Mental Health and the Games Industry
Over the past few years there’s been an increase in awareness around mental health issues and the effects of our working life on mental health. The games industry is by no means exempt from this, in fact I’d argue we’re one of the industries that has the most to do to improve.
Since I joined the industry in the early 2000s I have worked with countless colleagues who quit or took extended leave as a direct result of burnout, or physical conditions bought on by stress (in one case a twenty-something had to change roles because the stress levels in his job were giving him heart problems).
People taking their own lives is not completely uncommon in the games industry either. I myself have worked at two studios where it occured.
Why the Games Industry is Vulnerable to these Problems
Work/Life Balance: The pressure and hours at some studios can be extreme. Some AAA projects require staff to work 70+ hour weeks for months and sometimes years at a time. Lacking sleep, living on a bad diet, not seeing loved ones, and not getting any exercise will all take their toll eventually.
Always On: Some studios have an “always on” culture where managers are expected to be accountable for results not on a quarterly, or monthly basis, but daily. This means managers can *never* switch off. If Sunday goes badly for your online game, you’ll be expected to explain why on Monday morning. Hence, the manager never feels they can take a day off, and this naturally makes it way down to the manager’s reports.
I experienced this many years ago. I’d be constantly refreshing the revenue numbers throughout the weekend and while I was on holiday because I knew I’d have to come explain myself immediately if things didn’t go well. This meant I could never take time off or rest.
Toxic Culture: There are still places where a “brogrammer” culture exists and staff don’t feel they can speak up about their feelings or their struggles. In these environments anyone speaking up risks being labelled as “unstable” (thus affecting their prospects) or being mocked for being weak.
Game Devs as Public Punchbags: The abuse dished out to developers on social media and forums is not acceptable. A toxic minority of gamers seem to think Game Developers are a punchbag they can vent at publicly. Ultimately, these are still people with feelings just like anyone else. Not everyone can look at the abuse someone has posted about them and just shrug it off. Making the dev feel shitty about their work and themselves is probably not the best way to argue your case.*
*In my experience, the people who are most toxic also tend to be the people who have invested the most in the game. If you take just a cursory look at Steam, you’ll see the worst reviews coming from people who have played 100s of hours of a game they profess to “hate”.
I have worked on teams which have been on the receiving end of abuse from a vocal minority of fans. Some team members were so affected that they refused to be involved in any videos or promotional materials for the team as they didn’t appreciate having offensive videos/memes being made about them, or receiving abuse on their personal social media accounts.
What can we do?
As an industry we can do much better than this.
As someone who has battled depression and anxiety at different points in their life, and who now runs a studio, these are the things I believe any studio can to do help:
- Don’t include overtime as part of your planning: With any complex project, things will not always go according to plan and often take longer than expected. If you start a project already assuming that people are going to have to work overtime, it’s almost certain that things will end up going badly wrong. Sometimes it might be necessary to push a few extra hours to hit a deadline, but this should only be a last resort and only used for a short period of time. Never for months a time, and the moment it’s not required, it should stop.*
*An indicator of poor work/life balance is whether a company refers to overtime as “OT”. If overtime is so common in the company that it’s referred to via shorthand, then the company usually has a problem.
- When they’re offline, they’re offline: People shouldn’t be checking their mails or Slack if they’re on holiday or sick. Let them rest. If we catch someone logging in while they’re supposed to be on leave, we tell them to go away! We’ve even been known to temporarily suspend the Slack access of repeat offenders until their leave is over.
- Private discussions need to be respected: I once worked at an organisation where the content of private 1:1 discussions between managers and reports were later weaponised against the reports. If employees don’t feel safe speaking honestly in 1:1 meetings, then there is nothing you can do to fix your culture.
- Be honest about your team culture: If you tolerate brilliant jerks or bullies because they’re “effective” or hard to replace, the rest of your org will suffer and it will eventually inflict much greater costs on your studio. At Mighty Bear we’re firm believers in the notion that the people you promote and reward are your culture.
- Be empathetic and open: If people are having a hard time, make sure they’re aware that the leadership cares and can be spoken to. An apathetic culture helps no-one.
- Let people know it’s OK to not feel OK: Create an environment where people feel they can safely tell their managers if they’re not doing well. Most managers check-in with their staff regularly and have 1:1s (and if you’re not then that may point to a bigger problem in your org). Asking someone how they’re doing and taking a genuine interest in their life during 1:1s can go some way to creating an environment where people feel they can speak up. At least then the company will be aware and able to provide the best support it can.
- Make it easy for people to get help: Offer support for counselling/therapy. I can personally speak to the huge benefits of speaking to a trained professional and getting a perspective on whatever it is you’re struggling with. Studios will happily spend tens of thousands on training or stocking their pantry, but won’t spend a few hundred dollars to ensure their staff can function at work. This is completely backwards. Mighty Bear is piloting a scheme where we will provide financial support for counselling.* We haven’t figured it out yet but it’s a step forward.
*I get that some smaller studios can’t afford this. If so, try and put a deal in place with a counsellor in your town to make it easier for your staff. You’d be amazed how many business will give studios a group discount or some other special treatment if you just ask. Let staff know you care and will provide as much support as you can.
As Studio Leads we have a duty of care to the people who work with us. Without them, there are no games, no users, and no revenue. This should be self-evident but the industry does not do a good enough job of recognising this.
When I was growing up, gaming was a safe space where I could retreat and escape the “black dog” of depression. Now, we need to make gaming a safe space for those who work in it too. Staff need to feel they can speak up, and we have a duty to provide them with the help they need when they do. Life is too precious not to.