Geeks Vs Loneliness: Gaming your way out of social anxiety

In which our writer shares how he used games as a coping strategy in tough social situations

Hello and welcome to Geeks Vs Loneliness, our corner of the internet where we talk about life and share tips for coping with tough situations. Today our writer shares a story about how a simple game helped him deal with social anxiety – and offers suggestions for a game or two you might like to play.

Ten years ago I was suffering from a level of social anxiety I hadn’t experienced since freshers week at uni. A month into a new job, that included a move to London, I had yet to say more than a few words to my new office-mates (who, to be fair, were a cliquey bunch) and had made no new friends. I was intensely lonely, bordering on depressed, and I had started to dread even the simplest of social or professional interactions with people.

I was thirty years old and every day felt like my first day at big school.

But I had a job to do and I was desperate to impress my new boss. So, when a two-day industry conference was announced, like an idiot, I volunteered to represent the business to a hundred or so important clients. ‘It’ll be fine,’ I lied to myself. ‘You can do this. It’ll be totally fine.’ Only it wasn’t fine.

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The first day of the conference I wandered the exhibition floor with my head down, avoiding all eye contact, and beyond giving my name at check-in, I spoke to nobody. It was as if I’d forgotten how. The rules of social engagement were entirely lost to me – and I could tell that everybody knew it. How could they not? I radiated awkwardness. People could probably smell it on me like cheap aftershave. At one point, I took respite in a cubicle of the swanky hotel toilets for a full hour so nobody could see me, and – thank God – I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody.

That evening when my boss called to ask me how my day had gone, I confessed that it had not gone well and that I had been unable to bring myself to speak to anyone. The entire day had been a waste of time, and it was entirely my fault.

Surprisingly, my boss didn’t fire me. Instead he did something simple, but kind of brilliant. He set me a game.

‘Tomorrow, I want you to go back, and talk to ten people,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t have to be about work. It can be about anything. And when you’ve talked to ten people, you can go home.’

Weird, I thought. But I didn’t want to disappoint him any further, so I agreed to give it a go in the hopes that I could pull it off and at the very least get to go home early.

The next day of the conference came and things… felt different. I walked onto the exhibition floor and I held in my head my secret game. To win, all I had to do was talk to ten people. And I badly wanted to win. In the end I talked to ten people by lunch time. Countless others in the afternoon, and stayed for drinks in the evening. Deals were done. Money was made. Business cards were exchanged. And I won the game.

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It was a revelation. A simple game changed the rules of engagement to such an extent that I was able to overcome my anxiety and make a success of the conference.

Fast-forward ten years and I have gamed my way through more professional and social situations than I can count. High level meetings with company CEOs, office parties, career-making presentations, even job-interviews. Most would probably consider me professionally successful and I don’t think anybody who meets me now would think of me as shy or especially socially awkward.

Throw me into most social situations now and I do just fine. I might even be articulate, charming, or funny. Not because any of those things come naturally to me, they really don’t – sometimes I’m not sure I even have access to the standard rule book of social interaction – but it doesn’t seem to matter anymore, because I’m frequently playing a different game than everyone else in the room.

It works best when I have someone else create the game for me. Someone who, while they needn’t play along themselves, sets the rules and to whom I need to report back to at the end of the day. I’m lucky enough to have some good friends who ‘get it’, who understand that at times when I feel the most awkward, when I feel like I have the least control, a game gives me that control back.

I might have to slip an unusual word or phrase into the conversation, or try to find out someone’s favourite flavour of ice-cream. I might have to find out what fan club someone was a member of as a kid, or get a whole group of people debating crucial matters, such as their top three crisps (note – mini Cheddars are not a crisp), or the correct order of ingredients for a fried breakfast. Silly stuff, really.

The game itself doesn’t much matter – so long as it is kind, and that it isn’t at someone else’s expense. What’s important is that it is my game to play, and to win it I must play a role. I have to pretend to be charming, curious, irreverent and funny. And it just so happens that to the people I’m playing with, there’s not much difference in pretending to be those things, and actually being them.

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Try it. If you’re dreading giving a presentation, or going into a big works do, or meeting friends-of-friends at someone’s birthday party. Get someone you trust to set you a game or two. Sneak the word echidna into a conversation. Find out someone’s top three dinosaurs, or what they wanted to be when they were five years old. It’s surprising how people enjoy talking about weird stuff, and how rewarding you can find completing a simple game.

And if it works for you, if gaming helps to reduce your social anxiety, share it around. Set games for friends who are having a bad day, or for your team before that awful Tuesday meeting with the boss.

(Note: Yes I played a game writing this. Yes, I got the word ‘echidna’ into an article on Den of Geek.)