Mental illness / depression in the games industry – Vendela (Morgondag)

Playing games

Several months ago, I engaged in a deeply engrossing conversation with a renowned industry veteran on his past and present endeavors. However, what lingered was the admission of sadness, an element of guilt and shame at being left to face the music alone when the chips were down at one of his earlier startups. The feelings of isolation isn’t unique to anyone at the helm of any indie studio, startup or organization. It comes with the territory!

There have been numerous accounts of people choosing to move on or taking a step down from their profile roles as a result of the inability to handle the pressures that come with being the primary decision maker within the tech and startup scene, but what do we know about this industry of ours?

Partly inspired by a great feature on Techcrunch left me keen to learn more about our collective thoughts on mental illness and depression. What are our experiences? How do those at the top handle the pressures of running a studio or company and what can we learn from it?

This is the first in a series of short interviews with key industry people designed to shed some light on the issue and diffuse some of the stigma associated with openly talking about mental health issues.
First up is Vendela, who makes up one half of independent outfit – Morgondag!

Was the idea of running and managing your own studio ever an ambition and if so has it met your expectations?
Well, to create my own works has always been an ambition of mine. At a very young age I painted a lot, after that theatre came into my life, and when I was about 11 years old i began to write poems at a daily basis. When I was 19 years old I met Kim, and then I was pretty deep into theatre, working at Teater Tribunalen and Unga Klara, my ambition was to work as a director and playwright. And my goal was to be accepted to Dramatiska Högskolan here in Stockholm.

When Kim and I met we slowly begun to combine our skills, and to make games grew out from that, nothing either of us had done before. When i begun to make games I felt at home right away; and with that came the ambition of managing my own studio. I wanted to make my own games, tell my own stories, so running my own studio came very naturally for me. Right now, it’s the way I want to go. When we started up Morgondag, I didn’t have any expectations, I just did it because it felt like the right choice for me; working with my own projects.

And I’ve always been a jack of all trades, I want to do everything within a game process, managing marketing, make music, code, paint, design, write narrative and so on. That’s what i love the most of being an indie developer; being able to do so much stuff at the same time, I love it. And the feeling of creating something is the most content feeling ever.

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?
Sorry to say this, but my biggest challenge right now, is the financial stability, it’s the thing that stress me the most. Other than that the challenges are just fun ones. Without financial stability I can’t continue to work full time with my projects. A then time becomes a problem instead.

Also, a challenging thing can be to finish games. Especially if you have been working with them for years. The last part of balancing, and fixing bugs are the most time consuming, and can sometimes drain energy from you.

How do you cope with the pressures associated with your role?
I don’t take stuff too seriously. I always remember myself what’s important in life; happiness, friends and my family. And of course food…

How do you balance taking care of yourself and running a startup?
Vey well. I combine work with long walks and good food. Me and Kim are very good at taking breaks and doing nice things, like bike to the town and eat sushi in the grass by the water, laying in sun for a couple of hours, on a working day. Today we’re actually making cloudberry donuts, with vanilla and saffron, a time consuming thing when we’re in the middle of the marketing process of our game RymdResa that is released on Steam the 20th of August.

We allow us to take long breaks even in the most stressful situations. We enjoy doing undemanding things, like cooking together or go to the cinema, and always combines our workdays with stuff like that.

Planning is also very important. I set up milestones and goals when I work, and usually manage all the project planning through github. Sometimes I have a hard time quick working, that’s my biggest issue. Cause I love doing it so much. But if I work more than I should I usually do it under more relaxed circumstances. I love to listen to audio books or music, and paint, and feel very tranquil when doing so.

I also think it always should be fun to mange an own studio, if it isn’t – well then it it isn’t worth it, cause managing a studio of your own means a loot of work. I really try to care about my heart and soul, cause that makes me happy. So if I just want to sit and paint for a day, I just adapt my project plan to that.

Additionally, for me taking care of myself, often means I say no to things. Saying no often creates a greater balance, if you are a yes-sayer like I am.

Do you believe there is a stigma against mental illness in the game development community and if so how do you deal with it?
Of course. I believe that in an industry that is very achievement-oriented, mental illness is always a stigma. In the game industry you’re supposed to be an overachiever, people take pride in working more than 40 hours a week. They take pride in being a hard worker. In an atmosphere like that i believe it ’s very hard to talk about mental illness, because it doesn’t match well together with the crunching attitude. Unfortunately I think that crunching can lead to burnouts. And to not respect this, is just really stupid.

How I deal with it? Well, I don’t. I always try to be honest about my feelings towards crunching, and am not afraid of talking about mental illness.

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?
Yes I have.
My advise number one is to contact the health care! Seek help! To go and see psychologist can be really good, lots of people do, and its’s nice to have someone to talk to outside your area of acquaintanceship, that doesn’t know you at all. It’s also an enhancing experience, and you have a chance of learning much more about yourself. But mostly you can get tools to handle unmanageable situations.

It’s also important to open up to family and friends, not being afraid to, not being ashamed. To talk about feelings and pressure, and just have a shoulder to cry on helps a lot.

Moreover I believe it’s important to try to do nice social stuff, even though its hard, not just sit at home, and lock yourself in. Go out and be with people, friends and family, you don’t have to say much, you can just hang around. Explain your situation and they will understand.

I have friends both in the industry and outside that have, or are suffering from depression. I try to support them by talking to them, and listen, ask questions. I also urge them to seek help. Plan in nice things, go home to them, and don’t take no for an answer! Be there for them! They shouldn’t be alone with their thoughts.

What do you believe can be done to help address the issue of mental health and depression within the industry?
Foremost, if we want a healthy industry, we should crunch less. Awareness and not being afraid of talking about mental health is also important. The industry should come down to earth, and remind itself that the people working within it aren’t robots – yet.

Finally, what tips and feedback would you pass on to new entrants to the industry looking to manage studios and teams of their own?
To work and create stuff may seem like EVERYTHING, but it isn’t . Inspiration may be gained by creating at a daily basis, but as much as you need to create regularly you need to discover new things in life, be with your family, eat properly, taking long walks, watch movies and read books. Allow yourself to do other things than just work, it’s very important. And also, don’t be afraid to fail. You learn through failure. Also try to connect with others in the indie community, we can help each other a lot, and share experiences.

And get a cat, a developer cat!

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