The Anxious Gamer: Friendships, Gaming Groups and Being Left Out

[CW: anxiety, rejection]

This is a pretty fraught subject for me. I hate being left out or pushed to the edges of something, and it stems from a deep and abiding fear that if I’m not defined by other people, I’m not defined at all. Like, if they ignore me, I’ll just vanish. It’s a deep-ingrained anxiety, and it’s hard to shake. For me, there are a number of ways this can be exacerbated by gaming, but the commonest and most awkward one is when I feel that people have deliberately excluded me from a game that I’m enthusiastic about, or my partner is included in. I have a very strong reaction to that, and I even have a milder reaction to not being invited to games I’m not actually that interested in. It’s led to me pushing myself into groups in ways that make looking back at the experience uncomfortable. Ironically, that very act of pushing my way in has left me feeling like an outsider in a group that I really and truly want to feel comfortable with – some treacherous part of my brain is always saying that they only included me after I bullied my way in and that they would much rather I left. Rationally, I know that group would be honest with me if that were the case, but I know I behaved somewhat badly in pressuring them to include me, so it just adds weight to my fear of being rejected by them. I also know that they didn’t intend to exclude me or hurt me, but that doesn’t stop the emotional reaction.

left out

Choosing who you have in a game is such an emotionally weighted decision. There are lots of things to take into account, even more so when you’re an anxious gamer. You need to game with people you feel safe and comfortable with, doubly so if you’re the GM and you need to negotiate potential clashes of personality. You’ll often want known quantities, people you’ve already gamed with. There might be subjects, games or genres you’re more keen on sharing with some people than others. Maybe there are practical considerations: you can only run on one evening that you know isn’t convenient for everyone, or you want to hold the game at your house or another location you know some people will have difficulty accessing for mobility or transport reasons. Or you could even know you want to include one person and thereby be forced to exclude another or risk out of character emotional tension damaging the group atmosphere. You might like someone a great deal personally, have fantastic conversations and care about them deeply, but not want to game with them (either because of an issue you or they have or just a simple clash of styles). It could even be that you always game with the same group of people and want to try with some others.

Plenty of difficult factors to take into account already, and then you also have to think about whether someone will be hurt about not being invited or whether it’s rude to, say, invite one person in a relationship and not another. In an ideal world, your players would get over it and understand these factors. They would see the bigger picture and not respond emotionally. This is totally not an ideal world, and so there is a risk of hurt feelings making things complicated. As someone who has been on both sides of this, it’s not OK to villainise either one – saying someone is ‘rude’ or ‘insensitive’ not to include a player or saying someone is ‘oversensitive’ or ‘taking it too personally’ are unhelpful ways to address the situation. Everyone has the right to choose who they game and spend time with, and people can’t always help how their deep-seated reactions affect their emotional landscape.

So how do you deal with this? I haven’t ever found a good answer, honestly. Some do it by keeping a game low-key and only talking to those they want directly involved, but inevitably something slips out, plus it puts pressure on those involved to not talk about it. Others are unguarded and invite on a first come first serve basis – which is fine for them, but I can’t do that, and it’s also been a real shame from time to time that I’ve missed out on a game I would really enjoy just because I wasn’t at x party or y social gathering. Plus this can be very difficult to judge: we’ve all been in the situation where someone has casually mentioned “I’m thinking of running this” and then everyone leaps at the idea, only for the awkward silence before the potential GM has to explain that someone in the room isn’t invited. We’ve also all been in the situation where you have to explain to someone that their partner isn’t in fact invited to the game and make it so that person has to make a choice, especially if their partner is likely to feel hurt by exclusion.

I think some of it can be addressed by anxious GMs thinking hard about who they want in their game and why, and who they don’t and why not, and then being tactful about approaching the subject. Frankly, I tend to prefer this anyway, as I think this kind of reflection makes better groups over all, but I’m aware it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Being sensitive about the potential tensions in relationships or if you know someone finds these situations emotionally problematic. And then, on the other side of it, accepting that some people might feel hurt by this, but you’re not responsible for their feelings if you’ve taken all reasonable steps to be polite and sensitive.

From the perspective of players: I’m still definitely not past this myself yet, so I’m a bit of a hypocrite to be giving advice, but what I try hard to do is take a deep breath rather than reacting straight away, and think about reasons why they didn’t invite me to be part of the game. Honestly, with me a huge reason is usually that I love to complain (in like a not-really-complaining kind of way) about how busy I am and how many games I’m in. So, actually, they’re trying to be sensitive to my stress levels by not asking me!

The fact that they didn’t invite you doesn’t reflect on your friendship or on you. It’s not because you’re a horrible person, and it’s not because people are only pretending to be your friends. It also comes down to this: you do not have a right to be involved in everything your friends do with each other. I never cottoned onto this when I was a kid, which is probably one reason why I have such issues with rejection now. To me, my friends going off and doing something without me was a sign that I was being excluded, which played into my huge self-esteem issues. Now I can recognise that it’s actually healthy to spend time apart, to have a range of relationship dynamics. I wish I’d internalised that earlier in my life, not just for my friendships but my romantic relationships too. So, on some level, a sense of entitlement to all your friends’ time is not going to help you here. You can’t just wish that away, but recognising that you don’t have to be in every single game and that not being invited isn’t a slight is a huge help. Still working on it myself, but I’ve noticed that being aware of this stuff has improved my reactions to it a lot over the past few years.

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