Board Games Are Good For You – The Science Behind It

16 January 2024
We all know games are good for us, but in what way? Tim Clare investigates how they help our brain, from distraction to self determination.

At the start of the invasion of Ukraine, as Russian tanks rolled south towards Kyiv, a group of Ukrainian soldiers stood at a barricade at midnight playing draughts. Specifically, they were playing shashki – also known as Russian draughts – arguably the game’s most dynamic variant, where pieces can capture forwards or backwards and kings can move any distance. More specifically, their playing pieces were Molotov cocktails.

It might sound like an odd time to set up a board game – the temperature was below freezing, they had to use electric torches to see the improvised board, and somewhere to the north the full motorised weight of a global superpower was thundering towards them. Certainly, it puts into perspective all those times we’ve turned down a games night because we’re ‘a little busy’. On the other hand, it was the perfect time.

Board Games Help Your Brain

It will come as no great revelation to any adult that life can be tricky. Trickiness, in fact, is probably life’s default state. Problems might be the world’s most reliable source of renewable energy, bubbling up endlessly like snot. If things seem to be going well you’ve probably forgotten something.

I’m joking, of course. Life is also abundant with surprise and pleasure and bright blossoming wonders, but it’s true that, as humans, we have a lot to contend with – some of us more than others. Psychologists and psychiatrists and, before them, philosophers and theologians have devoted whole lifetimes trying to figure out strategies to mitigate the vagaries of fortune and the emotions that arise from the difficulties we face. Cognitive reframing, psychopharmacological interventions, dream analysis, dietary changes and strict self-denial are just some of the solutions that have been proposed.

But one tactic that has got a bit of a bad rap over the years – one that I’d now like to go to bat for and attempt to rehabilitate – is a very simple one: distraction.

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Board Game Psychology

In psychology, the tendency to distract oneself from unpleasant emotions or thoughts has traditionally been viewed as maladaptive. Therapeutic techniques are all about facing up to your problems. Mental health is axiomatically about clear-sighted awareness of the things that are making you unhappy. Most of the time, we think of distractions as negative things we want to eliminate.

Distract comes the Latin trahere, from traho meaning ‘drag’ or ‘pull’. Thus to be ‘dis-tracted’ is literally to be dragged in several directions. But when we choose the distraction – a game, for example – rather than a malevolent force pulling us out of the moment, it can function more like an anchor, tethering us in safe waters.

Recent studies have challenged the conventional notion that distraction is necessarily bad for mental health. While emotional numbness, ‘zoning out’ and habitual mind-wandering in response to stress can be what researchers call a ‘maladaptive disengagement strategy’ that leads to poor long-term outcomes, there is mounting evidence that not all distractions are created equal. Choosing to actively pursue engaging leisure activities like tabletop games has been shown to – according to a 2020 paper by Christian Waugh, Elaine Shing and R. Michael Furr in the journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping – ‘predict improved life satisfaction and coping self-efficacy… and may also promote personal transformation’. The authors go so far as to say that disaster survivors often use simple leisure distractions as a way of coping with the early stages of recovery.

The paper makes a key distinction that accounts for the discrepancy between previous findings on distraction and more positive contemporary perspectives. Clearly, if you’re facing a very important exam, your rent is late, or someone in your life is going through a hard time and needs your support, it’s not an effective strategy to head down your local game shop and bash out fifty games of Imperial Settlers while ignoring your phone. This, Waugh and his co-authors argue, is not distraction but avoidance.

The soldiers in our opening example weren’t merely sitting at home playing shashki, pretending that the invasion wasn’t happening. Rather, they had erected a full tank barricade north of the city, blocking the road. They had M14s and Soviet assault rifles slung over their shoulders, ready for use. They had assembled twenty-four Molotov cocktails.

But the invasion hadn’t yet reached them. (and, as it turned out, the tanks never would, bogged down in winter mud and starved of fuel by attacks along strung-out supply lines) If they had remained poised in tense, alert silence, scanning the night horizon for signs of the enemy, they would have rapidly become anxious, exhausted, and unable to effectively defend their position.

The distraction acknowledged that, in that moment, they had done all they could do. There was no benefit to endlessly gaming out the possible futures that might await them in a day, a week, a month. They could not take additional positive action to influence those outcomes. Better to let their focus rest on an enjoyable bonding activity that took their minds off the cold and the potentially life-threatening struggle ahead.

I’ve written before about Johan Huizinga’s famous contention that games take place within a ‘magic circle’, a special space where the ordinary rules and concerns of everyday life no longer apply. If the circle exists, then its magic is temporary. Playing a game does not dissolve our problems, but rather offers us a stay of execution.

Board Games To Forget

A 2012 study of hospitality employees found that when leisure activities were used as a way of trying to forget that a problem existed, they led to an increased likelihood of ‘job dissatisfaction and diminished well-being’. By contrast, when leisure activities were used as a ‘planned breather’ to rest and restore energy, participants generally reported a reduction in stress and better long-term outcomes. These activities were deliberate, scheduled events rather than, for example, tinkering with an app to avoid a task that needed to be done, and they helped people feel refreshed so they could deal more effectively with the problems they faced.

In addition, the authors argued that leisure activities where a subject feels a degree of control increase feelings of self-determination – that is, how much power you have over your life. This sense of power – what the psychologist Albert Bandura called ‘self-efficacy’ – can provide a buffer against the negative impact of stress and also encourages us to consider our problems from different angles and look for solutions. After all, we’re not very motivated to try to improve our situation when we feel like we’re powerless. Putting ourselves in situations where we feel some sort of control encourages us to be proactive in other scenarios too.

Good board games are problem machines. Crucially, they give us just the right balance of problems and control for us to feel stretched but not helpless. When this works particularly well, we may even experience the pleasurable, empowering state of intense focus that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called ‘flow’.

When we engage with games purposefully, taking our leisure time as a serious, non-negotiable building block of our wellbeing, a mere ‘distraction’ becomes an act of regeneration, a well-earned rest break, and a training ground for future victories. We’re not avoiding our problems. We’re building our capacity to engage with them head on. 

Words by Tim Clare


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