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How To Support Board Gamers With Social Anxiety

Board gamers with social anxiety are more common than you might think. We recently had a new board gamer with social anxiety join our regular gaming group. She is very shy and at times finds it difficult to talk.

I reflected on my own experiences with social anxiety and how to help board gamers with social anxiety to feel welcome and comfortable playing games with us.

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What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety is something everyone struggles with every now and again. But for some people, it is a daily worry, one which can really hamper playing experience.

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Social anxiety is an overwhelming fear of social situations because of the fear of being judged negatively by other people.

Everyone’s social anxiety manifests itself in different ways but it can be horribly debilitating. My social anxiety looked like this:

  • Fear and dread of meeting new people at parties and other social events. Because I was so anxious, I wouldn’t know what to say when I did meet them.
  • Anytime I was the centre of attention I would go bright red and freeze up – no spotlight for me, please! I would get anxious about becoming anxious during presentations because I knew this would happen.
  • Getting overwhelmed by the thought of everything I had to do and my perceived inability to do it all and I’d panic.
  • Having an endless chatter of negative thoughts towards myself which led to low self-esteem.

It took years and years for me to overcome the worst of my social anxiety. The main push for me was when I realized that if I wanted to advance in the career I loved, would need to facilitate workshops with groups of strangers.

Hypnotherapy helped me the most, in particular, Instant Confidence by Paul McKenna. I was hugely sceptical but the book was pretty cheap to buy so I gave it a go. To this day, I’m still amazed at how much it helped me. Even now, I go back to it every now and then.

How to support socially anxious board gamers

Everyone has different things which trigger their social anxiety. Something that would relax one person might make another person anxious. However, if you’ve never experienced social anxiety before it can be hard to relate to people who have it.

So, based on my experience, here are some things you can try that I think board gamers with social anxiety would welcome.

Don’t spend ages making small talk

Meeting new people when you have social anxiety is nerve-racking. It is one of the times when their anxiety will be at their highest. So small talk is really unhelpful at this point.

They are worried that you are judging everything they say because you have just met and are forming your first impressions. So instead, just offer them a drink and a snack and when everyone has refreshments, settle down at the game.

Getting to the game quickly is a good idea. It takes their mind off their anxiety. If they have something to do most people with social anxiety are much happier.

Ask closed questions about neutral things

Closed questions are questions with a one-word answer like, “Would you like a drink?”. If there are multiple options that they may not be aware of then let them know what those options are, “Would you like a drink? We have coffee, tea, and juice.”  

Closed questions are a good way to ease socially anxious players into talking because they don’t have to say much and can give a direct, factual answer.

When you first meet them don’t ask them lots of detailed questions about what they do for a living or what they think about something you just saw in the news. They are afraid you will be judging their answers and forming a bad opinion of them.   

Play games that they know and like

Learning a new game puts noard gamers with social anxiety under pressure because they feel like they need to play well because everyone will be judging their ability to play. But because they have put pressure on themselves to play well, their anxiety will get in the way, and they will end up playing badly!

If possible, find out what games they like and play those. At least while you’re getting to know them. Meeting new people will be anxiety causing enough without adding learning a new game into the mix.

Talk about the game

Keeping the topic of conversation to just the game is a great thing to do. Because you are talking about the game, it is a neutral and safe topic of conversation.

Usually, as socially anxious players get into the game, they relax a little and conversation will naturally open up to other topics. Just don’t try to force it or they may feel pressurized into talking.

Don’t point out that they are shy or anxious

Socially anxious people don’t like being the centre of attention. They don’t want everyone looking at them. When everyone is looking at them all they can think about is how everyone is scrutinizing every little thing they do and that people are forming negative opinions of them.

If you draw attention to their shyness then you are doing the very thing that makes them feel anxious – making them the centre of attention. If they were starting to open up, they will close up again. Just let them do their thing.

Asking them to relax or loosen up isn’t helpful. It’s like someone telling you to calm down when you’re angry.

They know that anxiety is something they are dealing with. Just telling them to relax won’t help.

Be patient

Anxiety takes a while to work through and gets in the way of clear thinking. It means that anxious people might take a little longer to take their turn.

Have patience with the socially anxious players. If you can see they are looking at their cards and tokens and thinking about what to do, they are engaged and doing their thing. So just let them get on with it.

Maybe start up a conversation with someone around the table to take the focus off them.

Be funny

Laugher is great at relieving anxiety. It’s tricky to be funny on demand, but if you are having a good time and cracking jokes during the game then it helps other people to relax and have fun too.

Don’t criticise their turns

With social anxiety, there is constant narrative in your head where you overly criticise yourself and expect others to be overly critical of you too. By passing judgement and criticising their turn you are reinforcing this belief and encouraging that second-guessing.

Even if you think you’re giving helpful feedback about what they could have done instead, it will be crippling for them.

Bad games for board gamers with social anxiety

Everyone’s social anxiety is different. While I don’t like bluffing games, another person might love them. Some socially anxious people like to lose themselves in a role which gives them the confidence they don’t have when they are themselves.

However, you have to start somewhere. So, based on my experience, these are games that don’t always work well for board gamers with social anxiety.

Games which put them at the centre of attention

This wipes out all bluffing games like Skull and Coup.

I really dislike bluffing games because there will come a point in the game where you have to defend yourself against accusations from other players. This makes most players sweat a bit but for socially anxious people it is terrifying. Even if they aren’t the traitor they might come across like they are because of how they tense up!

At a first glance, Magic Maze might look like it would be great for board gamers with social anxiety. It is co-operative so everyone helps each other and also no-one can talk. However, it is such a bad choice!

Because no-one is allowed to talk there are points in the game where the only thing you can do is stare at the person who needs to make the next moves. Terrible for people with social anxiety!

Games where they need to talk a lot

Co-operative games like Robinson Crusoe involve a lot of discussion about potential moves to make. Standing up for your opinions amongst a group of new people can be difficult for socially anxious people so I wouldn’t recommend this.

Plus, unless you have a group of very supportive people, co-operative games can be really bad at encouraging quarterbacking. See my article What is quarterbacking in board games (and how to avoid it) for more info.

Games where they need to lead a round

Dixit is an example of a game like this. The person in charge of the round passes from player to player during the game. When this comes to the player with social anxiety they may not feel confident taking the lead and facilitating the round.

As the round is passing around the table and getting closer to when they will need to lead, their anxiety will be increasing. They may also not like that their clues will be judged by the other players.

Games where direct competition is encouraged

Small World is not a great choice. To succeed in the game you really need to play quickly, and conquer regions by going after other players. Neither of these play to a socially anxious gamers strengths.

In their everyday life, board gamers with social anxiety will avoid direct challenges because they find them very difficult. So they may have a natural tendency to do this in games too.

Good games for board gamers with social anxiety

Doing new things is scary for a lot of people, so games that socially anxious gamers have played before will always be a good choice. However, if you can’t find out this information before the first gaming session then here are some suggestions.

Remember, these are just suggestions for the first session and board gamers with social anxiety will all have specific games that they prefer to play. As you get to know the player you will figure out what games they like.

Games where people manage their own thing

Board games where players are building up their own area without much direct competition with the other players are a good choice.

Games like Kodama: The Tree Spirits are good for this. In Kodama, players are growing their own tree by selecting cards from the centre of the table. The cards are really beautiful and happy looking which I’m sure has a positive effect too!

7 Wonders is another game where players are focussed on building up their own wonder so they can just kind of get on with it.

Karuba is also great fun. In this game, every player has their own board and set of cards. Each turn, they need to lay a card on their own board to build paths through the jungle to collect treasures. The players are all competing to get to the treasures first.

Ticket to Ride is another game where people pretty much manage their own thing. They collect a hand of train cards and then play them on the board when they are ready.

Calming games with simple mechanics

Games with simple mechanics can be relaxing for everyone to play.

Board gamers with social anxiety may particularly enjoy relaxing games but that’s not to say that they can’t play complicated games (see my next heading!).

Tsuro is a good example of this. Players just play a tile each turn and while the player’s actions might have a negative impact on another player it is over in that turn and the group moves on.

Carcassonne is another example of a simple game where people pick up a tile and play it on their turn. In Carcassonne and turns are short so the focus isn’t on any one player for a long amount of time.

Tokaido meeples

Tokaido is one of the most relaxing games there is. The theme of the game is to site see in Japan. The only pressure a player might encounter is if another player stops at a place on the board that they want to stop at.

Complex games where there is a lot to do

Taking the opposite approach to calming simple games, complicated games can be a good choice too. When there is a lot going on in a game, all the players are engrossed in what they are doing so their mind is likely to switch to anxious thoughts.

Arkham Horror: Call of Cthulu
Arkham Horror: Call of Cthulhu

Arkham Horror: Call of Cthulhu is a great game for this. It is a co-operative game but one which doesn’t encourage quarterbacking (See What is quarterbacking in board games? (and how to avoid it).

In Arkham Horror: Call of Cthulhu each player needs to: manage their own character, deal with the overall game objectives, the monsters on the board, the bad stuff which happens every turn as well as helping other players where they can. That’s a lot to manage!

There is little time for thinking about anything but the game.

Twilight Imperium is about as complicated as you can get. If you have a hardcore gamer then this can be a great choice. It’s long enough and complex enough that players lose themselves in the game.

Closing thoughts

For board gamers with social anxiety, playing with people they don’t know is a big deal. It is awesome that they are facing their fears and doing it anyway.

The key thing you can do is help them feel welcome and relaxed. You’ll get to know them much faster. Over time they’ll be less anxious playing games with you – no matter which games you choose.

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Hi, I’m Emily, the tabletop gamer behind My Kind of Meeple. If this article helped you, I’d be honoured if you’d say, “Thanks!” with a £3 coffee on Ko-fi.

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