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Gaming for Connection

Content Warning: This article discusses suicide.

I am, at heart, a solo gamer of the electronic variety. Case in point: I both played the beta and pre-ordered the original Destiny in 2014, sinking countless hours into the franchise, but to this day I have yet to play a single raid! Lock me in a room alone with a console for days? Yes, please! However, I am recognizing more and more the importance of gathering around a table with friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, and even (or perhaps especially) strangers, to play games “the old-fashioned way.” Of course, with the board game renaissance well underway, there is nothing old-fashioned about analog or tabletop gaming.

A recent study published in JAMA titled Contextual Factors Associated With County-Level Suicide Rates in the United States, 1999 to 2016 examined patterns in rural counties across the United States that had increased suicide rates from 1999 to 2016. Two of the key factors were high social fragmentation (including the rate of single-person households, unmarried residents, and resident impermanence) and low social capital (including few opportunities for civic engagement). The study finds “that greater opportunities for social engagement and connection […] are associated with lower suicide rates.” This is perfectly consistent with a well-known risk factor for suicide—social isolation/disconnectionand a closely related protective factor against suicide—connectedness to individuals, family, community, and social institutions (see the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and the CDC for more on risk and protective factors).

A bit of my background: Out of thirteen years so far working in the mental health field, I’ve spent nearly six doing full-time suicide prevention and intervention. I also experienced six months of intense and intrusive suicide thoughts during a particularly challenging time in my life. I have both professional and “lived” experience when it comes to this issue.

Now there is no one reason, cause, or pathway that leads individuals to die by suicide, but social connectedness is a crucial issue in today’s world where we can communicate with hundreds of “friends” and “followers” on social media through the push of a button, and yet often feel more isolated than ever. Depression and anxiety are said to be on the rise for millennials, and FOMO (fear of missing out) may just be one part of that. The truth is, I believe our social fabric is disintegrating and has been for decades. When I was young, I would go play with neighborhood kids at the park, down the block, and even in the alleys for hours on end with no adult supervision. Would I let my own kids do that today? Not a chance! We have less trust in our communities yet so many of us crave connection—a genuine human need.

Last year I was asked to work with a hostile, highly suicidal individual in a state psychiatric hospital who had almost no rapport with the staff nor members of his treatment team. But he was a gamer, so I knew I had an in. For several months we sat side-by-side, as equals, and played a game together for about an hour or two each week. By the time he left the hospital, he was like a different person—future-focused and hopeful.

… social connectedness is a crucial issue in today’s world where we can communicate with hundreds of “friends” and “followers” on social media through the push of a button, and yet often feel more isolated than ever.

Please consider starting, hosting, or attending a game night in your home, church, local coffee shop, library, or community center. What better, non-threatening way to foster relationships and strengthen human bonds? Go to the “highways and hedges” and invite people to your party! You could be literally saving lives as you roll those dice.

If you need to talk to someone about suicidal thoughts or behaviors, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also download the notOK App to reach out to trusted friends, family members, or peers if you need support in the future.

Justin Gabriel is a published Christian author, theology geek, and gamer. Find his books and more at http://justingabriel.org/

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