I love writing about silly topics on this blog; I covered history’s first recorded rage over a bad dice roll and whimsical folktales for Feywild campaigns, to name two. After all, what's a tabletop RPG session without a hearty amount of laughs? That said, there's a lot of potential to go deeper.

Recently, I've been inspired by stories from fellow StartPlaying Game Masters about the connections they've made through their games. I heard that one officiated a wedding for their players, while others strive to create safe spaces for people that otherwise have none. I got a taste of it myself when one of my groups traveled across the country to create 'SergCon.' In a world of increasing loneliness, TTRPG play is becoming a bastion of community. 

But let's back up: what is this "world of increasing loneliness" bit? Is there evidence or is it just hyperbole to get you to read more? It turns out that there is something called the Lonliness Epidemic. United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released a public advisory on the subject. Dr. Murthy wrote that "approximately half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness."

It wasn't just the isolation brought on by COVID, either. The advisory reports that adults were experiencing this distressing level of loneliness even before stay-at-home orders were put in place. Dr. Murthy goes as far as to call it a public health crisis.

Those who don't have sufficient relationships can be at a "29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults." That's on top of the more obvious mental health effects like increased chance of depression and anxiety. Unaddressed loneliness in childhood can have adverse effects on one’s adult life, showing that this Loneliness Epidemic has far-reaching consequences. 

Since you're reading a TTRPG blog, you probably see where this is going. Gathering on a regular basis to tell stories and roll math rocks is the opposite of being lonely. You're not just being with people, you're also becoming a team as you pursue a common goal. If you're playing a roleplay-heavy game, you’re sharing vulnerabilities as you show sides of yourself that you don't in everyday life. Even classic beer-and-pretzels D&D can be good for combating loneliness– everyone cheering when you hit that clutch crit is just as memorable as achieving a dramatic roleplay scene. 

It seems like a simple solution, at least for people who enjoy gaming: play games with friends, don't be lonely. That was well documented after COVID with Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Studies were done on how the game gave people a much-needed gathering place while they were stuck at home. People held a wedding in-game because their physical one was canceled. So why is this an article? Why didn’t we just post "Lonely? Come play a game!" on the StartPlaying Twitter account? 

There's one more piece of puzzle that complicates the situation: the increasing lack of Third Places. Third Places, as the name implies, are communal spaces that aren’t the office or home. Usually there’s a shared hobby involved as well, giving you a chance to make new friends or spend time with ones you already have. The energy is different from simply hanging out at home or swapping office gossip during a lunch break. In the Third Place, your deadlines and commitments are on pause. Out of sight, out of mind as you’re far away from the laundry machine or your manager's office. 

Unfortunately, Third Places are becoming an endangered species. Public spaces like parks and libraries are being hit by funding cuts in several US states. They are reducing hours to compensate, often taking away from the time working adults could spend there. The rising costs of, well, everything makes Third Places like bars or movie theaters less viable. 

Teenagers have it just as bad. Mall hangouts were a staple of ‘80s and ‘90s teen life; online shopping has made malls obsolete. Visit your local mall sometime and see if you’d want to spend hours there. 

I do have to give a shout out to the local game store. Many provide ample table space for a nominal fee. Some even host weekly organized play events, making it easy to drop in even if you don’t have a gaming group. Friendships have been made at the local D&D night for sure, making your LGS a great Third Place. 

The problem is that there aren’t enough gaming stores out there. People in rural areas are often out of luck when it comes to finding a hobby store within reasonable distance. There’s also the sad truth that not every game night event cultivates an inclusive atmosphere. Many women and POC players end up isolated or even harassed when playing with a table of total strangers. What's truly needed in a Third Place flexible enough to allow everyone to pick their time, cost, and who they’re gathering with. 

I have to admit: when I started running games through StartPlaying, it was just a quick gig. Like many others, I lost my job after COVID protocols ended and companies decided to cut costs after working us to the bone for a year. I needed money, I fancied myself a good DM, and I didn’t need to subject myself to a weeks-long interview process. What I didn’t expect to find was community. 

It turns out online TTRPG platforms are amazing Third Places. Through listing games on StartPlaying, I quickly learned how to attract the players that most enjoy my style. And, just as important, people that I enjoy playing with. As my Discord server expanded, I discovered I wasn’t just getting clients. I was making friends. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. When you have access to good search tools, you can find a digital Third Place. And as you share stories and conquer challenges in-game together, you build community. It worked for me; the quick gig is now a “SergVerse” full of fun people I never would’ve met otherwise.

It holds true beyond my experience as well. There’s the accounts of other StartPlaying GMs with their own vibrant communities. There's a scientific link between playing TTRPGs and mental health care. There's the many charity efforts and events like BigBadCon that create space for marginalized gamers. Everyone is welcome, and everyone has a great story to share. Thanks to the rise of TTRPG Third Places, everyone is finding ways to fight the Loneliness Epidemic.

Mar 8, 2024
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