Are Board Games Harmful?

Updated July 23, 2021
Grandfather and grandson playing chess

Of the many things that are hotly debated, whether playing board games is harmful isn't one you hear about all too often. However, you might be curious about whether there are any negative side effects to board games or if they turn out to be as fun and constructive as your parents always touted. Take a look at how board games can affect you mentally, physically, and socially, and if it's really all just fun and games.

Negative Side Effects of Playing Board Games

Some people advocate that video games are harmful; but what about board games? At first glance, it would appear that board games are harmless. Given their reputation, many people would prefer that their children play a nice game of chess instead of the latest violent video game, for example. However, when you dig a little deeper some problems can emerge from playing with board games.

Board game with cards

Addictive

Like many things in life, too much of a good thing can be harmful, and board games are no exception. Without proper regulation, children and adults can become just as addicted to board games as they can to harmful behaviors, drugs, and alcohol. Kids may neglect school, friends, and other necessary childhood experiences as the desire to play these games overtakes their life. This doesn't mean that playing these games is inherently dangerous; rather, letting the need to play interfere in your functioning in daily life is a potential drawback to excessively playing board games.

Subliminal Messaging

Board games aren't extremely straightforward about whatever moralistic or strategic methods they're trying to impart on the players. Given that many of these board games were created during the early 20th century, they often reflect practices and behaviors that aren't considered appropriate today. Interestingly, this brings up concerns over whether repeatedly playing board games subliminally manipulate you into altering your current behaviors. For instance, obsessively playing Monopoly might teach you that greed is good. While there isn't any scientific evidence to support these potential side effects, the threat of them remains.

Specific Examples: Ouija Board and Dungeons and Dragons

When considering the question "are board games harmful" the first games that come to mind are often Ouija boards and Dungeons and Dragons.

Ouija Boards

To some people, a Ouija Board is just a game capitalizing off of the growing interest in the paranormal in the late 20th century. Others, however, consider it truly evil and a way to communicate with spirits. With inconclusive, yet contradictory, reports of people's experiences while playing with Oujia boards, there is some concern over their safety. However, there are a few ways that you can protect yourself if you want to play and are frightened of the spiritual dangers:

  • Don't ask questions that might upset you. Asking when you will die, for example, can be very disturbing, in particular if the given date is near. Even if you think it was your friend who moved the planchette over the numbers on the board, the information may still unnerve you.
  • Don't invite spirits to enter or join you. If you are using a Ouija Board to attempt communication with a deceased person, don't allow them to "join" you if they request this. Even if it seems like you've made contact with a benevolent spirit, you really don't know whom or what you are communicating with.

Dungeon and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is another board game that some people consider harmful. These complaints stem mostly from the Satanic Panic of the 1980s rather than from solid evidence of D&D's physical and emotional harm that is present. Some people think that D&D is associated with the occult, and that playing the game will act as a gateway for people (children especially) to dabble in occult activities. While this is certainly possible, there is no direct correlation between the two. Many who try occult activities have never played D&D, for example.

Another common assumption about D&D is that it causes players to lose touch with reality as they delve deeper into the fantasy world of the game. Ultimately, the concern is that if someone creates a character who murders people in the game, that this person will then be prone to murdering someone in real life. Once again, there is no direct link between behavior in the game and behavior apart from the game. Yet, these concerns touch on valid issues about dissociation which come from obsessive game play for any sorts of games, whether they be video games, board games, or something else.

Positive Side Effects of Playing Board Games

All in all, board games have a reputation for having quite positive effects on the human mind and body. There's some serious research that has recently been conducted to understand the ways that playing board games can benefit the human body, physically, mentally, and socially.

Cheerful family playing board game while sitting at table in backyard

Board Games and Dementia

Despite the potential drawbacks of playing board games, a few studies have been conducted which report some positive findings about board game's impact on human health and development. Most of these studies focus on elderly patients and determining if there's a connection between the strategic game play of board games as a preventative measure towards staving off dementia. One French study was conducted over a 20-year period attempting to see the links between playing board games and dementia risk. The study found that the "risk of dementia was 15% lower in board game players than non-players."

Board Games and Absorbing Knowledge

Perhaps the most important research findings are the conclusions brought from a comprehensive literature review published in the Games for Health Journal in 2019. After synthesizing several previous studies on board games and the way that they intersect with health, they concluded that "board games resulted in significantly more knowledge attainment than other non-game conditions." Essentially, there appears to be a connection between the ability for people's brains to absorb greater amounts of information whilst they're playing games. This is particularly encouraging for understanding how board games can be used with children as they develop to supplement their growing knowledge of the world.

Break Out the Board Games

There isn't any conclusive evidence that playing board games is inherently bad, nor do the potential negative side-effects outweigh the positives that come from playing board games. Beyond being a means for greater socialization and problem-solving, board games are tools that can support motor function and learning deductive reasoning skills. Overall, it seems that board games are definitely safe to play and are here to stay.

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