Play, trauma, and recovery

Sensitive content warning: COVID-19, domestic abuse, trauma and recovery.

I’d like to thank whoever chose the GLAM Blog Club theme for this month, and highlight some of my past posts as potential inspiration for anyone thinking of writing about play and games in a libraries/GLAM context – specifically my Talking Points series, especially the second one, on the powers of play.

I’d also like to thank Gene for his moving introduction. I particularly appreciate the courage it took to share his story. He’s far from the only one who has a negative reaction to play as a result of traumatic associations. In fact, I’ve come to realise it’s far more pervasive than is widely understood, and its harms are manifold and often unseen.

I’ve got several posts to write on this topic, but I want to start by honouring Gene’s remarks with a ringing endorsement of his point about supporting those with trauma responses to play, and building on what that means more broadly.

On play, trauma, and wellbeing

I touch on one example of play trauma, which Gene also mentions in passing in his post, in my post about Monopoly:

Monopoly is… as legendary for spawning bitter family fights and for dragging on interminably even though it’s obvious who’s going to win as it is for being widely played.

It’s also notorious among tabletop enthusiasts for making some people loathe the entire medium of board games…

It’s easy to take this as a joke – families fight over board games, oh well, It’s Only A Game – but if you dig even slightly into this, you find that some of these experiences are genuinely traumatic, as one would expect might be necessary to give someone a lifelong aversion to an entire medium.

Sore losers who turn genuinely vicious if defeated, or even if defeat seems imminent, and punish other players for playing well – or just bad luck on the dice. Controlling bullies who insist everyone play their way, forcing people to make deals they don’t want and to keep playing even when they aren’t having fun. And worst of all, a combination of the two, where other players essentially become supporting cast for a scripted victory that is neither earned, nor fun, nor remotely playful – a psychodrama rather than a game, toying with their victims rather than playing with them.

As COVID-19 lockdowns unfolded around the world, and sales of games, puzzles, toys, and other playful artforms spiked, a friend asked me if I felt a sense of validation. I replied that I felt a sense of dread. Most people are still stuck with a limited canon that includes Monopoly as the iconic board game, and, while I would avoid judging people’s taste in fun[1] and the right context and group can make anything subjectively enjoyable, insofar as a game can be objectively antifun, Monopoly fits that bill:

  • It was actively designed, as an educational tactic, to be unpleasant to play unless you are winning – and eventually, even if you are.
  • Winning requires behaving in greedy, destructive, zero-sum ways.[2]
  • These two things strongly lend themselves to the kind of bullying and coercive “play” mentioned above.
  • As of 10 July 2020, it has received 26,436 ratings on BoardGameGeek, an international reference site with crowdsourced game scores. Its rating ranks it at #19133 out of the 19139 rated games, and #1988 out of 1989 family games.

And yet, thanks to network effects, the notocratic advantage of a massive marketing warchest, and other issues discussed in that Monopoly post, Monopoly has a stranglehold on the form. Its own obnoxiousness driving people away from the entire medium only exacerbates this grip; people get a taste and never make it to the good stuff. That means that when sales are up, more people are playing this and other older, less-fun games instead of games with the advantage of more than a century’s advancements in the art and science of play, including co-operative games, social games, nomic games, and more.

That matters because more of those obnoxious and potentially traumatic interactions are taking place, and are doing so in contexts heightened by social isolation, economic anxiety, and cabin fever. We were rightly concerned that the containment lockdowns would heighten the risk to individuals in abusive domestic situation; this is a clear risk factor.

Now, Monopoly and its ilk aren’t primarily responsible for the harm done in those contexts – that rests squarely with (a) the people behaving in dysfunctional and harmful ways, and (b) the overlapping broader systems that are simultaneously putting intense existential pressures on people and spreading toxic propaganda that legitimises and encourages abusive entitlement, control, violence, and so on, rather than fixing those systems to be more beneficial.

But they are a risk factor (as well as arguably contributing to the propaganda side of the equation; Monopoly‘s role in normalising winner-take-all economics, and concomitant habits of self-congratulatory rationalisation and relations of mass-subjugation, dominance, and control, is a fascinating topic), and one that can be avoided or mitigated.

A small increase in risk of harm, replicated many times on a massive scale, means harm is certainly occurring. The fact that family game night might, as Gene remarked, be a source of trauma is primarily an indictment of the state of those families – but given play’s links to health and the fact that games can heal and promote bonding and caring, it seems unwise to ignore the qualities of the games they are playing.

Play and recovery

I’ve already talked about the links between play and health as part of my Talking Points series – twice, in fact, given that resilience is a key element of mental health.

But I haven’t posted here since a fascinating conversation I had with the staff at the Foundation House for Survivors of Torture in 2019 (or at all in the last couple of years, for somewhat related reasons we might get to in a later post).

I was attending professional development aimed at helping library staff support families from refugee backgrounds, and we were discussing the role that libraries and childcare staff (mostly the latter, based on the mix of the group) can play in helping often highly traumatised communities.

One principle came out strongly: that simply by doing our jobs in an inclusive, compassionate, empowering way that centres and is deeply responsive to the community and specific individuals we are serving, we are giving survivors of traumatic experiences space and resources to start to heal themselves. We don’t have to give people everything they ask for; we just have to visibly do our best, care about the result, and be reasonable and respectful about it.

Given my views on play, you won’t be surprised to learn that I asked the presenters about whether play experiences could qualify as the kinds of responsive, positive, engaged, and empowering interactions they described. And, also unsurprisingly, they said that this was absolutely the case. This certainly accords with the rise of therapists using games as therapy – a web search for “Dungeons & Dragons therapy” shows the recent explosion in ways in which people are finding healing in play. There’s plenty more research if you want it.

Which leads me to add to my wholehearted endorsement of Gene’s call for libraries to make allowances for people to avoid play and games. Of course, people with trauma associated with those things must be supported to avoid them if they are unable to cope. But given how central play is to human nature, how harmful play deprivation is, and how culturally important games increasingly are, support for people with associated trauma should also include giving them opportunities to explore play and games in non-retraumatising ways.

Please note! I’m not advocating for forcing people with game-associated trauma to get better from it by playing games, any more than I’d treat folks with hospital-associated trauma in a hospital. (Though I’d note that games take a huge variety of forms, and play is sneaky and present in a great many contexts outside formal games in a way that hospitals are rarely present outside hospitals. What’s more, play is arguably not present in some of the simulatory activities Gene mentions in his post, which are more performative than playful – indeed, some play-related trauma may be more about being forced to perform rather than play.)

But offering people opportunities to explore games and play in a safe, non-abusive, self-directed context like a library seems to me to matter, and for folks who are more likely than most to have social anxieties, finding those opportunities can be extremely hard. And as we’ve discussed above, simply offering the kind of safe, supported opportunities to play that we’d want to offer anyway is enough to create that space for healing. (Just a space, not a guarantee – even though there’s a lot of merit to the idea of making it an active focus of our work in all collections.)

The role of GLAM

Our job is to intelligently curate and share the worlds of culture and information in service to our communities, helping people find context and vocabulary for their engagement with the wider world.

The sorts of issues outlined above are exactly the sort of thing we should be identifying and acting on. Not by running “don’t play Monopoly” campaigns, any more than we run “don’t read mass-produced paint-by-numbers genre pulp that robotically replicates toxic social norms” or “don’t watch reality exploitation TV” campaigns. Rather, we should be – you guessed it – intelligently curating and sharing the more pro-social alternatives, and giving people context and vocabulary for their engagement with culture. What you might call “positive culture curation”.

That curation isn’t only about having collections available for loan or in the library space; it’s also about making actual play experiences available. That means running programs, preferably having staff who can teach the games, having services that help people find others who can teach and/or are interested in playing, and establishing norms for play in the library space in the hopes of (a) offering that safe, and potentially healing, interaction; (b) having those norms spread.

Those norms need to revolve around four things:

  • consent
  • respect
  • gratitude
  • fun

Given that playing games means voluntarily adopting a set of rules of behaviour and meaning, it should always be an experience of consent, freedom, and ideally pleasure, of not only “no means no” if people don’t want to play, but also “yes means yes”, in Friedman & Valenti’s insightful framing of consent as not just acceptance but exuberance, enthusiasm, and delight. In fact, one of the great, almost pre-verbal lessons of play is precisely that the magic circle of play exists only with, is in large part comprised of, the willing participation of everyone in and around it. As above, play without consent, treating others as toys without independent will rather than as fellow players, is oppression and abuse.

Respect and gratitude follow logically from the understanding that the experience one is enjoying is contingent on the active, volitional participation of others. But these principles are important to call out and model because they are easily lost, especially in moments of frustration – or even triumph – under competitive and hierarchical social norms. Conversely, having abundant experience of respect and gratitude for fellow players can help us develop habits of moderation, perspective, self-control, and empathy when it comes to non-game frustrations.

Fun seems self-evident, but I would just gently remind readers that fun is non-trivial; is in fact the active face of joy, as beauty is the passive.


This feels like one of those posts where if I had more time I could make it shorter… but I don’t. I also don’t have time to make it any longer. In fact I still have a ton to say, about play anxiety and devaluation of play, which I’ll have to put into separate posts over the next few days. So let me sum up.

Games and play are absolutely potential sites of trauma.

That means we need to support people to avoid them. Full stop. Play without consent is not play. Games without play are contests or performances, or both – but not true games.

We also need to offer opportunities to explore games and play in safe, supportive ways that make room for recovery and healing – whether or not the trauma being healed is associated with games and play.

And we need to take seriously that, just as people’s literary diet matters, so does their ludic diet. Games are also a potential catalyst for abusive behaviour, and one which we know is increasingly common under the pressures of COVID-19.

That means the GLAM sector needs to be conscious of what they curate and how. We need to be promoting better-quality games that do more to help people have fun, and we need to be modelling and making room for healthy play that promotes pro-social behaviour.

More to come, I hope.


[1] Not per se, anyway. While I wouldn’t judge, I’m happy to argue questions of taste. And of course someone’s sense of fun does not shield them from judgment on other dimensions of the act, such as whether their fun is harmful to others.

[2] See Allan G. Johnson, pioneering sociologist, and his discussion of Monopoly embedded below. Fascinating for many more reasons than just this, but a crucial illustration of the point.


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