Take This, a mental health nonprofit organization geared toward game developers, released a white paper today that describes the severe challenges that game makers face as they craft their art.

The paper notes the tough mental issues that come from crunch (unpaid overtime), online harassment, layoffs, and job instability. And it also looks at how game development companies can mitigate negative impacts and cultivate healthy, productive employees who can make great games.

Eve Crevoshay, executive director at Take This, said in an interview with GamesBeat that a lot of developers are aware of mental health problems, the press is publicizing it, companies care about addressing it, and society at larger is paying attention to mental health.

“It’s a moment, and what’s really exciting is we have clear interest from a number of companies,” Crevoshay said. “We are promoting a message of hope, empathy, and validation.”

When developers are subjected to internet hate from so-called fans or other haters, that can trigger mental health problems. That particular problem has seen a big increase in recent years, Crevoshay said.

Above: Eve Crevoshay is executive director of Take This.

Image Credit: Take This

“The question is when to step away from the internet and put as many barriers between you and the bad experience as possible,” she said. “You can acknowledge, but not engage. The more you feed the beast, the more they respond. But it’s important to know you are not the only person dealing with it. The more you solicit support, the better.”

Developers also need to ensure they have strong computer security, layers of protection for their personal information, and awareness of groups that help like the Fair Play Alliance.

With the growth of internet hate, it’s no wonder that game developers have special problems. But the overall population isn’t exactly better off. One in five people in the U.S. receive a mental illness diagnosis in a given year and as many as one in two receive a diagnosis in their lifetime, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

While Take This is laying the groundwork for more study, it isn’t reporting any findings just yet. That will come during the next year or so, Crevoshay said. But she noted it’s clear that some issues need special attention, such as better diversity and inclusion in the game industry.

In Take This’ ongoing efforts, the nonprofit has been exploring current trends in the industry and how they impact the mental health of game makers and the content found in games. In interviews with industry insiders and a close review of recent press on the industry, Take This has identified three themes, or areas of concern, within the industry as they relate to mental health safety and wellness: inclusion, instability, and public interaction of employees.

  • Instability – The overtime crunch hours, the stability of jobs, and lack of advancement opportunities has led to a workforce that greatly affects the mental health of its employees.
  • Inclusion – The slow move to inclusion and diversity in the games industry workforce has led to disconnects between the people who make games and the voices, experiences, and lives of people who play them.
  • Public Interaction of Employees – There are a number of risks and stressors that game makers face in their public interactions, from attacks as seen in “Gamergate” to more recent examples of employees experiencing negative interactions with consumers. In addition, negative public perception of the games industry that links violence and games or the newly classified game disorder can take a mental health toll on game makers.

To address the changes in the industry identified in this white paper, Take This has created a working group including human resources executives from developers that include Big Huge Games, Bungie, Certain Affinity, and Wooga.

Together these leaders will come together to determine best practices to meet the concerns highlighted in the Take This ‘State of the Industry’ white paper.

Mike Wilson is founding partner at Devolver Digital.

Above: Mike Wilson is founding partner at Devolver Digital.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

“For most of my career I have tried to champion game developers to ensure they were fiscally and ethically taken care of,” said Mike Wilson, cofounder of Devolver Digital and Good Shepherd Entertainment, two publishing companies who work with a multitude of independent studios globally. “Take This is bringing new attention to mental health concerns in this industry and it’s now time for employers to focus on and implement strategies to focus on these highly important issues as we strive to better the game industry as a whole.”

Russ Pitts, Susan Arendt, and Mark Kline started Take This in 2012 after the suicide of a game journalist. Over the years, it has ramped up its mission and is now operating on a budget of about $250,000 a year, Crevoshay said. It has two full-time staffers, several part-timers, and a number of volunteers, including clinicians that staff its AFK rooms at conventions such as PAX and the Game Developers Conference. Pitts left Take This earlier this year.

Take This was able to produce this white paper thanks to the donations it received in 2018, including those from Good Shepherd Entertainment, Devolver Digital, Xbox, and the Entertainment Software Association.

Monies raised also went to other Take This efforts, which included:

  • Launching the Take This Streaming Ambassadors program, which serves the frontline, grassroots innovators and motivators in Take This’ campaign against the stigma, hopelessness, and isolation commonly found when dealing with or discussing mental health issues in the game community. This year Take This Ambassadors put together a special “Take 10 Charity Steam” to fight mental health stigma and reached more than 6000 gamers during their streams and raising money for Take This.
  • Organizing and staffing its popular AFK Rooms – In 2018, Take This had more than 3000 attendees visit their AFK rooms at all PAX shows and E3. Take This AFK rooms offer a safe, calm and quiet space during busy and hectic game conventions. The AFK rooms are a place where gamers can get away from convention/expo craziness and, if needed, speak with professionals about mental health concerns and learn about mental health resources.
  • Reaching its Audience – During 2018, Take This moderated or took part in 25 panels to educate conference goers on topics including self-doubt, using RPGs as a therapeutic vehicle, and mental health in streaming, among others.

Industry support and research

Other groups that are helping with mental health issues in games are The International Game Summit on Mental Health Illness and Awareness, I Need Diverse Games, Checkpoint, Able Gamers, the International Game Developers Association, Microsoft, GDC, and PAX.

The IGDA reported that only a third of developers remain in the industry for 10 years or more. And it said that 53% of game developers report that “crunch” (working more than 40 hours per week over an extended period of time) is an expected component of their employment, with less than 18% reporting overtime compensation for exceeding 40 hours a week of work.

Crunch, which is related to burnout, is identified by emotional exhaustion, reduced personal accomplishment, and feelings of hopelessness. The average number of employers for game developers in a five year period is 2.2. Job instability is related to increased stress, work anxiety, and depression.

Take This said that to reduce burnout in the industry, management should minimize determinants, maximize protective factories, and begin to change industry cultural norms around work environment and work hours. While video games are a form of mainstream media, the industry lacks diversity and a sense of inclusion, the report said. In 2019, only 19% of respondents from a survey of game developers identified as female in the United States.

To keep the conversation going, Take This is encouraging those in the game development industry to share their stories on the topics covered in the white paper by posting their industry experiences with the #gameindustrystory on social media.