The life-saving magic of playing games

6th January, 2022

What’s kept you going during the pandemic? For some people, it’s been an exercise kick. For others, the day’s first glass of wine. For me, it’s been a game of “let’s pretend” with a conclave of imaginary wizards. It takes all sorts, but my survival mechanism has been to play games.

Formal board games are very old. The book Board Games in 100 Moves, by Ian Livingstone and James Wallis, dates the Egyptian game Senet back to 3100BC, but board games are probably much older. Across the Middle East, archaeologists have excavated 8,000-year-old objects that seem to be game boards.

Several technological changes have added impetus to the development of board games: the printing press allowed games to move beyond abstract geometric boards; cardboard boxes enabled complex games with bespoke pieces and rules to be made and sold.

Then, of course, there is the internet. Sites such as BoardGameGeek allow gaming fans to review and explain new games to each other, while BoardGameArena provides a platform to play board games online with anyone in the world. That said, my wife and I often play each other on BoardGameArena while sitting in the same room — it’s faster than breaking out the cardboard and dice.

Does this help with pandemic resilience? I am sure of it. About a year ago, a team of psychologists (Kate Sweeny, Renlai Zhou and others) published a study which asked how people had best coped during strict lockdowns in China early in 2020.

“Two promising candidates for effective coping,” they wrote, “are flow and mindfulness.”

“Flow is a state in which people become absorbed in an enjoyable activity, such that they become blind to their external environment,” explained the researchers. In contrast, “mindfulness is a state of being aware of and attentive to one’s current internal and external experience.”

These two rather desirable mental states seem to stand in opposition to each other, until one remembers a third: anxious doomscrolling through bottomless social media feeds. This habit is perfectly understandable — but it is neither flow nor mindfulness.

The researchers concluded that the people experiencing states of flow or mindfulness were also the people coping better with strict lockdowns. We can only speculate as to which way causation ran here, but faced with longer lockdowns, flow in particular seemed to help.

Flow is all very well — but how to achieve it? It’s not easy at any time, and particularly not over the past two years. But that brings me back to the imaginary wizards: for me, many of the times when I have lost myself in the pleasure and the challenge of the moment are the times when I have been running imaginative role-playing games for my friends. (Role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, are structured improvisations in which players take on the role of someone else. In the theatre of the mind, they solve problems and explore the pleasures and dangers of another time and place.)

In 1938, the Dutch sociologist Johan Huizinga tried to explain what made a game a game. His definition had two noteworthy elements. The first is that games are fun — or more precisely they are played for their own sake. If you’re playing a game for another reason, such as a financial reward or as an educational exercise, it ceases to be a game.

The second is that games have a “magic circle” around them: there is an agreement that the normal rules of behaviour do not apply. We can extort money from our friends (Monopoly), betray our spouses (Diplomacy), kill our children (Risk) or lie to everyone (Poker) — and it’s all fine. What happens in the game stays in the game.

Most games also present an absorbing challenge. Combine fun, a challenge and the magic circle, and it is easy to see why players are able to immerse themselves in those precious feelings of flow.

Two decades ago, Corey Keyes, a sociologist and psychologist at Emory University, used the word “languishing” to refer to people who were neither flourishing nor severely depressed. Adam Grant, the author of Think Again, has argued that languishing is “the dominant emotion of 2021”.

Flow is an antidote to languishing, and Adam Grant found flow by playing Mario Kart online with his children and with distant family members. It’s a good choice: immersive, challenging, fun, sociable and perfectly feasible under the strictest of lockdowns.

My own preference was to gather online with some of my oldest friends. We pretended to be wizards in a game I created, inspired by the work of Ursula Le Guin. Nerdy? Weird? I don’t care. I like to think that I have a challenging and engaging job, but those Thursday evening gaming sessions were the most difficult and absorbing thing I would do all week. In a sea of troubles, those evenings with friends were an island paradise.

This year, we said farewell to Reuben Klamer, the designer of The Game of Life, to Steve Perrin, who created the influential role-playing game RuneQuest, and to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who developed the idea of flow. The obituaries didn’t make a connection between the three men, but it’s clear enough.

If you want to feel energised and fulfilled, even in an apparently endless pandemic, get yourself into a state of flow. Not sure how to find your flow? Play a game.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 10 December 2021.

The paperback of “The Data Detective” is now on 1 February in the US and Canada. Title elsewhere: “How To Make The World Add Up”.

“One of the most wonderful collections of stories that I have read in a long time… fascinating.”- Steve Levitt (Freakonomics)

“If you aren’t in love with stats before reading this book, you will be by the time you’re done.”- Caroline Criado Perez (Invisible Women)

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