Mental illness / depression in the games industry – Anonymous Indie AD

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Acknowledging the existence of a problem is one thing, but having the courage to openly share the challenges faced is another. A feat that might be indicative of a wider issue within the industry and society as a whole. The next interview comes from a seasoned vet who simply wanted to be refrenced as an anonymous indie AD.

Was the idea of running and managing your own studio ever an ambition and if so has it met your expectations?
It was, I felt like it was the only way to get into the industry and have a healthy work ethic without crunching. And of course being able to work on projects I find meaningful. I think it has been more stressful than I ever could’ve imagined, myself and others in the team have had physical illnesses of our stress, and we still try to stick with 30 hour weeks. Regarding creative freedom I guess I take it for granted now, so I’ve never sat down and said “Yep, I’m free, feels great!”.

The merits and perks of overseeing a successful studio are well documented, however would you list as some of the challenges you’ve faced apart from financial and creative stability and autonomy?
Being a respectful and caring humans towards each other under extreme pressure. I feel that our worst sides come out at times of great stress. It’s hard sometimes to filter the good person you know exists inside of the very upset person you’ve before you. I think since we live in a harsh world with a cynical view of humans (at least in the globalised West) the pressure becomes extreme when money is involved, and by that I mean shares, that each feel they might not get enough for their work etc. Though, we’ve an egalitarian view that everyone should have the same pay, but even then people can grumble. In a world of scarcity and greed money changes everything sadly, even for us who are not really in it for the mountains of money.

How do you cope with the pressures associated with your role?
Being an art director is pleasant for the most time, but I think the biggest problem lies with being interrupted all the time. I want to be a craftsman and DO something from time to time, and it can feel depressing to have to put the work away and guide others. I guess I just have to think that the project is more successful if I help with the overall vision instead of getting lost in the details.

How do you balance taking care of yourself and running a start up?
I don’t, I still struggle. I think we all do. The hardest part with running your own business that is in essence totally ephemeral you’ve an extremely hard time putting your work down. Doing work off hours is just a click away, replying to customers, fixing something. Especially hard since there are weekend specific “press stunts” such as #ScreenshotSaturday and #SoundtrackSunday.

If you need the exposure you feel the pressure that you need to work on weekends even though you don’t want to. I think discipline is the key, and I’m struggling.

Do you believe there is a stigma against mental illness in the game development community and if so how do you deal with it?
I feel that there’s a sort of gung ho attitude towards indie development, which feels like a mix of the age old starving/suffering artist and the American Dream. So I wouldn’t say that the community doesn’t respect you if it is shown, just that the air is that of accepting the pain, so to speak. I think communities like TIGSource is very accommodating and supportive for the most part in the rare instances I’ve seen people open up about their hardships.

To the best of your knowledge have you ever met an industry colleague suffering depression and if so, what sort of advice or support did you provide?
A friend of mine with a few years experience in the AAA biz as well as in indie jokingly said that everyone that works in game development has some kind of mental problem. They took the job since they can’t do anything else in society. At first I thought he just reproduced the old basement dwelling nerd archetype. But I realized that I too would feel at a loss at a “normal” work place. As a game developer I can share a great community where people respect the odd, which I feel doesn’t come as natural in other parts of society (at least not in Sweden). Of course, I realize that it’s a skewed truth that comes from some privilege, not everyone is treated as equals in this industry. But I have a hard time imagining another place that would be as accepting to a gender queer person, for example.

But to get back to the question, I do feel that I’ve encountered a lot of people who struggle, myself included. And I do believe that the rate of depression is higher here than in other work places. I speak from a philosophical assumption of course and not with years of experience. But I feel it’s more welcome to people who feel out of touch with the rest of society due to a plethora of reasons. The question then lies in if it’s a problem with the industry or indie community or if depressed people are naturally coming here. Since I feel that it’s so common I can’t really go into specifics, I just think I’ve been supportive with “normal” stuff, such as fitting into a society you feel alienates you.

What do you believe can be done to help address the issue of mental health and depression within the industry?
I honestly don’t know, since I think it’s both a “problem” of the people who get into the industry might bring problems with them from the start and actual problems done here. Now I’m not blaming anything on people.

I’m simply speaking from my own situation that part of my own problems doesn’t really lie with the industry, but the stigma of being a sort of other in a society (or world) obsessed with homogeneity, perfection and black and white opinions.

I think as time goes by the industry will grow and more “normal people” (people accepted by the mainstream hegemony) will enter it, which I think will reduce the amount of people who are feeling depressed for being outsiders. Though, I think everyone in this world is strange, it’s just that most people do violence on themselves to fit in, some of us just can’t, or are too afraid.

But what I do know could help partly is to destroy the conception that quantity is better than quality. That crunch still seems to be a thing in this industry sickens me, and one of the reasons I chose to go indie. People need to realise that study after study shows that productivity goes up by having fewer working hours.

Of course making the industry more inclusive and diverse will also help with mental health, I don’t speak from my own experience since I feel it’s a good place that is getting better. But I realize that others with different bodies and opinions are not treated the same way. Though, in a sense I feel it’s a symptom of society at large and might be the hardest of them all to change independently of the rest of society. We should try our hardest of course, but I think eliminating crunch is a more unique struggle in our industry, for example.

I believe there are forces at play, think of a ship that is sinking. If I try to pump the water out it will just sip in from below again. Since we haven’t fixed the roots of our dysfunctional society we can’t fix the industry independently, it’s just a symptom. Though, sometimes the industry feels like a bubble, so maybe we can isolate ourselves from the bad core and create a better world before everyone else, who knows? I hope we can.

Finally, what tips and feedback would you pass on to new entrants to the industry looking to manage studios and teams of their own?
Don’t work too hard. Your health is your biggest treasure in life. Results don’t come just by slaving away, rest and reflection is as important as just getting it done. Do less and create more.

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