Games For Healing: Across The Board

Across the board, playing games for healing is proving to be a therapeutic activity in recovery, in particular at Aurora.

Strolling into the dining area at Aurora on a recent Thursday afternoon, you would have seen our member population gathered around tables in small groups. Individuals appeared to be focused on different interesting objects in front of them. The volume of conversation was on the subdued side, with the occasional joyous exclamation and laughter.

Piled on a table were boxes with colourful graphics and interesting names: Battle Sheep, Ticket To Ride, Dixit, Eye Sea, Clearing Coffins. Circulating amongst the groups were two distinguished gentlemen who are encouraging and guiding the group.

So, what was up? The day’s creative collaboration was with Olaf Pyttlik and Benoit Morham from Across The Board Game Café in Winnipeg. The intent of the games they brought with them allowed all the participants to access and operate from social, intellectual, emotional and spiritual parts of their being. A full afternoon of sober fun and Aurora community connection was the result.

The partnership with Across The Board has been in the works for a while. President Steve Low has been drawing from his extensive connections in the treatment community to provide innovative program opportunities to Aurora members. Not only lectures from recovery experts, but experiential activities as well.

In this case, staff and members both made connections with Olaf and Benoit. We saw lots of big smiles when it was reported Across The Board was in the house, and experiences were shared about enjoyable times at the café.

Olaf is a prominent member of Winnipeg’s creative community as a music composer and a producer for theatre, film and television. We gathered in the auditorium to hear Olaf share some background and learn about his love of playing board games.

He talked about his early years in Germany, and how he enjoyed playing board games as a child. The more traditional games such as Monopoly and Risk began to lose their allure and, luckily, game developers in Germany introduced a range of modern alternatives. He brought his collection when he moved to Canada.

Eleven years ago, Olaf was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a year of treatment that he experienced as difficult, isolating, painful and traumatic. He sunk into post-treatment depression, consumed by fear and plagued by obsessive thoughts.

For relief, he returned to his board games. “I was comforted by others’ presence. It provided a chance to open up and eventually converse about the difficult things,” Olaf said.

He also benefited from the tactile experience of handling physical objects.

“I own a recording studio, so use and enjoy my digital devices. But the games gave me something to touch, move around the board. It was a three-dimensional experience I so desperately needed at the time.”
The relief he felt provided the inspiration and motivation to open the café, and motivated his desire to bring the game’s experience to Aurora.

Unfortunately, symptoms of traumatic experiences can persist and continue to be debilitating. Along with depression, for Olaf, anxiety also reared its head.

“As those of you who suffer from anxiety may experience, there is one thought that keeps going and going, and there is no peace. I am a high-energy person, and also an emotional person, so I rely on games to give me a break. Contemplating my next move interrupted the fearful thought pattern and brought me some peace.”

Olaf’s next statements revealed much about the obvious empathy and compassion that we felt in his presence.

“During these years, I was also self-medicating with alcohol. I recognized it had become problematic and have not had a drink for a couple of years.”

“My experiences motivate me to share with you an alternative way to cope with some serious emotional challenges. Hopefully today you will get to experience some new dimensions to your relationships in Aurora and have some fun!”

On with the games! Members gathered around the tables to play Make n’ Break, Tsuro, Telestrations, Cardline Animals, Blank Slate, and many others. Benoit, Olaf, and Aurora staff spent the afternoon interacting with various groups of members scattered through the auditorium and cafeteria.

As is often the case when new activities are introduced, especially with our more introverted members, some members expressed reluctance early in the afternoon. As usually happens, the reluctant members end up being most engaged and often request repeat engagements.

Café staffer Benoit was asked his impressions as the afternoon was wrapping up.

“I think it went really well. One thing that surpassed my expectations was how into it everyone was. Any hesitation was immediately stripped away. I wasn’t sure if everyone would like it, or which selection of games to bring. Everyone was willing to learn and play. I am very impressed with everyone here.”

A poll amongst the members resulted in many positive comments.

“It was great, very enjoyable. We played four relatively quick games, it was a lot of fun,” said Scott.

Other members shared about how nice it was to interact with peers with whom they don’t get a chance to regularly associate. One game had eight participants, with focus that wasn’t so much competitive as collaborative. A member spoke about how he learned a new skill that he can take home with him and share with his family. Another member found that she got “out of her head” for a while, away from self-preoccupation. This mirrors Olaf’s experience.

The success of the Across The Board afternoon is a testament to the commitment to the recovery of our members and the community cohesiveness that is manifest at Aurora.

We look forward to our next visit from Olaf and Benoit, and all the fun and pleasure that results.