State of the Industry 2019:
Mental Health in the Game Industry
A Whitepaper by
Primary Authors: Eve Crevoshay1, Sarah Hays1, Rachel Kowert1, Raffael
Boccamazzo1, Kelli Dunlap2
Contributing Authors: Jane Cocks3, Ryan Skimmons5, Carly Kocurek6, Jay
VanDenBogaard4, & Lisa Rogers
Thank you to the following individuals for your efforts in helping us shape
the paper and identify our areas of focus: David Edery, Kate Edwards, Susan
Lusty, Lori Mezoff, Anna DiNoto Meyers, Lucien Parsons, Mathilde Pignole,
and Christian Svensson. Your generosity of time and expertise has been
deeply appreciated and keenly felt.
1Take This; 2iThrive Games; 3University of the Sunshine Coast; 4Oregon State
University; 5Community Behavioral Health
This paper discusses specic industry trends that have negatively impacted
the mental health of its employees and leaders.
Job stress, instability, and longevity are signicant problems facing the
• Game development has become a career path that frequently demands
long hours and lacks job stability and clear career trajectories.
• Only one-third of developers remain in the industry for 10 years or
• 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 identied by emotional
exhaustion, reduced personal accomplishment, and feelings of
• The average number of employers for game developers in a ve year
period is 2.2.
• Job instability is related to increased stress, work anxiety, and
• 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.
• In 2019, only 19% of respondents from a survey of game developers
identied as female in the United States.
• In the same survey, only 32% of respondents did not identify as
Caucasian or European.
• A lack of representation has likely contributed to hostile and
challenging work experiences for game developers.
• A lack of diversity, inclusion, and representation may also be
contributing to a cyclical model of exclusion in video game content
and culture. Greater diversity in the workforce would provide
opportunities to challenge norms in the work environment and in
game content (Shaw, 2014).
• To increase diversity, companies should adopt new hiring practices
and listen to the feedback from marginalized groups in the industry
to support retention.
The public perception of games remains a potential secondary stressor
for game developers.
• There are growing concerns over mental health stressors related
to how individuals and companies navigate online harassment and
provide support and/or validation to their employees and fans (Van
Zoonen et. al., 2016; Farokhmanesh, 2018).
• The research underpinning the beliefs that violent video game
content has detrimental effects on its players is problematic at best,
lled with questionable research practices, media sensationalization,
and false equivalence (Coulson & Ferguson, 2016; Ferguson, 2007;
Przybylski & Weinstein, 2019).
• Mental health professionals have voiced concern over problematic
gaming among extreme players. While the WHO added Gaming
Disorder and Hazaderous Gaming to the new edition of the ICD in
2019 (Park, 2019), the current state of research does not fully support
gaming addiction as an independent clinical disorder (Aarseth, et al.,
Take This is leading the charge to normalize the conversation about
mental health inside the gaming industry.
Understanding mental health challenges as normal and providing
support for them are essential to creating a work culture that embraces
diversity, fully supports people who make games, and recognizes that
mentally well people are better, more productive members of a workforce.
Good models for addressing these norms and practices do exist
throughout the industry. Many fantastic game companies are focused
on various aspects of mental health and employee wellness. We hope
to learn from the following examples (among others) over the coming
• Big Huge Games’ low-crunch, high-diversity work environment
• Ubisoft’s no-layoff model
• Certain Afnity’s no-layoff model
• Wooga’s top-down focus on mental health
• Bungie’s focus on diversity
• Microsoft’s focus on work-life balance, player safety, and inclusion
Take This is a non-prot dedicated to decreasing stigma and increasing
support for mental health in the game enthusiast community and inside the
game industry. As a mental health organization in the games space, Take
This is in the unique position of being able to both celebrate games and
the people who make them while also critically evaluating how industry
practices and norms can make it difcult for people who make games to be
Mental health challenges affect many people. One-in-ve people in the U.S.
receive a mental illness diagnosis in a given year and as many as one-in-
two people receive a diagnosis in their lifetime (National Institute of Mental
Health, n.d.). The cost of mental illness is gargantuan. Current healthcare
spending on mental health exceeded 213 billion in 2018 and is projected to
continue growing (Statista, 2019). Take This has taken the last few months
to understand current workplace trends in the industry and how they impact
the mental health of game developers.
These trends include job instability and workplace stress, such as a
dependence on “crunch” practices and harassment. The former has been
making headlines since late last year, when an article from gamesindustry.
biz outlined the 2017-18 layoffs industry-wide - a list that has only grown
since. The latter has been in the news more recently, but began entering the
public discourse in 2018 when Kotaku’s Cecilia D’Anastasio broke a story
revealing that Riot Games, one of the largest game makers in the industry,
centers its company’s core practices around the concept of a “core gamer,”
which is a traditionally exclusionary term used to identify white male gamers
ages 18-34. Online harassment is a pervasive and constant source of stress
for those in the game industry and game communities, so widespread as to
be difcult to quantify. These are only a few of the distinct challenges facing
the industry and have serious implications for the mental wellbeing of game
industry workers (Chironis, 2019).
Through a close review of recent press on the industry, scientic literature
on workplace mental wellness, and a series of interviews with game industry
professionals, Take This has identied three areas of broad concern:
Lack of job stability and longevity
Lack of diversity and inclusion
The public perception of games
In this white paper, we will discuss these three specic industry trends and
how they negatively impact the mental health of employees, from interns to
leadership. As an initial exploration of these issues, this paper is intended
to 1) be the beginning of a conversation that the industry needs to have in
order to do its best work, and 2) recognize the great passion and creativity
that fuels developers to make great games.
This paper, is the start of an ongoing initiative to partner with industry leaders,
game studios, and publishers to cultivate positive work environments and
support the physical, social, and psychological wellness of employees. This
initiative aims to:
1. Create a strong business case for addressing mental health in the
2. Better understand the mental health risk factors involved in making
3. Conduct original, high-quality research on specic mental health
challenges within the game industry.
I think that everyone invests a lot in their work, but I think that
game developers do so much. I think that game developers
see being a game developer as their identity and they are very
attached to their projects, which can make issues at their job - poor
development, poor reception of their work - really hit hard. I think
that people in the game industry so often suer from impostor
syndrome. I just think that such a group of passionate people
that are working on really complex art when it comes down to it,
there’s a lot of chance to be hit by some hard blows, and I think
that’s a huge struggle (Take This, 2018).
Stress in the Workplace
Stress is the body’s natural response when demands exceed one’s ability
to manage them. Our physiological and psychological responses to stress,
such as producing adrenaline, becoming hyper-aware, and feeling tense or
anxious, are survival mechanisms designed to help keep us alive. In the short
term, stress is mostly harmless and can even be benecial. Maintaining the
balance between demands and one’s ability to meet them is called allostasis.
Allostasis, similarly to “homeostasis,” refers to the psychophysiological
(physical and psychological) processes in place allowing individuals to
remain stable through change. That is, how well individuals adapt to their
environment. While homeostasis refers to the regulation of our internal
biological processes and states (e.g. temperature), allostasis refers to the
regulation and adaptation of an individual’s psychophysiology within the
context of their ever-changing environment (Goldstein & McEwen, 2002).
While allostasis represents regulation and adaptation, allostatic load
represents the cumulative psychophysiological burden in response
to external stressors, which can ultimately lead to dysregulation and
dysfunction. Allostatic load is effectively physical and psychological wear
and tear. This wear and tear happens as a consequence of ongoing exposure
to stress-inducing stimuli, along with individual psychophysiological and
behavioral responses to that stress.
Initially, our psychophysiological systems adapt to accommodate short-
term stressors. Stress that is chronic or maintained over a long period of
time, however, has a deleterious effect on lifelong psychological and physical
health. As explained by McEwen (2006):
“It is not just the dramatic stressful events that exact their toll,
but rather the many events of daily life that elevate and sustain
activities of physiological systems and cause sleep deprivation,
overeating, and other health-damaging behaviors, producing the
feeling of being ‘stressed out’” (p. 367).
Some of the key systems involved in allostatic load are elevated sympathetic
nervous system activity (commonly known as ght-ight response), which
increases cortisol and norepinephrine, elevating your heart and breathing
rates to enable fast action in the face of threat (see Figure 1). Additionally,
increased allostatic load dampens the parasympathetic nervous system
response (this is the calming response after the ght-ight response), which
normally slows heart rate and restores critical biological processes such as
sleep and digestion (Goldstein & McEwen, 2002).
Over time, increases in sympathetic activity alongside decreases in
parasympathetic activity dysregulated from an adaptive baseline to a
heightened pattern of physiological reactivity (see Figure 2). This can then
permanently impact multiple systems such as cortisol & insulin regulation,
cardiovascular health, cognitive functioning, and mental health and
wellbeing (Goldstein & McEwen, 2002).
Figure 1. The effects of chronic stress according to McEwen, 2006.
In other words, chronic stress can have signicant, life-long negative
impacts on a person’s well-being including an increased risk for heart
disease, a depressed immune system, exacerbation of existing mental health
symptoms, and development of new or additional mental illnesses (i.e.
depression, anxiety, etc.; Marioti, 2015).
Not only is chronic stress in the workplace bad for employees, it’s ultimately
bad for a business’ bottom line. Prolonged exposure to stress can cause
mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety to develop or
worsen existing mental health challenges. Depression is the #1 cause of
disability worldwide (WHO, 2018). Collectively, employees miss 68 million
work days each year due to depression alone which equates to $23 billion
in lost productivity (Witters, Liu, & Agrawal, 2013). The vast majority of
mental health challenges can be effectively addressed through appropriate
mental health intervention and more than 80% of employees who receive
mental health treatment report improvement in job satisfaction and work
efcacy (Center for Workplace Mental Health, 2019). Furthermore, business
costs incurred due to absenteeism and presenteeism (being physically but
not mentally present) are four times greater than the average cost of mental
health treatment (Shaw Mind Foundation, n.d.). Treatment is also far more
cost-effective compared to replacing a current employee which can cost
from 50%-60% of an employee’s annual salary in direct costs to 90%-200%
of that same salary in indirect costs (Allen, n.d.).
Special Stressors in the Games Industry
The game industry is neither unique nor wholly the same as other creative,
hit-driven industries. As a relatively new form of entertainment, in some
ways it is still nding its footing. That said, games are a rapidly expanding,
multi-billion-dollar industry rmly established as a cultural force. With
these contradictions in mind, this section examines four particularly
troubling attributes common (though not universal) in the industry: crunch,
job instability, job loss, and job-related uncertainty. As noted by Harvey et
al (2017), these stressors appear to contribute to negative mental health
“Based on a systematic search, 12 work-related risk factors were
identied with reasonable levels of evidence for an association
with increased rates of common mental health problems; high
job demand, low job control, low workplace social support,
ERI [effort–reward imbalance], low organizational procedural
justice, low organizational relational justice, organizational
change, job insecurity, temporary employment status, atypical
working hours, bullying and role stress.” (7)
For each stressor, we examine existing research and identify suggested
modications to game development workplace norms. Additional stressors
that relate to public perception and interaction (including online harassment)
are covered separately in the section entitled “Public Perception of Games
and Game Makers.”
Crunch in the Games Industry
The term “crunch” has long been used within and about the games industry.
Industry articles with hot headlines such as “The human toll of ‘crunch time”
(Arguello, 2018), “More And More Game Makers Are Talking About Crunch”
(Schreier, 2018), and “What will be left of the people who make our games?”
(Cross, 2018) are published each week, creating more visibility in which to
examine and challenge the ingrained culture of crunch that seems to be
widespread throughout the games industry. Some assert that the shifting
landscape of games that require more frequent updates has only intensied
this problematic practice (Macgregor, 2019). Take This published its rst
white paper on the topic of crunch in 2016 (Take This, 2016), noting that
long periods of overwork have negative impacts on both individual health
and workplace productivity.
What is Crunch?
Crunch refers to the practice of working long hours, beyond the traditional
40-hour working week, consistently for extended periods of time (Take This,
2016). As outlined in our previous report (see Take This, 2016), crunch can
be either mandatory or insinuated through cultural norms in order to meet
It is important to distinguish between these types of crunch, because long-
term cultural crunch is actually a symptom of a toxic organizational culture.
This implied expectation relies
on power imbalances and
disregard for employee health
to create a false equivalence
between “passion” and work
hours. Therefore, this is the
Long-term cultural crunch
is a symptom of a toxic
type of crunch with which we are concerned.
Crunch “is a result of feature creep, design iteration, poor planning or, most
commonly, an all-or-nothing approach to design, which is often mandated
from the top down” (Dring, 2018). Poor project organization by leadership at
the start can lead to a nal push for crunch at the end to meet the demand
and competition (Schreier, 2019). Examples of crunch within the industry
include “100-hour working weeks” (Arguello, 2018), working for “nearly four
months without taking a day off,” and pulling a 36 hour shift over a weekend
while also working 80-hour weeks (Grayson, 2018). One developer described
how he and other employees were so sick of crunch that they walked out at
their scheduled end-time for a typical work week rather than staying late.
The next day, all the employees were informed that if they chose to continue
only working required hours, they would “naturally select themselves” -
meaning they would be red (Arguello, 2018).
While these kinds of workplace practices would be viewed as exploitative,
unhealthy, and violations of labor standards in other industries (Fair Labor
Association, 2012), some in the game industry view crunch as a right of
passage, a kind of hazing that demonstrates you are tough enough, dedicated
enough, and passionate enough to be in game development (Wright, 2018).
For example, a guest post on VentureBeat argued that making great games
requires “giving [games] everything you’ve got and more” and that developers
who complain about crunch should just nd another occupation; “Don’t be
in the game industry if you can’t love all 80 hours/week of it — you’re taking
a job from somebody who would really value it” (St. John, 2016). Tanya
Short (2016), leader of Kitfox Games, described several ways she and others
justify their experience of crunch - from feeling validated by the success
of a completed project to camaraderie. Walt Williams (2017), one of the
contributors of Bioshock and Borderlands, described in a Polygon article
how crunch is his method of work despite the fallout associated:
I love it, except for when I hate it, but I can’t hate it if I never stop.
Even when I’m not crunching, I work too much. I’ve edited scripts
in ICU rooms, responded to emails while begging lovers not to
walk out the door, sent brainstorming lists during the birth of my
child. I held my grandfather’s hand while he passed away, then
went into his ofce and wrote text for mission descriptions. None
of this was expected of me, and no one would have dared to ask. I
did all these things for me. Work brings order to my world. When
things get tough, I slide down into my job and disappear. I let
my health, relationships, and responsibilities fall to the wayside.
When I nally come up for air, there’s a smoking crater where my
life used to be. Instead of picking up the pieces to start again, I
slip back down into the thick of it. This is how I cope.
This mentality played out in 2018 when a behind-the-scenes look at the
development of Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Games, 2018) featured
Rockstar founder Dan Houser casually speaking about his team’s 100-hour
work weeks during the nal push of the game (Goldberg, 2018). The problem
with framing unhealthy working habits as an expression of dedication is that
it not only normalizes unhealthy workplace habits but glories them and
perpetuates harmful and pernicious stereotypes around who does and does
not belong in the industry (see the Inclusion section below for additional
information). As this tweet from a senior designer at Bungie notes, this can
Why is crunch a problem?
While systematic research on crunch is limited, well-established workplace
research provides extensive evidence that crunch-like workplace practices
negatively impact both employees and employers in a variety of ways (Mauss, et
al., 2015). For example, the conditions that crunch creates can negatively impact
sleep, diet, mental health, and overall work/life balance and quality of life (Take
This, 2016). Research investigating crunch practices and work-related stress
across a variety of workplace settings also indicates that the primary outcome
of crunch practices is burnout (Hobfoll & Shirom, 2001) and burnout-related
experiences including emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, reduced personal
accomplishment, decreased enthusiasm about work, hopelessness, and feelings of
entrapment in the place of employment.
Businesses also risk failure when they encourage a culture of crunch. In a
study on game outcomes and employee experience, Tozour (2015) discovered
multiple problems when crunch was involved. Thirty-two percent of projects
completed with crunch were reported as ‘very unsuccessful’. When crunch
was absent from a project, the game was found to be twice as likely to be
successful upon its release. When developers identied ongoing crunch
culture in the workplace, their projects were reported over 10 times more
likely to be unsuccessful (Tozour, 2015). For example - in the case of the
game Anthem by BioWare, the nal product at launch was poorly received
In addition to these concerning physical and psychological impacts, more
recent research (Mauss, et al., 2015) examines the psychophysiology of
chronic stress and burnout in the workplace, outlining the concepts of
allostasis and allostatic load. These concepts shed light not only on the
immediate negative effects of burnout and chronic stress, but the long-term
impact on psychological and physical health.
Crunch, Allostatic Load, and Burnout
The concepts of allostasis and allostatic load are important to understand
when talking about crunch and burnout in the context of the game industry.
The term burnout refers to a chronic, psychological condition that results
from prolonged exposure to job stressors which exceeds simple exhaustion
from stress exposure, and can be characterized by three dimensions:
exhaustion, cynicism (e.g. being callous, negative, or detached to the needs
or the job or other people), and a sense of inefciency or ineffectiveness in
one’s job (Maslach, 2003). Burnout is positively correlated with decreased
job performance, increased absenteeism, and increased job turnover rates
(Swider & Zimmerman, 2010). It is also associated with increases of depressive
symptoms, greater numbers of mental health diagnoses, and decreased rate
of recovery (Upadyaya, Vartiainen, & Salmela-Aro, 2016).
Maslach (2003) argued that examining burnout from multiple dimensions
effectively refutes the common wisdom that burnout results from people
simply working too hard, and instead it allows burnout to be examined in
the context of a variety of factors, including environmental demands and
interpersonal interactions, as well as traditional stress load. To reiterate,
there is more to burnout than just working too hard. The environmental
stressors of crunch and burnout have been shown to be an important
predictor of chronic stress in workplace studies
(Lee & Ok, 2012). Furthermore, additional factors
such as employment instability, uctuating levels
of job satisfaction, and emotional labor burden,
may further contribute to a workplace culture
that presents a high risk for burnout (Lee & Ok,
2012), and consequently, high allostatic load.
Research on the topic of burnout has also examined the concept of work
engagement, considered a positive work experience consisting of the
ostensibly opposite concepts as burnout: energy, involvement, and efcacy
(Maslach & Leiter, 1997). However, there is evidence to support the notion
that work engagement and burnout do not exist at the opposite ends of the
same spectrum, but may be separate but related concepts (Maricuțoiu, Sulea,
& Iancu, 2017; Trépanier, Fernet, Austin, & Ménard, 2015). In other words,
just because an employee does not suffer from burnout, does not necessarily
mean they will be highly engaged. Survey results from other industries
support the idea that those who experience work engagement are inclined
to remain in their career longer (e.g. Leyenaar & Frintner, 2018; Kedmey,
Applications in the Game Industry
What does all of this mean for the game industry? We need to examine the
systemic and organizational factors that can contribute to burnout. Yes,
crunch practices clearly contribute to exhaustion; but beyond overwork,
other factors such as frequent studio shifts and lack of compensation for
excessive work hours could reasonably be hypothesized as contributing
to the decreased interest/investment in one’s work and coworkers (i.e.
cynicism). A lack of career path or advancement (see “Job Stress, Instability,
and Longevity” below) might also be understood to contribute to perceptions
of one’s own ineffectiveness in one’s job, as could project abandonment/
cancellations. This echoes mental health concerns related to inclusion and
diversity, especially a lack of a perceived career pathway and long-term
stressors, as we cover below.
There is more to
burnout than just
working too hard.
Based on their research and others’, Bakker and Costa (2014) offer several
recommendations to prevent burnout. While some of these interventions
may be resource and time intensive, the added costs should be weighed
against the monetary costs and productivity losses in hiring new employees
due to job turnover (e.g. recruitment costs, ongoing personnel support of
new employees, initial orientations and trainings). They include:
Management interest in individual needs: managers and administrators
can work with employees to identify the employees’ needs in coping
with the high demands of the game industry, and develop policies to
meet the needs of employees, especially those exhibiting signs of stress,
disengagement or burnout.
Reduction of job hindrances: managers and supervisors should work
with employees to reduce perceived obstacles to work engagement, such
as any ambiguity or conicts in employee job roles or duties, as well as
managers offering frequent, supportive, constructive feedback. Other
strategies may include collaboratively setting goals with employees and
specic plans for overcoming obstacles.
Increase recovery time: Employees need time both physically and
mentally to psychologically detach from work. This time may include
exercise, social activities, or other low-effort activities. One potential
threat to this is the perceived need to be constantly connected to work
via email and mobile devices.
While the most recent International Game Developer Association’s
(Weststar, O’Meara, & Lagault, 2018) Developer Satisfaction Survey (DSS)
indicated that the number of developers working under crunch conditions
was on a downward trend, 76% of game developers still report working
more than 40 hours per week over extended periods of time (Weststar,
O’Meara, & Lagault, 2018). In contrast 44% of the 2019 Game Developers
Conference (GDC) survey respondents reported working over 40 hours per
week on a game, indicating that response biases to these two surveys may
be catching divergent cultural norms across different parts of the industry
(Game Developers Conference, 2019). Although both numbers are cause for
concern, further investigation into crunch frequency and crunch practices
across the industry is warranted. We also see the opportunity for further
research on maximizing work engagement and minimizing burnout.
Based on these suggested interventions, we highlight the recommendations
identied in Take This’ 2016 white paper, Crunch Hurts - interventions that
are potential ways to address burnout:
Minimize determinants: identify crunch practices in your studio (i.e.,
management culture, scheduling mistakes, etc.).
Maximize protective factors: mental health education and self-care
opportunities, and implement workplace regulations (i.e., maximum
work hours, days off).
Change industry cultural norms: reiterate that passion and crunch are
not analogous terms and that developers can value their work without
neglecting a healthy work/life balance.
Job Stress, Instability, and Longevity
The 2017 Developer Satisfaction Survey (Weststar, O’Meara, & Lagault, 2018),
highlighted several alarming statistics about the working conditions for
game developers including the intensity of work schedules, compensation,
potential for career advancement, and employment longevity. Below are a
few of the concerning ndings from the survey:
Been in the
than 10 years
Feel there is a
clear path of
Report “crunch” as
expected; often working
60+ hours / week
45 - 59 hours
Worked for 3 to
5 different employers
within last 5 years
Findings from the 2017 IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey:
Working Conditions for Game Developers
These ndings reect a career path that frequently demands and normalizes
extended working hours, lacks job stability, and is often unpredictable and
without clear trajectories for growth or advancement. These factors may
explain why only one-third of developers remain in the industry for 10 years
or more. Workplace wellness indicators like those described above overlap
signicantly with a wide variety of psychological concepts and mental health
As we noted in our introduction, job instability, company closures, and
contract work are contributing to a much more mobile and less predictable
employment experience for many people who make games. For certain
small- and mid-size companies, for example, this challenge exists because
of a lack of intellectual property, or focus on a single game:
Those guys were working 7 days a week, crazy hours, for 3
months. And we had 1 architect who’s central to the whole thing,
he’s been really busting his ass all year long. Now we’re getting
them some time back, some time o, some comp time to reset
themselves, but it was rough. We didn’t have a choice. There was
no, “we’ll just ship it next quarter.” No, no, no. There’s no money.
If we don’t come out, this game never comes out and the last
2 years you’ve been working on it, you having nothing on your
resume, you have nothing to show for it (Take This, 2018).
Through the turbulence of projects as illustrated by the anonymous source
above, having evidence of hard work is crucial to continuing employment.
It is also difcult to imagine avoiding attachment to projects like the
game they discussed above - especially if your job and very income rely
on completing it. Laurence (2015) explored how job displacement impacts
employees, considering how employees lost their job as a signicant factor
to how employee mental health is impacted. Individuals have been found
to struggle more when they felt attached to the workplace and the projects
they were completing when displaced from their jobs (Laurence, 2015). Both
the completion of projects and attachment to the workplace rely on trust
above nearly all other factors. Beyond the workplace itself, Laurence (2015)
discovered that employees who were abruptly displaced from their jobs felt
increased threat to their own sense of security - decreasing their belief in
the “benevolence and fairness of life, in turn, eroding [their] trust in wider
Employees were shown to lose trust most often if they lost their job due
to layoffs, downsizing, company closures, restructuring, or reduction in
employee redundancies (Laurence, 2015). In 2018 alone, there were many
game companies who completed mass layoffs, and more have followed
already in 2019 (Lanier, 2018). Studies show that it is vital for employers to
warn employees as soon as possible to reduce the negative mental health
impact of job loss, or if there are plans to restructure, relocate, reduce the
number of employees, or close (Laurence, 2015; Martin, 1999). It would be
ideal to have a minimum of two months’ warning of actual plans for the
changes (Martin, 1999). Without said warning, research has shown that former
employees experience an average of more than six months of prolonged and
signicant job-related stress (Martin, 1999), although anecdotal evidence
from a developer who made this choice indicates that, “it’s a double-edged
sword” because handling uncertainty is also a stressor (Take This, 2016). A
potential alternate approach is to warn about layoffs only when they are
conrmed, but as soon as possible.
Job Instability and Mental Health
Job instability, as we use the term here, encompasses a range of situations,
including uncertainty related to employment status or roles and
responsibilities while being employed, layoffs or company closures, or
frequent job changes either as a contractor or full-time employee. The 2018
IGDA DSS (Weststar, O’Meara, & Lagault, 2018) paints a picture of relatively
frequent shifts for game developers. When asked how many employers
they have had in the past 5 years, the average answer was 2.2. Surprisingly,
freelancers and contractors had a similar average number of employers: 3.6.
This indicates that employees are often hired and let go, while freelancers
seem to maintain stable relationships with a core set of clients. A corollary
to job instability is self-funded games, which can come with signicant
instability and nancial stress. In the GDC’s 2019 State of the Industry survey,
respondents reported that 34% of game projects have been self-funded.
There are greater repercussions to job instability and loss than simply losing
employment. For example, when employees lose their jobs, individuals
are often required to move to new locations to accept work. This reduces
short-term income and it can take up to six years to eliminate the setbacks
workers encounter due to relocation (Fackler & Rippe, 2017). Even when
the unemployed remain in their location, individuals can suffer “substantial
long-lasting losses - both in terms of employment and wages” (Fackler &
Rippe, 2017, p. 459). Monetary losses aside, the negative impacts also include
an overall decrease in reported life satisfaction and increase in mortality rate
(Fackler & Rippe, 2017). Martin (1995) found that as individuals relocate
more to nd work, the more likely they are to experience increased stress,
anxiety related to work, and depression symptoms. Frequent job changing
has also been associated health risk behaviors, such as smoking cigarettes,
drinking alcohol, and physical inactivity (Heslop et al, 2002). Children
increase the detrimental effects of relocation, and individuals with families
are at an even higher risk of suffering due to job shifts in general (Martin,
Changes in levels of job strain, control, psychological demands, and social
support also impact one’s risk of anxiety and depression (Mark & Smith,
2011), as well as burnout (Day, Crown, & Ivany, 2017). These effects were
found to be similar for males and females and across different socioeconomic
groups. In other words, no matter who you are, the more uncertain a work
environment, the greater the risk of depressive symptoms, and changes
in the expectations held by the workplace. The takeaway message is that
intense organizational changes that result in increased psychological
demands placed on workers can have an extremely negative effect on their
mental health. De Witte et al (2015) offer a number of practical approaches to
mitigating the negative effects of job instability, including communication,
participation, and support in ensuring long-term employability.
Applications in the Game Industry
Recent research has identied some potential ways to mitigate to the
negative consequences noted above. Day and colleagues (2017) found that
workers who experienced high levels of autonomy tended to feel less burnout.
This could be particularly important during times of intense organizational
change as it would help the worker to moderate the chaos in their own mind.
The same study also found that supervisors play an extremely important
role in worker well-being, particularly during times of change. Workers
with supportive supervisors reported less negative health issues, which is
an important nding as it pertains to how a company may help maintain
the wellness of employees during times of intense change. Researchers
also indicated that leadership training for supervisors may help ameliorate
negative issues during organizational change, as leaders may often lack
change management skills, especially soon after receiving a promotion or
attaining a management position (Day et al., 2017).
This research reinforces a theme we have heard repeatedly in our
conversations - that management and supervisor training and support is
essential to helping the industry tackle these problems. As an HR leader
with AAA experience noted,
Those people on a day-to-day basis who model those behaviors
are those middle managers. They set the tone on a day-to-day
basis of what’s going on in their team... Not only do they have to
tell their people that it’s OK, they have to model it... they can’t just
say it, they have to lead by example (Take This, 2018).
Managers themselves also experience stress and other challenges in highly
unstable environments. The executive of a mid-size indie studio we spoke
For management, you know, I have a lot of sleepless nights
because I worry about my people. My stress doesn’t come about
me, my stress - everybody has families, and kids, and mortgages.
We want this to be a safe, secure, fullling, creative place where
they can do awesome work. Our job as management is to keep
as much of the nancial sausage-making o of their plate and let
them do their best work (Take This, 2018).
This indicates an important area of further research and highlights an area
where managers require additional support.
Van der Velde and Feij (1995) found a correlation between voluntary job
change and job satisfaction, which further demonstrates that personal
choice and self-determination have a lot to do with how satised a worker is
in their position. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a loss of job security is associated
with adverse mental and physical health effects, such as increased blood
pressure and chronically decreasing body mass index due to anxiety (Ferrie
et al., 2002). Notably, an increase in job security at a later date was not found
to negate these negative effects (Ferrie et al., 2002). This means that a loss
in job security can affect a worker for years to come, even when they enter a
more stable position.
An HR expert suggested one approach to addressing these types of stress:
For the smaller studios, sometimes you can forecast, but you really
don’t know how the game is going to do; [so] set the expectations,
to help your employees plan ahead. [Say, for example,] ‘If this isn’t
a success, we’re going to help you nd the next job’ (Take This,
Of course, job insecurity means that layoffs and studio closures do happen,
leading to nancial stress, challenging resumes, and the familial and nancial
stress of relocation. It is incredibly important for companies to engage with
potential employees in conversations about the nancial burden of location
and the on-boarding process (Raines, 2011). Companies can help employees
tune their resumes towards potential success, highlighting the positives of
a range of experience. For example, by having a wide variety of experiences,
individuals have been found to be better at adjusting to new work and
workplaces (Beyer & Hannah, 2002). Increasing the diversity of work allows
for people to grow in their career, maintain skills, and remain resilient in
their professional identity (Beyer & Hannah, 2002).
We would also suggest that the industry explore ways to insulate particularly
vulnerable employees and contractors from the greatest stressors and risks
associated with studio layoffs and closures. These could take a variety of
forms but would all have a nancial support component as well as offering
mental health crisis support (similar to the model of Employee Assistance
Programs increasingly offered as benets in US companies).
Games are mainstream. In 2018 US video game industry revenue was $43.4
billion (Entertainment Software Association, 2019), which is approximately
the same revenue generated by the US movie industry (Robb, 2018). Video
games sales were estimated at $22.4 billion in 2014 (Entertainment Software
Association, 2015), meaning revenues nearly doubled in ve years.
Despite the growth of the video game industry over the last several decades,
there remains a lack of both diversity and inclusion in video game content
and studio cultures. The global game industry remains predominantly male
(74%) and white (68%), according to recent Developer Satisfaction Survey data
(Weststar, J., O’Meara, V., Legault, M. 2018), though there is some evidence
of a recent up-tick in gender parity (Game Developers Conference, 2018).
In 2017, Chella Ramanan called the lack of women in the gaming industry
“a diversity problem (that) can be xed,” noting that women comprised
just 14% of game industry workers in the United Kingdom. As noted above,
gender is only one element of diversity. In terms of ethnicity, the 2017 DSS
data reported that 18% of respondents identied as East/South East Asian
(though they note this number is likely inated due to higher than expected
response rates in Taiwan), 5% identied as Hispanic or Latino, 2% identied
as Arabian or West African, and 1% identied as African American. Of
interesting note, the 2017 DSS found that game industry employees report
identifying as homosexual (5%) and bisexual (11%), at a greater rate than
the general US population (3.5%)
The term diversity refers to a range of identities, perspectives, and ideas
within a group or structure, whereas inclusion refers to the state of any
given individual being included within a group or structure. Put another
way, diversity means that there are a range of individuals present whereas
inclusion means each individual is valued, respected, heard, and supported.
Inclusion is a critical component of mental wellness, as it benets self-
esteem, sense of belonging, development of community, and more (e.g.,
Pilling et al. 2017).
A lack of diversity and inclusion and the presence of attitudes that perpetuate
these kinds of workplace disparities have resulted in hostile and challenging
work experiences across game companies and the social media platforms
most central to the industry. For example, the culture identifying “real”
gamers as those who play a specic type of game has been used in hiring
practices in a major studio placing emphasis on hiring the “core gamer”
(D’Anastasio, 2018). D’Anastasio’s article showed that, while the “core
gamer” identity was purportedly intended as a meritocracy, in practice it
was experienced by women and other marginalized groups in the company
as a reection of more misogynistic “bro culture.” However, these concerns
extend beyond women and misogyny.
Still, it is clear that the vast majority of people inside and outside the game
industry believe inclusion and diversity to be important issues. An Electronic
Arts survey of 2,252 individuals found that only 13% of respondents believe
it is not important to make games more inclusive for diverse audiences (Shi,
2019). The Electronic Arts survey also found that approximately three out of
ve players (61%) were concerned with abusive chats, hate speech, sexism,
or racism. Despite this, the most recent IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey
indicated that 33% of game employees perceive the game industry did not
offer equal treatment or opportunities for all (Weststar, J., O’Meara, V.,
Legault, M. 2018).
A female HR manager, with both personal and professional experience of
“There’s a double-edged sword. It’s the fact that you’re dierent.
On the negative side, your dierence is being weaponized against
you because people are not familiar, thus they exclude you and
make you feel like you’re not a part of the in-group because you
are dierent. On the positive side, where they want to embrace
diversity, and want to appreciate the fact that you are the other
and want to include you because of the fact that you are dierent,
[and] there’s undue pressure to educate them on your perspective
and what your experience is. And that they just look to you as
But diversity and inclusion are good for business, too. There is a strong,
signicant correlation between a diverse employee base and nancial
performance. In fact, even greater nancial gains among large companies
were made when leadership was diverse (Hunt, Princee, Dixon-Fyle, Yee,
2018). Beyond nancial impacts, increased racial and gender diversity in
employment was found to increase innovation (Gao and Zhang, 2017) as
well as group think (Levine et al, 2014). In a study looking at price bubbles in
nancial markets, Levine et al (2014) noted that,
“price bubbles arise not only from individual errors or nancial
conditions, but also from the social context of decision making.
The evidence may inform public discussion on ethnic diversity: it
may be benecial not only for providing variety in perspectives
and skills, but also because diversity facilitates friction that
enhances deliberation and upends conformity.”
In extrapolating this to other work environments, the argument for diversity
in creating a larger diversity of game types, game play, and game subject
matter is clear.
Diversity in Gaming
Gamergate, the online harassment campaign that overwhelmingly targeted
a group of female developers and journalists, further highlighted the
stressors involved in being female or non-binary in the game industry, and
in consumer game spaces (Mortensen, 2018). This movement, which started
in 2014 and remains problematic today, quickly devolved from baseless
accusations to character assassinations, misogyny, hate speech, and death
the one representing that group… That’s a generalization. You are
a unique individual - not that that isn’t connected with people
who fall within your demographic, but that you shouldn’t shoulder
responsibility of speaking for everybody who looks like you, too.
Especially if it’s coming from a positive place, it can still have a
negative impact on people” (Take This, 2018).
threats (Campbell, 2014), the repercussions of which were severe. Personal
information, including home addresses of the targets and their families,
social security numbers, and even nude photos, were posted online forcing
people from their jobs and their homes (Robertson, 2014). While those
involved in the harassment during Gamergate were primarily consumers,
this type of behavior is an ongoing and relatively regular aspect of online
interaction for women who make games and study games (Webber, 2017;
Chess & Shaw, 2015; for more about Gamergate, see Mortensen, 2018 and
Gamergate was not the rst example of widespread, gender-based
discrimination within the game industry (Mortensen, 2018; Consalvo (2012)
also summarizes several incidences of harassment), but it is certainly the
most prominent manifestation of ongoing problems that women and non-
binary individuals face. Like many of the aspects of diversity mentioned
below, there is a dearth of peer-reviewed research or specic data about the
prevalence or impact of gender-based discrimination in the game industry.
More widely, we know that discrimination, both overt and subtle, leads to an
underrepresentation of individuals of minority status in science, technology,
engineering, and mathematics elds, with discrimination negatively
impacting job performance and physical health (O’Brien, McAbee, Hebl, and
Rogers, 2016). Beyond that, the social/emotional impacts of discrimination
become compounded when gender and ethnicity intersect (Combs &
The problem is pervasive. According to research by McKinsey & Company
(Thomas et al, 2018), 64% of women (and 71% of lesbian women) experience
microaggressions (such as demeaning comments or being mistaken
for someone more junior) in the workplace. More alarmingly, the same
research indicated more than one in three women have experienced sexual
harassment at some point in their career. Furthermore, they nd that
employees of all genders believe that companies don’t do enough to create
a safe and respectful work environment. They report that fewer than one
third of employees believe enough is done in their workplaces to address
bias, sexual harassment, and disrespect. In part, they say, this is due to
underrepresentation, which starts with a smaller pipeline of women in entry
level jobs and gets worse as promotions recognize men more than women
up the corporate ladder (with some improvement at middle management
levels, although not enough to maintain a good pipeline to the C-suite).
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
While representation of LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender,
and Queer) individuals may be strong in the game industry in terms of
employment proportions compared to the general population (Weststar,
O’Meara, & Lagault, 2018), there are many stressors related to how individuals
express, monitor, and self-censor their sexuality in work contexts (Holman,
2018). Further data is required in this area to understand the experiences
of LGBTQ+ individuals specically working in the game industry, though
a review of a variety of more generalized employment studies indicated
that LGBTQ+-supportive policies in the workplace lead to greater employee
commitment, greater overall job satisfaction and productivity, and improved
health outcomes, as well as reduced rates of discrimination (Badgett, Durso,
Kastanis, & Mallory, 2013). This is especially important, as it is discrimination
which has been linked to the greater-than-average occurrence rates of mental
health diagnoses in LGBTQ+ populations (e.g., Bockting, Miner, Romine,
Hamilton, & Coleman, 2013; Choi, Paul, Ayala, Boylan, & Gregorich, 2013).
According to a survey by Catalyst (Travis & Thorpe-Moscone, 2018), people
of color practice high levels of vigilance and experience high levels of stress
in workplaces related to their race and ethnicity. They found that if people
of color are not supported by explicit inclusionary practices and norms in
a workplace, their ability to deliver high-quality work suffers. Accordingly,
retention of these individuals suffers. The survey also found that self-
reported levels of creativity were especially high among highly-engaged and
well-supported people of color, indicating that, with proper support, these
employees may deliver exceptionally high quality work.
Our conversations afrm these ndings. In our interview with a developer of
color in a AAA company, we heard about this challenge:
I feel like there’s always an element of, I’m not being
unapologetically and fully me. There’s certain mannerisms that
I can’t really do because I have to think, “do I want to spend a
bunch of time explaining that to people?” There’s a lot of words
that I might use, just the way I present myself. It’s a daily process
- there’s a lot of code switching that happens. How do I present
myself to people to get through the day with the least amount of
stress? It’s kind of always a low-level of anxiety (Take This, 2018).
Ability, Neurodiversity, and Mental Health Status
Research on the topics of accessibility and accommodation based on physical
ability, neurodiversity (those identied with a wide variety of neurocognitive
diagnoses such as autism, attention decit hyperactivity disorder, and
sensory integration disorder, among others), and mental health status as
they directly apply to the game industry is limited, and we encourage further
study in this growing domain. As with other sections of this paper, there
are more generalized ndings which bear mention. While mental health
challenges in the workplace are covered throughout this paper, there is
emerging evidence to support the notion that systemic, managerial-level
education and training has positive effects on the wellbeing of multiple
levels of an organization (Boysen, Schiller, Mörtl, Gündel, & Hölzer, 2018;
Gayed et al., 2018).
Over the last several years, more of a focus has been placed on the idea
of neurodivergent diagnoses such as autism as natural expressions of the
human genome, instead of a disorder (Masataka, 2017). While this is an
emerging eld of understanding that requires more research, it, along with
growing self-advocacy on the part of those with autism, has lead to advice
on how companies can utilize the unique sets of skills by those with these
diagnoses (e.g., CIPD, 2018). One of the authors of this paper (Boccamazzo)
is open about his autism diagnosis, and has privately remarked how many
business events and opportunities, especially networking opportunities,
are conducted in noisy, crowded environments, often with excessive visual
stimulation (e.g., night clubs or crowded bars), which many people with
neurodivergent diagnoses endure with substantial hardship, if they are able
to at all. This presents a subtle but signicant systemic challenge in the
ability of neurodivergent individuals with valuable skills to form informal
business relationships which are often crucial to career advancement and
Regarding disability and accommodations in the workplace, the Americans
with Disabilities Act of 1990 both prohibits discrimination of people
with disabilities as well as requiring employers to provide reasonable
accommodations to employees who would otherwise be able to fully
perform the functions of a given job. Unfortunately, perceptions of stigma
towards disability accommodations prevent many from requesting the
accommodations they deserve and to which they are fully entitled, which
also robs companies of talents from which they would otherwise benet
(Baldridge & Veiga, 2001; Baldridge & Veiga, 2006); research on providing
accommodations in the workplace, in this case due to psychiatric disabilities,
reported increased hours of work engagement and a reduction of job
termination risk (Chow, Cichocki, & Croft, 2014).
One hurdle that exists to retaining valuable employees who happen to have
some form of disability is ongoing beliefs doubting the capabilities of those
with disabilities. Sundar (2017) noted the importance of informal, tacit
support in the workplace, communicating that those with disabilities are
not simply accommodated, but valued. Unfortunately, Chan et al. (2010)
concluded that many human resources and hiring managers do not perceive
those with disabilities as being as productive and reliable as employees,
though they believe manager-level training on the relevant laws might
positively impact hiring practices regarding inclusion of employees with
Representation of Diversity in Games
As noted above, it is reasonable to believe that the industry will produce
games with a wider range of appeal which better represent the voices,
experiences, and lives of the people who play them, an idea echoed by Elaine
Chase, Vice President of esports at Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro, who
noted: “Having a diverse set of people brings in a greater skill set” (Chase,
Olson, Hoyer, Lau, & Snyder, 2018). Mary Olson, Executive Producer at 343
Industries, agreed: “Having a diverse team, building a diverse team is putting
the game rst. That’s what we need to make the best game we can make”
(Chase, Olson, Hoyer, Lau, & Snyder, 2018).
The game audience is large and
will only get larger and more
diverse. As Adrienne Shaw notes
in Gaming at the Edge, “diversity
in games is a design imperative for this creative industry” (2014, p. 230).
Specically, diversity in this case means a more equitable representation of
people identifying as people of color (POC), non-binary, LGBTQ+ (lesbian,
gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual), women, disabled,
neurodiverse, or those experiencing mental health challenges. In this
section, we address the mental health outcomes related to exclusion and
lack of representation, the arguments for increased parity in the industry,
and identify steps for further research and action.
An independent game developer told us a story about how she feels
representation creates more diverse games, relating how she showed a game
with a young, female lead at a small game convention:
My booth was completely crowded. I had little girls going, ‘look,
mom, that’s me!’ I made a game that I would enjoy. I think that just
goes to show that having diversity on your design team can lead
to diversity in your player base - because I designed a game that
I thought was cool. Turns out, other girls think it’s cool too! (Take
Mark Rosewater, Head Designer of Magic: The Gathering afrmed this
experience in a Tumblr post to his community, noting how
“...every time we branch out (and I’m not exaggerating, every
time) and represent a new segment of people, I get heartfelt
messages from them about how much it means to them to see
themselves in the game” (2018).
Research from Passmore and colleagues (2018) echoes these experiences:
Building a diverse team is
putting the game rst.
People who game willingly represent themselves as ctional
characters. However, players of color agreed that experiences
built around their race-ethnicity are more important than not,
and are suggested to benet more from accurate representations
of their race-ethnicity. Players of color generally agreed that
accurate representation improves their experience and want to
game as themselves, freed from everyday social restrictions and
stigmas: ‘My gaming identity comes closest to the identity I use
when associating with close friends and family in that it is more
open and unguarded compared to my professional work identity.
Because digital gaming offers a degree of anonymity, I feel more
free to express myself and not have to worry about following
conventions or social norms.’ (Passmore et al, 2018, p. 9)
But representation doesn’t just affect people from marginalized groups.
Media has the ability to reduce prejudice in a variety of ways. Moyer-Gusé
and colleagues found a reduction of prejudice when they asked non-Muslim
participants to watch a TV show about a Christian man learning to navigate
and participate in a Muslim community while living with a Muslim family
(Moyer-Gusé, Dale, & Ortiz, 2018). Ultimately, the study found that among
those who watched the TV show, prejudicial anxiety about interaction with
people from a different - and often demonized - group was signicantly
reduced (and the willingness and sense of self-efcacy about engaging in
a potential interaction increased) through consuming media where they
watched someone like them “learn the ropes.” Similarly, games, with their
participatory and active engagement, are a powerful form of media in this
regard. Ironically, given the violent context, Adachi and colleagues found
similar reduction of intergroup prejudice through cooperative play in a
shooter game (Adachi, Hodson, Willoughby, & Zanette, 2014).
In 2017, Kowert and colleagues proposed that the exclusion of females in
the video game industry has contributed to a cyclical model of exclusion
(see Figure 1) in video game content and culture. They argue that a self-
perpetuating cycle of exclusion within the video game industry has
contributed to male dominance within the eld and contributed to the
creation of gendered game content (i.e., a general lack of female protagonists,
an oversexualization of female characters; see Beasley and Standley, 2002,
Fox, Bailenson, & Tricase, 2013, Downs & Smith, 2010 and Ivory, 2006 for
Video game play is socialized as a male activity
Gendered Game Content
Video games are
Females are less
Absence of females in the video
Predominance of males in the
video game industry
Cultivation of sexist
beliefs and attitudes
are characterized by
sexist and misogynistic
beliefs. attitudes and
Figure 2. Model of exclusion and sexism in video game content and culture (Kowert, Breuer, & Quandt, 2017).
more). That is, the absence of female developers in the video game industry
has led to a predominance of gendered content, which, in turn, has potentially
contributed to the cultivation of sexist and misogynistic attitudes and
beliefs within the industry and community at large (Behm-Morawitz & Ta,
2014; Festl, Scharkow, & Quandt, 2013; Stermer & Burkley, 2012). This has
led to further establishing video game play and industries as male spaces,
limiting the sense of social inclusion and acceptance for females (Hartmann
& Klimmt, 2006; Lucas & Sherry, 2004; Sherry, Greenberg, Lucas, & Lachlan,
2006), and perpetuated the exclusion of diverse groups. While the authors
focus their model on the exclusion of females specically, it could be easily
applied to any of the underrepresented populations within the industry as
Greater diversity would also provide opportunities to challenge norms in
both work environment and game content, and multiple research studies
afrm a desire for greater diversity inside the industry - if lacking in concrete
steps to achieve it (Ruggill, J., McAllister, K., Nichols, R., Kaufman, R., 2017).
Further investigation of this matter is warranted.
Adrienne Shaw’s seminal 2014 ethnography of marginalized gamers, Gaming
at the Edge found that “sexuality is present and relevant in every single video
game made… For example, sexuality and sexual politics are present in every
rst-person shooter that employs sexual banter or ‘bro’ humor” (p. 205) and is
therefore absolutely central to how we view representation - as an always
present, always relevant aspect of game design and narrative. She goes on
to note, that:
“The goals of those invested in diversity in games should not be
to prove the importance of representation but rather to argue for
the importance of representation in a way that does not dismiss
the playfulness of gaming.” (p. 219)
In other words, she argues, since representation doesn’t seem to matter
to people who play games, broad categories of representation that aren’t
currently common could be included without widespread backlash. However,
representation would be signicant for those members of underrepresented
groups in their experience of playing games, and potentially push subtle
shifts in existing tropes.
It is abundantly clear that the industry can, and should, do more to increase
diversity in the industry, and that doing so will positively impact the mental
health of those making and playing games. The devil, however, is in the
details. Changes are required in hiring, mentorship, promotion, culture-
building, online support, and other aspects of retention and professional
development. These are all factors of changing the culture of game companies
- a challenging, time-consuming, and difcult undertaking that can result in
widespread staff departures, uncomfortable conversations, and skepticism.
There are, also, signicant gaps in our understanding of how a lack of
diversity impacts the industry. Therefore, we present the following questions
for further study:
Where are women, POC, and LGBTQ+IA individuals celebrated and
supported in the game industry? Can those models of leadership and
support be articulated and replicated?
How, or does, gender representation impact the types of games that are
made, and if so, in what ways?
What strategies might companies and divisions adopt to address hiring
and promotional biases?
What networks and other sources of support can women, POC, and
LGBTQ+ individuals lean on to nd support and allyship? How can we
support and strengthen those networks and resources?
How safe, supported, and welcomed do people feel in their workplaces,
and what specic challenges or opportunities do marginalized
individuals have in game workplaces?
Hunt and colleagues (2018) found that leaders in diversity and inclusion
shared four imperatives: CEO leadership, dened diversity priorities based
on business strategy, a targeted portfolio of initiatives, and tailored strategies
to maximize local impact. In addition, the study found,
“there are critical areas companies tend to fall short on: these
include leadership and management accountability, a fact-based
and compelling business case for I&D [Inclusion and Diversity],
and the coherence and prioritization of the resulting action plan.
We also found that while progress on representation can be
brought about relatively rapidly with the right set of initiatives,
embedding inclusion sustainably within the organization can
take many years, often requiring action outside the organization”
Take This has developed employee and manager trainings on a range of
topics that address some of these needs, and multiple, excellent, diversity
training programs exist. These are an important and necessary rst step in
a long process of individual and company-wide self-discovery and change.
These workshops provide tools for developing new perspectives through
self-reection, understanding structural and institutionalized racism and
sexism, and starting company-wide conversations about how people are, or
are not, welcomed into a workplace.
Public Perception of
Games and Game Makers
While public perception of games does not, to the best of our knowledge,
directly impact the mental health of those in the game industry, it remains
a potential secondary stressor. In particular, online interactions with the
public can demand signicant attention and cause distraction, especially if
the public draws conclusions based on moral panic rather than established
evidence. Most signicantly, the ability of the public en masse to access
developers both at and outside of work is an area of workplace stress in need
Social Media Interaction of Employees With the
The game industry relies heavily on social media, especially Twitter and
Discord, for direct communication with consumers and other industry
professionals. Social media sites have evolved from simple social networking
to an interconnected web of work, personal, and promotional circles. For
better or for worse, websites like Twitter and Facebook give employees a
chance to have a voice in an immediate and potentially viral way. The
demands of being an industry employee and simultaneously wanting to
develop or maintain one’s personal brand and employers’ brands frequently
require that game makers use social media. Many of these industry employees
create vibrant and fun communities on Twitter through personal accounts
to promote their work.
This type of overlap creates an integration of personal and professional
identities, blurring the line between what is for work or for personal purposes
(Van Zoonen, Verhoeven, & Vliegenthart, 2016). An unfortunate result of
blending personal and professional spaces is the strain of the sometimes-
conicting role, creating poor “in-role performance”, meaning that the
fatigue, anxiety, and/or tension from one role could hamper a person’s
ability to perform the other (Van Zoonen et. al., 2016). This blurring of roles
crashed into the public awareness in summer of 2018 when two ArenaNet
employees were red due to their online interactions via their personal
Twitter accounts (Farokhmanesh, 2018).
Aside from the blurring of roles, there are also risks and stressors linked to
public social media use, such as the organized backlash and harassment of
subgroups of fans. Gamergate, the harassment campaign that began in 2014,
is arguably the most famous - though not the rst - example of how public
backlash by a small subset of people can directly impact the mental health
of industry employees (Mortensen, 2018). It resulted in an infamous and
psychologically damaging public attack on predominantly female members
of the game industry by a subset of predominantly male fans and developers.
Danielle Citron (2014) documented how harassment of many types pushes
women out of the public sphere across many industries and contexts - not
More recent fan incidents include the wave of abuse directed at Marvel
developer Insomniac and publisher Sony about a character costume omitted
from their Spider-Man game (Asarch, 2018) and the above-mentioned
2018 ring of two ArenaNet employees for messages exchanged on Twitter
(Farokhmanesh, 2018), the latter of which also involved misogynist verbal
attacks on one of the employees. A recent hacking experience related to us
by an indie developer exposes the complexity of some of these attacks. In an
open beta for an upcoming game, a hacker started killing players with the
express purpose of then gloating about their prowess on the game’s Discord
channel. In fact, the hacker requested - to the developer - that their Discord
handle be reinstated, even after the hack was contained, so that they could
engage in gloating behavior from their original account.
All of these incidents highlight the particular challenges and dangers of
social media faced by game industry employees, especially those who do not
identify as white, cis-gender, heterosexual males. Adding to the challenges
is evidence that the commonly-cited tactic of “block them” is ineffective in
stopping harassment (Jhaver, Ghoshal, Bruckman & Gilbert, 2018), and this
remains an ongoing concern of streamers and content creators, especially
those facing long-lasting harassment (Grayson, 2019). Interactions with
hostile public can result in long-term mental health repercussions such as
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as anonymously reported to us by several
targets of harassment during and after Gamergate.
Given these examples and others, we have concerns about mental health
stressors related to how individuals and the companies who employ them
navigate online interactions and provide support and/or validation to both
their employees and fans. Furthermore, the game industry continues to
experience signicant public perception challenges that can invalidate and
challenge game makers who believe deeply in the positive impact of their
work on the world. These issues include the violence-and-video-games link,
game addiction, and gambling, which we cover in more detail above.
One signicant way companies can be more supportive of their employees’
mental health is structuring social media response instructions into their
policies. The IGDA (2018) created a guideline for their employees and
representatives that illustrates this point well. Notably, it includes explicit
guidance about posts, that employees can elect voluntarily to represent the
company, contacts for support, and consequences of rule-breaking. Most
importantly, it describes what rules exist and where to nd them; in this
case, in their internal code of ethics (IGDA, 2018).
From social media policies shared condentially with us, it is clear that
companies are increasingly understanding the necessity of providing support
to their employees during ame wars or episodes of harassment. These can
include referral of harassment to community managers, cooling off periods,
and third party assessment of interactions. We are heartened to see these
policies beginning to take shape.
Creating guidelines for employees can help clarify how to manage a plethora
of social media situations. It allows for a dialogue between employees and
managers, empowers employees to be more able to respond in a meaningful
and safe way, allows for employees to remain aware of the legalities involved,
and provides a series of backup plans if one of the steps in the plan fails. We
highly encourage companies to consider how they can bolster their policies
to better support their employees. Below are a few ideas that companies
might consider including in their social media guidelines:
A scaffolding multi-step response plan.
Guidance to resist the temptation to respond immediately to a post.
Instead, touch base with company representatives as they are available.
If company representatives are unavailable, who is next in line?
Discuss what is encouraged, allowed, and discouraged for company
related-content postings. Indicate who to go to for questions with this,
if employees are unsure.
Reminders of pertinent NDA expectations.
How to handle direct engagement with players/fans.
Public Perception of Games
Concern around the potential negative impacts of games on players is as
old as video games themselves. Once digital games expanded beyond the
university labs where they were rst developed, the attention they garnered
from researchers and the press often reected a fear of the new medium.
These original fears persist today, specically in relation to violence, video
game addiction, and gambling.
The rst example of public concern about violence in digital games was around
Death Race, a black-and-white arcade game released in 1976. Controversy
around violence in games continued through the 1980s and began to peak in
the early 1990s with the release of Mortal Kombat. The debunked connection
between the violent video game Doom and the perpetrators of the 1999
Columbine High School shooting spotlighted violent games as a clear and
present danger to society. In 2005 and in 2015, the American Psychological
Association released a paper summarizing reports on the impact of violent
games and reported nding a clear connection between violent video
game play and aggression in players (APA Task Force on Violent Media,
2015). However, the research underpinning these beliefs and statements
is problematic at best, lled with questionable research practices, media
sensationalization, and false equivalency.
In the last two decades, research debunking the myth of violent video games
leading to violent behavior has been piling up in a variety of ways. First,
major contributions from scholars using rigorous and replicable research
methods have found that not only do violent video games not lead to
increased aggressive behaviors (Coulson & Ferguson, 2016; Ferguson, 2007;
Przybylski & Weinstein, 2019) but are actually correlated with a decrease
in violent crime (Coulson & Ferguson, 2016; Markey & Ferguson, 2017).
Second, several high-prole studies that purported to nd a clear and causal
connection between violent video games and aggression have been retracted
in the past few years due to statistical and methodological inaccuracies
(Çetin, Wai, Altay, & Bushman, 2016; Whitaker & Bushman, 2014). In other
words, some of the strongest evidence for violent video games leading to
violent acts are being pulled off the shelf because of bad data. And lastly,
long-term social trends refute violent video games as a cause of violent
behavior. Crime rates have been on a steady downward trend since the 1990s
and are at a 30-year low (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2017) while video
game sales have more than tripled in the same time frame (Statista, 2016).
The term addiction is used in common parlance to describe an activity that a
person enjoys and engages in fully. The activity often has a slight negative or
guilty pleasure connotation, such as “I’m addicted to coffee” or “I’m addicted
to this TV show.” This use is in stark contrast with the clinical denition
of addiction as a problematic and harmful dependency on a substance.
While concern about players spending too much time or money on digital
games goes back to the 1970s, the social consciousness around games as an
addiction in the clinical sense has recently moved to the forefront.
In the last decade, there’s been an increase in viewing video games as an
addictive activity, especially in Asian countries where game addiction boot
camps and detox centers are more prevalent (Russon, 2016). In the US, games
addiction gained public attention in 2016 with the announcement of Gaming
Disorder as a proposed diagnosis in the World Health Organization’s (WHO)
ICD-11, the international manual for diagnosis. The diagnosis was recently
approved, despite questions reamining about its denition and underlying
accuracy. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th Edition (DSM-V),
the diagnostic guidebook for mental health professionals, sidelining the
diagnosis of Internet Gaming Disorder as an issue in need of further study
rather than a formally recognized condition.
Mental health professionals and members of the gaming community have
voiced concern over problematic or dysregulated gaming among the most
extreme players (Aarseth et al., 2017; Van Rooij, A. et al, 2010; Lopez, G.,
2018). However, the current state of research does not support gaming
addiction as a disorder or even fully support the contention that it qualies
as a behavioral addiction (rather than being, say, a subcategory of an
impulse control disorder). Simply stated, there is not enough research or
depth of understanding about excessive gameplay to support the creation of
a new construct (Aarseth, et al., 2017). Furthermore, the current criteria for
gaming disorder in the ICD-10 has received signicant negative pushback
from the mental health community for being worryingly vague and lacking
in diagnostic differentiation, even by those who support games addiction as
a legitimate construct. Signicant additional research is required in the area
of game addiction.
The central point where digital games and concerns about gambling converge
is loot boxes. A loot box is a digital item that contains randomized digital
content. In other words, it’s a digital mystery box containing an unknown
virtual item that may or may not have value to the player. Players obtain
loot boxes in a variety of ways. For example, a player might receive a loot
box for completing a quest or trading in in-game resources or items. Some
loot boxes, however, can be bought using real currency (paid loot boxes) and
it’s this kind of loot box that is drawing attention from agencies such as
the US’s Federal Trade Commission. Other countries, such as Belgium, have
identied loot crates as violating their anti-gambling laws and have banned
buying loot crates outright (Gerken, 2018).
In psychology, a variable-ratio is a reinforcement schedule where the user
receives a reward after an unpredictable number of responses. One example
of the variable-ratio schedule can be seen with slot machines, where the
money (reward) is delivered after an unknowable number of lever pulls
(responses). This is the arguably the most powerful kind of reinforcement
schedule because it is the most resistant to extinction, keeping individuals
engaged as they never know when the next reinforcement is coming (Ferster
& Skinner, 1957). However, its potency is why the instruments that use a
variable-ratio schedule can become problematic.
What is not clear is whether or not paid loot boxes actually function on a
variable-ratio schedule and thus are akin to gambling. Unlike a slot machine,
a player is guaranteed to get something when they pay for a loot box. This
action is similar to those who buy baseball card packs or surprise-egg toys;
the buyer has an idea of what they’re paying for but the actual content is
unpredictable. In this sense, it is distinctly different from gambling where
the outcome is always either win or lose.
Currently, the amount of research available to address these kinds of
questions is nearly non-existent and much of what does exist suffers from
notable methodological limitations (Kowert, 2018). The most comprehensive
study of loot boxes and gambling behaviors to date surveyed over 7,000 self-
identied gamers and found a strong relationship between the amount of
money spent on loot boxes and problem gambling indicators; the more a
player spent on loot boxes, the more likely they were to respond afrmatively
on a questionnaire about problematic gambling (Zendle & Cairns, 2018).
However, the authors clearly stated that this research is correlational and
it remains unclear whether persons who reported symptoms of problem
gambling are attracted to loot crates or if loot crates lead to problem
gambling indicators. It is also important to note that this is a single study
of self-identied gamers using self-report measures of loot crate purchases
and gambling behaviors. Future research should strive for a randomized
collection of participants as well as tracking of actual spending and gambling
habits (not just what participants recall spending or doing).
As much as we have highlighted the challenges in Twitter use in the game
industry in this paper, it remains a vital space for communication, validation,
networking, and news among people who make and play games. So, in
concluding this paper and describing next steps, we turn to a Twitter thread
where developers described what they needed, wanted, and missed from their
studios. The responses, echoing many of the recommendations and themes
in this paper, included exibility in work hours and location, especially for
parents and, related to that, managers who “walked the walk” and didn’t
themselves work 60-80 hour weeks. Other needs that surfaced focused on
clarity: clear evaluations based on deliverables rather than face-time, clear
internal communication and planning, and clear job descriptions.
Notably, in both the 2018 IGDA and 2019 GDC surveys, support for
unionization has increased in all sectors of the industry, and the movement’s
talking points are very similar to the challenges and needs described above.
Many of the negative mental health outcomes described here can be mitigated
or avoided with the implementation of thoughtful, respectful policy changes.
Some will require signicant changes to organizational and industry culture
and will be harder to move forward. However, all the necessary changes have
the potential to transform the industry into a more sustainable, healthier
place for all people to work and make great games.
In addition to already identied solutions, we have also highlighted the
need for further research to better understand a range of experiences and
challenges, especially those within marginalized communities and for
managers and leaders. Identifying the experiences and needs of these groups
will enable us to make more effective recommendations for change.
In summary, we have identied the following next steps that are necessary to
address the challenges outlined in this paper, and will be convening industry
leaders to identify approaches and best practices:
Manager and leadership training around mental health awareness,
diversity, and change management
Manager support for change management and studio upheaval
Structures and training to support more inclusion and acceptance
Policies to support portability and transition
Further research on:
• Outcomes for women, POC, LGBTQ+ individuals
• Outcomes for very junior and senior employees
• The role of toxic behavior on social media within the video game
• Cross-industry compensation review
• Flexibility in NDAs for job searches
As we explore these areas of opportunity, we will take cues from companies
actively working to tackle many of these challenges. Of course, the “perfect”
workplace is both subjective and hard to create. There are, however, many
fantastic game companies focused on various aspects of mental health and
employee wellness. We hope to learn from the following examples (among
others) over the coming year:
Big Huge Games’ low-crunch, high-diversity work environment
Ubisoft’s pool for employees coming off projects
Certain Afnity’s ability to avoid layoffs
Wooga’s top-down focus on mental health
Bungie’s focus on diversity
Microsoft’s focus on work-life balance
The game industry, as this paper has indicated, can be a challenging,
sometimes downright unhealthy place to work. But that’s only a part of
the story, and threatens to overshadow the great joy, creativity, beauty, and
excitement that comes with making and playing games. Again, we turn to
Twitter, and a thread started by Steven Lumpkin:
The responses were exciting, compelling, and diverse:
Ultimately, the de-stigmatization of mental health and increased mental
health literacy are required industry-wide, reecting the necessity of a
broader societal shift. Mental health and the factors that support it are as
signicant in addressing overall productivity and functionality in workplaces
as physical health. A comfort with understanding mental health challenges
as normal and in providing accommodations and support for addressing
them are essential to creating a work culture that embraces diversity, fully
supports people who make games, and recognizes that mentally well people
are better, more productive members of a workforce.
Take This is leading the charge to normalize the conversation about mental
health inside the game industry and will be taking these recommendations
to human resources professionals across the industry to test and develop
over the next year. In the meantime, we continue to provide trainings and
workshops for game companies who wish to improve and support the mental
wellbeing of their employees. These initial steps are necessary, though not
sufcient, to promoting a healthy, productive, and diverse game workforce.
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