute. They are often called into light in the media, most notably by activists who claim the violence, drug use, and immoral behaviour expressed in some video games damages teenagers. On the other hand, video games have proven benefits including an increase in reaction time, to one study (source) claiming that playing video games daily can help increase cognitive function and grey matter development in the brain.

It is due to contrasting points of view, like the above, and studies that are not necessarily scientifically valid, that make it really difficult for anyone to argue whether video games are good for you or not. Like most things, it comes down to a case by case basis. Are you prone to taking the violence in video games literally? If so, then they probably aren’t for you. If, on the other hand, your motives are something other than wanting to cause harm to people, then you will probably be okay.

Recently, the board game world has been going through a renaissance of its very own and, although far less controversial than the video game world, it has brought to light a question that more and more people are asking. It is a question that I’ve wanted to answer for quite a while, and one we will undoubtedly explore again in the future due to how vast a subject it is. Yes, today, we are going to look to answer: Are board games good for you?

The Question of Board Games: Are Board Games Good For You?

Before we begin, it is important to answer another question first. What, in this case, counts as a board game?

What do we mean by “board game”?

Well, I suppose the better question would be: Are tabletop games good for you?. This is because, although we will be focusing on board games, there is actually a whole family of games that falls under this category. There is a whole world of gaming, and each little part of it introduces its own parts in this equation. We are talking about Board Games, yes, but we are also talking about tabletop Roleplaying Games (RPGs), wargames, miniature games, card games, and even experiences such as the Exit games. There is a whole tabletop ecosystem that deserves some form of exploration when looking at this question. That being said, for the sake of readability, and because it is how most people think of it, we will be referring to these as board games for the sake of this article.

What do we mean by “good for you”?

The next thing to question is what we mean by “good for you”? Well, for this we are not going to be looking at the social, mental, and physical benefits that may or may not be related to board games. For the majority of this article, I would like for us to focus mainly on the mental benefits, but we will explore all three to some degree.

A Note on Bias

As much as we never want to do this when writing an article, I do have to point out my own bias before going in. Regular readers of this blog know that I try to use maths, data, and reliable sources wherever I can when writing. I will aim to do this when writing this article; however, please be aware that I am a board game blogger. I love the hobby, and so my own opinion needs to be taken with that in mind.

Okay, so, with all that in mind, let’s begin with a world famous story.

Dungeons and Dragons and Mental Health

Then

As Dungeons and Dragons was just taking off, there was a world famous story that gave the hobby a whole series of negative press. On August 15th 1979, college student at Michigan State University, James Dallas Egbert III went missing. He was widely reported as a fan of the RPG Dungeons and Dragons, which was a fairly unknown game at the time. A lack of understanding caused for the press, investigators, and conservative right to start a witch hunt against the game. They had heard of students playing live action versions of D&D in the steam tunnels beneath MSU, and the general idea was that Egbert had injured himself whilst playing the game. In reality, he hadn’t, but instead had attempted to commit suicide. When that failed, he had moved to New Orleans, before attempting again. Finally, almost exactly one year after the initial reports of him being missing, James Egbert died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The source for this story comes from two places. The first is “Empire of the Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons” by Michael Witwer. The second is here, for a memory refresh.

The case of James Egbert is a truly tragic one, and one which, in hind sight, had nothing to do with Dungeons and Dragons. Instead, it shone a light on the game as something potentially damaging to mental health. The American Association of Suicidology, U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and Health and Welfare Canada all conducted studies into roleplaying games and mental health. If there was a connection then they needed to know about it, for obvious reasons. None of the three organisations managed to find a connection between roleplaying games, depression, or suicidal tendencies.

Still, that didn’t stop the far right campaigning.

The Studies

The battle continues between roleplaying games and mental health; however, several reputable studies have since concluded that there is no strong or viable connection between RPGs and mental health problems. One study, done in 2015, asked Canadian psychiatrists what they believed about roleplaying games and psychopathology. There are 48 psychiatrists who responded to the questions, of which 22% believed that roleplaying games could bear some connection to psychopathy. On the other hand, 23% admitted to having played roleplaying games. The majority however, (approximately, 39/48) believed there was absolutely no connection between roleplaying games and psychopathy.

There are several other studies, including one by Armando Simon in 1987, called “Emotional Stability Pertaining to the Game of Dungeons and Dragons”. It was a study of 68 players, ranging from adolescent to adult, and cites that “There is no significant correlation between years of playing the game and emotional stability”.

There is an interesting factor that is often overlooked by studies looking at Dungeons and Dragons, Role Playing Games, and the likes – and that is associating cause and correlation. A 1990s study called “Alienation and the Game of Dungeons and Dragons” [Source] showed that players of D&D were no more likely to show feelings of alienation. The summary of said article states that, in a study of 35 players vs non-players, fewer players experienced feelings of meaninglessness. That being said more players experienced feelings of cultural estrangement. There was no specific difference between other feelings of alienation.

There are no specific studies that I can find that have looked at how games like Dungeons and Dragons provide a place for those who do feel estranged. It is all well and good looking at players and saying D&D makes them emotionally vulnerable, where they do not talk about how D&D can provide a safe haven for those who are emotionally vulnerable to begin with. This is such an important clarification. Luckily, we have now entered the 21st Century.

Dungeons and Dragons, Therapy, and Encouraging the Extraordinary

Now that we have entered a gaming renaissance, and board gamers/tabletop gamers are not disparate groups on the fringes of society, it is possible to see the sheer good that tabletop RPGs are doing people. Groups like Game to Grow have begun to use gaming as a way of improving the lives of youths who struggle expressing themselves through other means or do not have a constructive outlet to explore their own emotions.

The group was founded (according to Kotaku) because kids aren’t being asked the right questions by traditional school counsellors or psychiatrists about what really matter to them. Yet, people like Game to Grow (formally known as Wheelhouse Workshop), use D&D to allow those kids to truly explore what they need, mean, or feel. It allows for kids to fully explore other ways of interacting with one another. It gives them a feeling of inclusion. To quote a fantastic piece from the above article about participating in a Dungeons and Dragons game:

“For someone who never leaves their house except for school, to have a peer say, ‘I need your help picking a lock’ makes a huge difference.”

The great thing is that Game to Grow are not the only group around. There are now dozens, if not hundreds, of groups in the USA alone who are recognising the healing power of Dungeons and Dragons (and roleplaying games in general) because they allow for people (teenagers and adults alike) to explore their emotions in full. What is more, it allows for them to do it in a social environment.

As well as the great work that people like Game to Grow do, this case points out an amazing fact, which is how attitudes to tabletop RPGs have changed over the past 40 years. It is no longer the case of “that thing we don’t understand must be wrong” but instead the RPG players who were discriminated against in the 1980s, have grown up to turn their experiences, why they played, why they found the game, into something wholly positive.

What is even more amazing is that the jury no longer seems to be out (if you’ll pardon the phrase) – Dungeons and Dragons, Role Playing Games, and games like those, have, in these past few years, been fully accepted, and part of this is due to visibility of the hobby as a whole.

Coincidentally, whilst writing this, my partner walked into the room and handed me the UK Games Expo programme from 2017. Inside is an article by Heidi Cook, the Assistant Manager of the IQ Games Centre, called “What Have RPGs Ever Done For Us?”. In the article she cites Tabletop RPGs as improving:

  • Creativity
  • Social Skills
  • Community Spirit (she calls it ‘The Feel Good Factor’)
  • Problem Solving Skills
  • Negotiation Skills
  • Reading
  • Mathematics

The Physical Benefits of Dungeon Crawling

Finally, and this is the last point before moving on from talking about Dungeons and Dragons, there was a study in 2003 (again, mentioned by Heidi Cook in her article, but I have seen it around recently – the source is here) that talks about how playing games can lower the onset of dementia and Alzheimers. The logic puzzles that games like Dungeons and Dragons allow for help keep the brain active and healthy.

Of course, there does need to be some mention to the potential unhealthy aspect of tabletop gaming as well. It is entirely within the player’s power, but gaming can be somewhat sedentary. Unhealthy snacks are a standard around the table, as are fizzy cans (etc.). These do need to be kept in moderation to ensure the mental benefits aren’t accompanied by physical deficit.

The Benefits of Board Games and Controlled Conflict

Recently, the Business-sphere (like the blogosphere, but with far more get-rich-quick books) has gone a bit nuts about board games, aided more recently by the news that people like Bill Gates are placing playing Settlers of Catan in their top 10 hobbies list. Pre Bill’s news, however, the recent exposure of this board game Renaissance we are a part of has caused quite a few of the more reputable magazines to dig into the hobby. As such there are new ideas coming forward like that of board games causing a state of controlled conflict, and this being good for us.

The idea that board games are good for us can be traced back to the very origins of Monopoly; and unlike with RPGs, there are probably very few people who would disagree that they have a positive effect on human psychology. Mary Flanagan, a Professor of Film and Media Studies at Dartmouth University and founder of the Tiltfactor Game Research Lab, told The Atlantic:

“I grew up playing board games with my family, and we had the best conversations about life and learning around them, because they gave us turn-taking and rules and fairness…Board games structure social interaction in a really safe and helpful way. Face to face communication is getting weirder, board games help us get along and communicate.”

What Professor Flanagan explores is a really interesting idea in which she captures something that has caught on. Gaming encourages togetherness, strategising, and social interaction. In a similar article, Quartz magazine make the observation that:

Even in chess, famously associated with warfare and military strategy, the emphasis is not on who ultimately wins, but on the ingenuity that players display in the process.

And, once again, this is a really interesting point, because it can be applied in a broader sense. Enter Wargaming.

Wargaming, Dexterity Games and the Development of Physical Skills

Much along the same lines as with Chess, Wargaming helps aid the strategic side of gaming (in fact, most strategy games do); however, it also branches out into a few other areas. These are also shared by dexterity games to some degree, with games like Jenga and Meeple Circus being prime examples. These are games that have an element of the development of a physical skill attached to the gameplay. They help hone the mind to some aspect, but they also help hone different skills as well.

Although not a new concept, Wargames (which have been recognised in their current form since around H.G. Wells’ two books ‘Floor Games’ (1911) and *ahem* ‘Little Wars: A Game For Boys From Twelve Years of Age to One Hundred and Fifty and For That More Intelligent Sort of Girl who Likes Boys’ Games and Books’ (1913)) are known for having a more cognitive style of gameplay which is synonymous with strategy and thinking. They have been played for hundreds of years, being more formal in the early 1900s, and are still developing into new and amazing things to this very day. The mental benefits of tabletop wargames are well recognised. They include concepts we have already talked about in this article.

What isn’t so well recognised is the artistic component that co-exists with wargames to actually create a highly skilled hobby. This includes painting and modelling.

The source used for this is actually talking about painting generally, but it is still a very good article. I recommend giving it a read. It is called: 10 Great Health Benefits Of Painting and Drawing. These are:

  • The mental benefits of painting, including improved creativity, improved memory, improved communication skills, and improved problem solving skills.
  • The emotional benefits, including stress relief, more positive emotions, the release of hidden emotions, and the increase of emotional intelligence.
  • And improving the senses including increasing mobility, and becoming more observant to detail.

A similar thing can be said about dexterity games. They aid with hand/eye coordination, helping develop that skill of self-knowledge, helping gamers understand what it is their bodies can do. Stacking Meeples, for instance, is a difficult task, and yet one which can teach us a lot about ourselves.

Education and Sportsmanship

This article is already a long one so this will be the final thing we explore; however, it is an important one to fit in before drawing things closed with a conclusion.

We have, over the past few years, seen a boom in every single type of gaming, and educational games are no different. Everything from Timelines to Chemistry Fluxx – games that have entered the marketplace with education placed front and centre of their core messaging. Everything from games based on building nations to telling stories are now being sold, keeping learning as a core reason for why that game exists.

That being said, gaming works well at immersing players in a world for a few hours that they can learn more about. Seven Wonders is based on the seven wonders of the ancient world. Carcassonne and Castles of Burgundy are both based on French castles, and even Stone Age gives some idea as to what it would be like as a Stone Age tribe.

That being said, with games, education can come from all kinds of places. Exit games encourage thinking outside of the box, and games like Twilight Imperium encourage thinking about diplomacy and strategy. Catan, in all of its glory, encourages negotiation skills. Every game can be turned into a learning experience – if not about history or maths, then about negotiations, politics, and yourself.

You will notice that I haven’t used an external source for this last section, and this is because the blogosphere is probably the best place to go to for experiencing the evidence of this. There are so many bloggers who write about things they have learned from games, or ideas that have come across from the exploration of the gaming environment, to even the financial breakdown of certain ways of playing. Even this blog was born on the idea of exploring the concepts behind games. Gamers love doing these things and this is one of the many beautiful things about this hobby we share.

Conclusion: Are Board Games Good For You?

So, let’s answer this question once and for all: Are board games good for you?

Over the course of this article we have looked at a lot. We have looked at some of the criticisms of gaming, some of the studies behind it, and some of the rebuttals of those criticisms. And, what have we learned?

Well, one thing is that gaming is not flawless. There are certainly criticisms that can be regarded as worth consideration; however, there is something far bigger we can draw.

Gaming has a lot of mental and social benefits. From aiding with exploring our emotions to encouraging us to learn about negotiating, from helping us develop secondary skills to ensuring we understand conflict in a controlled way. It is a beautiful past time.

This has been a really long article, and I thank you for sticking with it. Now it is your turn. What is your take on the matter? What is it about gaming that you enjoy? How has it helped you, and what do you see as the benefits? Let me know in the comments below.

16 Comments »

  1. Interesting stuff – especially around RPGing… I’m old enough to remember the Taggart episode ‘Flesh and Blood’, which involved D&D as the main plot line. I was young, and that scary weirdo/outsider/psycho thing stuck with me for years!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on DM Dungeon and commented:
    This is an excellent article. Tabletop gaming in all forms can have a positive affect. One suggestion I would add is adding in a NO TECH night when you sit at the table together. For my family it has been so amazing that the kids…. yes the kids asked to add another no tech night for board games. Sitting around a table you should be engaged in the people and the game and not the virtual world of tech.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Empire of the Imagination” is a great book. I played D&D and other rpgs in the 80s, and people really looked down on it. It’s amazing how rpgs have come along. I later played a lot of computer games, but now I tend to play more tabletop boardgames. With a job that involves a lot of computer time, it’s nice to spend time doing something else. I enjoy the social (face to face) aspect of boardgames that you just don’t get in computer games.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I agree with that. It is such a social hobby that gives us something in common around the table to give a focus to the conversation 🙂

      Like

  4. I really liked what you said about how painting miniatures for your games have a lot of mental benefits. I play a lot of wargames and I want to start painting my figures, so I’m looking to expand my skills. Thank you for the information about how painting can improve creativity, memory, communication skills, and even problem-solving skills.

    Like

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