I’ve written here before about how important board games are to me, from a mental health perspective. You can read some of it here and here. Those posts focus mostly on the benefits you can reap even why you play a board game by yourself. In this post I’m going to take a look at the opposite end of the spectrum – board games with loads of people.
In the last year I’ve been lucky enough to attend three different board game conventions: The UK Games Expo (read my report here), GridCon, and most recently, AireCon (read my report here). Each was a very different experience, from the commercial craziness of UKGE, through to the play-focused intimacy of GridCon. What they all have in common though, is being surrounded by like-minded people.
My next turn
During a bit of downtime at AireCon, I grabbed some food, and sat at the edge of the Open Gaming area. As I looked around the hall, it dawned on me. A room filled with hundreds of people playing games, all with one thing in common. Nobody there was worrying about ‘real life’ while they were playing. Almost universally, people of all kinds were laughing and talking to new friends, old friends, or planning their next turn.
Anyone who’s ever undertaken any kind of CBT for depression and anxiety knows the value of mindfulness. The idea of only concentrating on the here and now, not worrying or dwelling on the thoughts spiraling in your head. Focusing on your next turn in a board game does exactly that. I watched as scores of people, young and old, had their heads down, normal life forgotten. All that matters in that moment is ‘my next turn’, and that reprieve from your own mind can be priceless. Between planning your turn and talking to others, there’s simply very little time to continue your internal monologue.
We’re very lucky and very privileged to be able to play games, talk about them on the internet, and have the time, money, and possibility of going to a convention. And while I, and a lot of my readers, don’t have to worry about day-to-day survival, modern life is tough. The financial and social burdens we bring upon ourselves are exhausting. Having a few days to yourself at one of these events is a holiday, it’s like leaving the motorway of life for some respite in a service station, before rejoining the rat race.
Birds of a feather
That’s not to say that all of the people at a board game convention are the same – far from it. The people I’ve met and played games with are the most diverse bunch I’ve ever met. As it happens, that’s one of the first big mental health benefits to be taken from attending a convention. To take-in the sheer diversity in the building, and to realise that everyone – regardless of social background, race, belief, gender, or disability – belongs in that space.
I come from a very rural part of the UK. When I was growing up there weren’t many opportunities for people who’d label themselves as geeks, to come together to share a niche interest. It’s something which can feel very isolating. Although it’s easier to find a sense of community with the internet, there’s a lot to be said for actually meeting people in the flesh.
It’s very easy to carry anxiety and worry from your childhood and teenage years in later life. That little voice in your head that says “What if nobody likes me? What if I don’t fit in? What if I panic?” needs very little reinforcement at times. If you do have it within you to attend something, however small, the rewards can have such a huge impact on you. Despite being nervous each time I’ve gone away to a convention, every time I’ve left I’ve felt happy, energised, enthusiastic, and counting the days until the next time I get to see my new friends again.
Too much, too soon
What if this all sounds great, but you just don’t have it in you to attend something at the moment? We’ve just gone through two years of lockdowns, isolation, sickness and death, thanks to Covid-19. It’s no wonder that more and more people are suffering from anxiety and depression. People I’ve known my whole life have been affected for the first time, so its impact cannot be overstated.
Going to a convention for the first time can feel pretty intimidating, especially when you’ve no idea what to expect. I had an anxiety spike when I turned up at UKGE, despite having been to other conventions in the past for martial arts. For some people, that’s a bridge too far, and I’d recommend attending a small, local event first before heading to something like UKGE. That said, AireCon had a fantastic area called Roll Through It which was quiet, away from the crowds, and allowed people to deal with things at their pace.
If that still sounds too much, I understand. If you truly do wish to feel like a part of a community, and want to make those first steps towards meeting people and experiencing the buzz of a games convention, there are a few things you can do to work towards it. Joining an online community is a great idea. Find a content creator you enjoy, and see if they have any community options for you to join.
From personal experience, I can vouch for the people in the Board Game Trading & Chat UK Facebook group, but the place which has really helped me find a community is the Slack server that comes as part of my Patreon subscription for Paul Grogan and his Gaming Rules! channel. Everyone is different, and it’s important to say that my experience might not mirror yours, but it’s a good place to start if you ask me.
So in summary, if you’ve taken up this hobby over the last couple of years, and are wondering why anyone would want to travel halfway across the country to sit and play games with strangers for a few days, just give it a chance. The pandemic has taken a lot out of a lot of people, and with the world on the cusp of returning to a new normal, if you feel up to trying, I heartily recommend attending a convention.
Please, feel free to add links to your favourite conventions in the comments, and I’ll edit this post to add them in. As well as the links above, I’d be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t recommend heading along to the Punchboard Discord Server, where you can hang out in a very relaxed environment, with some very wonderful people.
Also, please remember that I’m not a mental health professional. I’m just a nerdy chap who’s had a lifetime of on-off depression and anxiety, difficulty making friends, and this post is based on my personal experiences. If you’re in the UK and would like more help with your mental health, the NHS is a great place to start.