Game Development Studios Care About The Mental Health Of Their Staff…. When It Brings Money.

Recently, some members of the Royal Family: Harry, William and Kate, were wheeled out to talk about the importance of good mental health. In the backdrop of devastating cuts to the mental health services by the current Conservative government, increasing reliance on charities and a further push of austerity policies, this royal intervention felt self-gratuitous, vacuous and almost insulting. I was sad to find a games industry equivalent emerging.

I promise I had put my cynical hat away when I began reading this article defiantly calling for more discussions about mental health in the games industry practices. At the beginning of the piece, the author does a great job in illustrating the stressful environment workers of many games studios are experiencing, how detrimental such work ethic can be and to what extent the crisis of mental health in the games sector is still kept under wraps. 
‘The brain fogging confusion, the rapid over breathing, the dry retching, that bloody pounding heart. The screwed-up sleep, the agitation, the constant worry, the self-frustration, the low-mood troughs that went deeper every day, the just wishing it was all over.’ — Mr Eddy explains. This is the reality for many people working in games studios during so-called ‘crunch time’ — the period just before a game is released.

The article outlines the effort by studios such as Jagex, who are collaborating with a mental health charity MIND, to provide support and advice to their staff. In practice, this involves a facilitation of discussions and workshops, ‘quiet space’ for the workers and a set of resources on the company’s Intranet.

It was at this point that the author started explaining that the true reason why it’s a good idea that games companies should be more interested in their workers mental health is, well, money. ‘To boil it down to pounds and dollars, try Happiness Works’ calculator, which estimates a business of 100 happy people could be boosted by over £200,000 every year from a decrease in absenteeism, staff turnover, and increased productivity.’ - the article claims. To translate this for you: ‘We will show token signs of mental health support to oil up our workers better and squeeze more shiny dollars out of them’. The reason I am drawing such harsh conclusions is that the managers of companies like Jagex have a twisted understanding of a what it is that causes mental health breakdowns. To borrow the words of Eleanor Penny: ‘The practises of modern work necessarily leech off our mental health, as the relentless march towards increasingly precarious, affective and badly-remunerated labour is — according to the ruthless logic of neo-liberalism — essential to maintaining profit margins.’ In other words — capitalism will, by definition, reproduce ill mental health. As inequality grows, but our social conditioning insists that ‘only if we worked that little bit harder…’, it is no surprise that so many of us are on a brink of self-destruction due to ‘unachieved' ambitions. In a workplace, more than anywhere else, admitting failure is simply frowned upon — a tendency particularly evident in such a competitive industry as video game development.

The million dollar question is, of course: ‘What is the route towards abolishing neo-liberalism and globally adopting Fully-Automated Luxury Communism, where work is done for pleasure and not by necessity?’

However, until we arrive to that glorious point allow me to highlight just a few techniques a company could endorse to imminently provide a lasting, structural mental health support for their workers and society at large:

• Book transport, pay a day’s work and offer food expenses for your staff to attend an anti-austerity protest! Campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts, for instance, have done some incredibly inspiring direct action work and is always worth giving a shout to!

• A radical idea: employ more staff so that the stress of crunch time is more equally distributed. Invest more time in pre-planning the release so that crunch-time is a lot better managed hence reducing stress.

•Improve internal policies so that the staff would be under reduced threat of being fired. Often that lurking fear is what dramatically induces anxiety.

• Release a statement condemning the 8% cuts implemented by the Conservative Party to the mental health departments across the National Health Service.

• Create company ethics of no overtime, generous sick pay, holiday pay, pensions and a more horizontal decision making process.

• DO NOT associate yourself with MIND charity! MIND maintains close links to the Department of Work & Pensions which is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people with disabilities, who were suddenly found ‘fit for work’ under the Conservative government. Activists point out that MIND made no mention of welfare reform, sanctions, or benefit-related deaths in its latest five-year strategy

No one wants to be defined by the state of their mental health. This is why simply ‘allowing these discussions in the company’ is never going to achieve lasting change. It is only by dismantling the climate of insecurity, goal-chasing and competition will these firms achieve a more balanced workplace environment.

By outsourcing its commitments toward improving the well-being of its staff to a questionable charity and not implementing any substantial changes, Jagex and other companies with similar policies are simply putting a cynical plaster on a gaping wound of our workplace, social and economic relations. The games industry could be better than that, or at least I hope so.