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The most entertaining board games simulate life, and thereby teach its players valuable life lessons – think Monopoly™ (can you manage your money while navigating the real estate market?) and Life (you just lost your job and your third kid is on the way, what will you do?). Downward Spiral, a board game developed by American researchers at the Institute of Behavioural Research at Texas Christian University, simulates the life of an addict, and is marketed as an addendum to an addiction treatment programme; the game’s creators suggest using it to facilitate discussion between recovering addict and counsellor. But, do recovering addicts in addiction treatment programmes really need to roll the dice and flip over cards to understand and discuss the tragic consequences of substance abuse?

As a player in Downward Spiral, your objective is to retain your resources, both social and financial. The game, of course, is designed to make this difficult; by rolling dice participants move along a black board, hopping from one coloured square to the next, encountering the repercussions of drug abuse.

The Set Up

Each player is someone who has make the decision to continue abusing drugs. As a participant, you begin the game with money, a job, and three different kinds of points – health, social support and self concept – which you are subject to losing throughout play. Whilst moving around the board, players overturn cards, on which are written small blurbs about a player’s misconduct as a result of substance use. For instance, a card displayed on the board game’s website reads:

You get wasted at a party and offer people a ride to a bar. On the way to the bar you get pulled over by police and have to spend the night in jail. You lose your license.

The player must move his/her board game piece to jail, wherein there is the option of paying a large monetary fine to leave prison. On other ‘consequence cards,’ players may lose possessions or social favour, depending on the substance-induced action.

According to the instructions, the winner is the player who outlasts other players (in terms of resources) or enters an addiction treatment programme. Located toward the end of the spiral-shaped game route, drug recovery cards are indicated by smiley faces. Land on one of these before another player, and you are declared the winner.

The Problems

Downward Spiral raises obvious concerns. It is difficult to understand why a recovering addict, someone who has most likely experienced first-hand the events of long-term substance abuse, would respond to a ‘consequence card.’ Life, it seems, is more convincing than a board game.

Moreover, the makers write that they have used Downward Spiral with both recovering addicts and university-aged students, in the case of the latter with hopes of preventing substance abuse rather than as a means of drug recovery or intervention. This, to me, seems like a more feasible aim. For people who have never experienced the loss of a career or a loving relationship due to substance abuse, reading about these consequences may have an impact. But for those people who are recovering addicts, who are currently taking part in addiction treatment programmes, the raw and painful experiences are there – no simulation needed.

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