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Gaming With a Foggy Brain

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Board games are great exercise for our brains. Playing board games has been shown (at least according to some studies) to prevent or slow cognitive decline. It’s a cognitively demanding hobby similar to reading, solving puzzles, playing music, or learning new languages that may offer protective benefits for the brain. That’s great and gives us all another reason to play more games!

But… What happens when you can’t play challenging games? And even simple games seem beyond you? We all have times in our lives when our brains don’t work so well. Thinking becomes like walking through sludge, memory is non-existent, and focus is… Squirrel! What was I saying? Oh, wait… 

The cause of such brain fog may be due to aging, or to something more transient like excessive stress, hormones (menopause, thyroid issues, and mommy/pregnancy brain can drop a big whammy on your cognitive abilities), medical treatments like chemotherapy, the side effects of various medications, vitamin deficiencies, lack of sleep, or other medical conditions. Whatever the cause, your brain just isn’t up to its usual snuff and board gaming becomes difficult and less fun. Bummer. 

While it may be tempting to just skip games altogether during these foggy times, there are things you can do to keep playing, having fun, and reaping those cognitive benefits. 

(Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. Neither did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. Needless to say, the advice presented here is not medical advice, only the advice of a board gamer who has dealt with some form of brain fog at various times in her life. If you think you need actual medical help, please consult a real physician.)

Play lighter fare. 

It may gall some hardcore gamers to even go down this road, but there are times when the choice becomes lighter games or no games. When your brain is fogged, you can’t concentrate on a game for hours, much less plot out a winning strategy. And if you try to crunch numbers or work through multiple victory conditions, you’ll probably end up frustrated or angry when your brain can’t do what you want it to do. But a light, fifteen or thirty minute game? You can probably manage that. If you’re still up to strategizing, there are some light games that cram a surprising amount of thinking into a small package. But there’s nothing wrong with playing super simple games, or party games, either. Play what you can handle and put the rest aside for now.

Play quick games, or games that can be paused and resumed later. 

You probably don’t want to get involved in something that will last for hours. A foggy brain just isn’t up to that kind of time requirement. Aim for something that can be finished quickly or, if you must go for a long game, pick something that can be “saved” and resumed later. That way, if you start getting frustrated you don’t have to quit altogether. Rather, you can put it away and finish it another time without losing progress. 

Stick with what you know. 

Times of brain fog are not the best times to learn new games. You might find it easier to stick with games you already know well. Don’t try to read through new rules, or pay attention to someone else’s teaching. Your brain likely can’t make sense of any of it. Just dig out your old, comfortable favorites and play those. Save the new shiny for another time. 

Go cooperative. 

If you’re not up to a lot of deep thinking, why not let others share the cognitive load? Play cooperative games where the input of others on your turn is encouraged. You should never be ashamed to ask for help, but co-op games remove some of the stigma of saying, “I don’t know,” or, “Help me figure this out.” 

Go solo. 

You can also play solo games. That way, it doesn’t matter what others are doing or thinking. You can go at your own pace. If you get frustrated and want to abandon the game, you’re not inconveniencing other players, either. 

Remove distractions. 

While you may be able to multitask during normal times, it’s tough to focus on even one thing, let alone two or three, when your brain is fogged up. Try removing all other distractions from the room and just play the game. Turn off the TV or radio, put the phones in a drawer, and ask that anyone not playing the game find somewhere else to be. 

Don’t buy a lot of new games. 

Buying games when your brain is impaired is a bad idea. Trust me on this one. I’ve regretted almost everything purchased during my brain’s dysfunctional periods. I’ve bought stuff hoping I’d like it later, but when later came, I didn’t like it. It’s tempting to buy and hope for better times, but you have no idea what you’ll like in six months or a year. 

If your problem is caused by passing conditions like hormones or treatable medical conditions, what will you you be interested in/capable of when the condition lifts? Heavy games? Light games? You have no idea. If your problem is caused by something more permanent, your future will likely change moment to moment. Again, you have no idea what course your brain will be on, so it’s pointless to buy for something that may or may not happen. Maybe buy one or two games if you just have to, but stick to something you know you can handle right now. Don’t buy for the future until you know what the future holds. 

Don’t beat yourself up. 

Don’t get all twisted up if you’re not playing as often as you once did (or at all), or if you’re not playing as skillfully. Don’t beat yourself up if some things simply seem beyond your abilities right now. It’s all okay. Remember that games are supposed to be fun and don’t get negative if things aren’t as easy as they used to be. Just enjoy the game and time with friends. 

Play with a group that understands. 

As always, don’t play with jerks. Play with people who just want to have fun and who aren’t ultra-competitive, impatient, or intolerant of mistakes or slow play. If you can find people who understand what you’re going through, so much the better. Maybe you can find a group of new parents, for example, or find some people with similar medical conditions. Or people of a similar age, if the problem is age-related. Playing with people who aren’t sensitive to your struggles (or who are just jerks) will only end in frustration for all involved. 

There are ways to keep enjoying board games during those times when your brain seems to have gone on hiatus. Even so, if you find yourself just not wanting to play at all, that’s fine, too. Play what you can handle and enjoy today and don’t worry about your gaming past or future. Most brain fogs lift with time and/or treatment and you may soon find yourself back to more challenging fare. And if not, well, it’s not the end of the world if you find yourself happy to play light games for the rest of your life. Games are games. Enjoy!

(Photo by Viktor Hanacek)

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

Discussion4 Comments

  1. I definitely feel this. We have games that we love that we haven’t played in years. We’re waiting to get to a point where we’re not dead on our feet the moment the kids go to bed. The most played games in our house are NOT games that we’d list as the best games we’ve ever played, but they are the games that are getting us through. The two standouts are Sushi Go and Kingdomino. It has given me a new appreciation for lighter fare, and has even affected the way I design games. I’ve realized that you don’t need ultra-cognitive decisions to have fun. Sometimes, the best thing you can do to a game is cut half of it away.

    • Jennifer Derrick

      Thanks for reading. I like your phrase “getting us through.” Sometimes that’s the best we can do, both in gaming and in life. (And thank you for designing games with less bloat! I wish more designers realized the wisdom of cutting half a game away!)

  2. Dr. Derrick,

    Thanks for this wonderful article! For years, I’ve been advocating that my mom, a stroke victim at 75, return to crossword puzzles. After a year and a half, I finally got her back to doing them on the computer. She confided in me during a recent trip that she sometimes has to look at the answers, to which I replied…you’re doing great!

    Like crossword puzzles, I’m a gaming evangelist, talking about the myriad benefits of gaming, especially for young (and even older) families:
    • Gets the family off the electronics
    • Promotes a sense of togetherness
    • Improves vocabulary and logic
    • Enhances interpersonal skills

    I hope to have the cognitive ability to play (and develop) games for many years to come.

    Cheers,
    Joe

    • Jennifer Derrick

      I only wish I were a real doctor (well, maybe not as I don’t like icky things), but thanks for the honorary title!

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