The Game Industry's Mental Health Crisis
Written by Shania Kuo
The game industry has been booming in 2020 with COVID-19 having run rampant in the first half of the year, leading to a half-year of quarantine. In the midst of this economic downturn, the video gaming industry has faced an upturn as more people got back into gaming now that many are staying at home. However, the financial success of the video game industry rides on the backs of overworked developers with few resources dedicated to helping them cope with their stress and mental illness. Although the topic of mental health is growing as a discussed topic, mental health is still treated as a stigmatized topic in part due to games that perpetuate stereotypes and misconceptions and also company cultures that have persisted.
Despite increasingly progressive discussions on mental illness in the game industry, the industry still reflects a backwards view of mental illness in the games they produce. In particular, the idea that mentally ill people are “crazy” and “dangerous” despite research showing that mentally ill people are more likely to harm themselves than others with 21%-44% of suicide victims having identified having mental health problems in a study by Swanson et al (370). In mainstream media, there is the However, Ferrari et al. wrote a paper in 2019, discussing messages about mental illness within video games. They found that 97% of games reviewed portrayed and perpetuated well-known stereotypes and prejudices associated with mental illness such as how the mentally ill are “violent, scary, insane, abnormal, incapable, unlikely to get well, isolated, and fearful” and that their mental illness are manifestations or consequences of supernatural or paranormal experiences (Ferrari et al. 8). These findings reflect commonly perceived notions held by society which can cause severe consequences in the form of stigma and stereotypes to those who have mental illness. These negative connotations prevent people from seeking help they need.
That being said, there have been growing attempts to combat the stigma of mental health in gaming. In recent years, mental health has become a bigger topic in the gaming world more than ever before. In May of 2020, Safe In Our World launched the #LevelUpMentalHealth global campaign in order to raise awareness about mental health in the gaming industry. Leo Zullo started Safe In Our World after a series of tragic events surrounding his loved ones regarding poor mental health. He wanted to do something he believed was meaningful and said that, “To reach gamers, you can go directly to the gamer, or you can go via the game companies, the publishers or the developers, and the service companies. You can get them to try and change their ways, and then the message to the gamers comes from the source. These developers can talk directly to consumers” (“Safe in Our World…”). Safe In Our World co-created an Employer’s Mental Health Toolkit with varying degrees of success from companies.
One other prominent non-profit organization is Take This who have been prominent in advocating for increased mental awareness in the game industry and the gaming community. Take This has published White Papers on mental health in the game industry as well as the negative consequences of crunch in the industry. Their 2019 State of the Industry reported that “Job stress, instability, and longevity are significant problems facing the games industry” and that “The public perception of games remains a potential secondary stressor for game developers” (Crevoshay et al. 2019). Beyond their papers and articles, Take This also has a more active involvement in interactions with the gaming community. At conferences such as PAX, Take This sets up their AFK Rooms which are quiet safe spaces that, according to Executive Director of Take This Shannon Gerritzen, “over 200 people visit their AFK Rooms on average, sometimes exceeding 500 per day at large events like PAX East” (Chan 2017).
While Take This has had many developer and media partnerships, their 2017 collaboration with Wired was the first time Take This worked with a publisher to specifically address mental health in a game. Leo Zullo who is Wired’s managing director and, as previously stated, the founder of Safe In Our World, believes there can be a right way to approach highly sensitive issues by focusing on the story and putting those topics in that context. According to Zullo, “In any game or movie or book, if any dark or repulsive actions are in context, treated with respect, and not just used for PR hype, then the end product will feel ‘right’” (Chan 2017).
Outside of third-party organizations, the advent of COVID-19 has caused some companies to move forward and confront the stigma of mental health. According to John Smedley, Studio Head of Amazon Game Studios, and Eve Crevoshay, Executive Director of Take This, finding someone to talk to is most of the battle with leadership opening up being the first step. After that, literacy of mental health needs to increase which Crevoshay hopes to help using video games, stating “If we have good representation of mental illness in games, then the very things we make help us to understand and describe our own experience” (“Mental wellness becomes…”).
While all of these steps forward should be acknowledged, the game industry still holds onto a culture that cultivates poor mental health and poor physical health by extension. Nathan Allen Ortega worked at Telltale Games as a community and video manager in 2015. Having been an avid fan of Telltale Games, he relocated to Texas to begin work but became so stressed that he developed an ulcer and started coughing up blood. According to Oretga, part of the problem would be last minute changes made by executives, and even though he was advised by his doctor and therapist to quit, Ortega stayed until Telltale laid off 25% of its staff including Ortega in 2017 before shutting down permanently in 2018. A former narrative designer at Telltale, Emily Grace stated there “There’s a belief in the games industry that working in it is a privilege, and that you should be willing to do whatever it takes to stay there” (Semuels 2019) which paints an important picture as to why people stay in the industry. While not all game companies are like this, a vast majority are. The Chief Executive of Rockstar Games which published Red Dead Redemption 2, bragged about how people worked 100-hour weeks to finish the game in time while another company, Activision Blizzard, cut 800 jobs even with a record 2018 revenue of $7.5 billion (Semuels 2019).
The interview with Rockstar’s Chief Executive is particularly problematic because of how he portrays these 100-hour weeks. He says, “we probably made 70 versions, but the editors may make several hundred. Sam and I will both make lots of suggestions, as will other members of the team” and that the result is “this seamless, natural-feeling experience in a world that appears real, an interactive homage to the American rural experience” (Goldberg 2018). This kind of portrayal glorifies crunch and reinforces the idea that for games to be as well-done as Red Dead Redemption 2, crunch is a necessity. This sentiment is not an uncommon one and Take This’s white paper on crunch reflects this, stating that “Some simply fall into crunch for lack of any better option. Development teams may fall behind, or deadlines and milestones may be set with unrealistic expectations” (Take This 4). Given the instability of the game industry even in high-earning companies such as Activision Blizzard, the extra hours of no compensation is extremely detrimental to the mental and physical health of developers.
This topic of Crunch only became a major talking point in the games industry in 2004 due to the EA spouse article which alleged that one EA game studio required employees to work a mandatory average of 85-hours per week without additional compensation (Take This 5). However, these crunch hours are only short-term actions that can’t solve the problems in a project because of crunch’s negative impact on productivity. A national Australian survey stated that employee cognition increased for hours worked up to 25 per week, but, afterwards, cognitive abilities decreased (Kajitani et al. 2016). In the U.S., fatigue-related productivity losses cost employers $1,967 per employee each year (Rosekind et al. 2010), and that depression costs U.S. employers $44 billion due to lost productivity (Stewart et al. 2003). Clearly overworking has huge detriments to employees, and yet companies continue to rely on crunch. While the EA spouse article introduced the scenario of company-mandated crunch, this is not always the case. Company-wide crunch can also result from the culture of the company where statements about those who crunch are harder-working are normal.
Compounding on the stress of developers are the fact that games are now connected to the internet which means that games studios are constantly trying to update and refresh existing games through “DLC” or downloadable content. These DLC are subject to changes as well since game studios can adjust their plans based on player’s feedback from release beta testing or preview footage, leading to more crunch (Semuels 2019). In the end, developers burn out and leave the game industry. This is extremely problematic since, according to the IGDA's Developer Satisfaction Survey from 2019, 62% of game developers saw themselves staying in the industry indefinitely (Weststar et al.). 31 participants of the 2019 IGDA’s Developer Satisfaction Survey reported unemployment, but 85% still wanted to come back showing that despite setbacks such as unemployment, developers still wanted to work in the games industry (Weststar et al.). Marie Dealessandri at gamesindustry.biz used a quote from Global Game Jam and Geogrify CEO Kate Edwards to describe why that is. According to Edwards, “They want to be in that industry basically for the rest of their lives. And that's very consistent with other people in creative media. A creative spirit is not something that retires, it's something that continues on and on. So you have these people who are incredibly passionate and they want to be doing this forever” (Dealessandri 2020).
Unfortunately, job instability is another huge factor that adds further stress to developers. According to the 2019 IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey, “Over two-thirds (68%) had had one or two employers in the past five years and over one-quarter (28%) had had three to five employers in the past five years” (Weststar et al.). All of this change which can include physical relocation adds a tremendous amount of stress to developers. In addition, 49% of developers feel that there is no clear road to job advancement which makes it harder to stay in the industry as time passes and personal motivation decreases (Dealessandri 2020).
The shift in what kinds of being made are also making it harder for game studios to keep their doors open. In the past, game companies would make dozens of games to try and make at least one game that brings in huge profits. However, in recent years, game companies have made the shift to making only a few games a year to get a big hit that will keep bringing people back. This emphasis has caused companies to consolidate operations and close down studios leading to layoffs (Semuels 2019). According to the managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities, Michael Pachter, EA cut its 49 titles to 10 titles and laid off 350 employees in March of 2019, and it is likely the cuts will continue (Semuels 2019). These huge cuts and consolidation of game studios lead to less jobs and more competition, increasing the amount of stress on developers.
Despite the growing amount of stress on developers, game studios have a track record of being uncaring towards the mental health needs of the developers. One particularly disturbing example of this would be the disregard towards the developers who worked on Mortal Kombat 11. One game developer (who asked to remain anonymous) came forward to Kotaku about his experience which ultimately left him with PTSD. At the game studio, the developer discussed how he and other developers at the office would watch extremely disturbing references, desensitizing them to the violence. The developer internalized his mental health as him being weak, stating, “You start to feel like an idiot for thinking about what the impact of working on that game has been on yourself. Other people I’ve talked to have been like, ‘I know what I’m working on, I know what I’ve gotten myself into here.’ And you start to blame yourself for being shitty or weak or spineless” (Rivera 2019). This internalization stems from the lack of support from the game studios, and, the developer also explained that there seemed to be no guidance for anyone who might need time from the violent content (Rivera 2019).
The disregard in the industry towards mental health may be more in the spotlight than several years ago, but there needs to be more solutions towards what the industries are doing. Solutions against layoffs have been unionization, and while that has always been a controversial topic in the past, there has been growing support in recent times with the GDC State of the Industry 2019 report stating that 73% answered “Yes” or “Maybe” (Dealessandri 2019). While this would not solve all the problems, it would allow workers one way to control their schedules and prevent overworking (Dealessandri 2019). There also needs to be leadership training among management for understanding the importance of mental health as their cooperation would ease the lives of developers tremendously. Once the leadership is sympathetic towards the plights of developers, advocacy of mental health issues becomes much easier. Third-parties can help educate, but ultimately companies need to make the choice to prevent mental illness stemming from the workplace.
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