This guest feature was written by Devon Wiersma, Game Designer and Writer.
Some names in this article have been changed, but all stories are real-life examples from game development students.
If you feel affected by anything in this article, please refer to our global mental health directory.
Game development is no easy feat.
Hours can be spent solving design problems, debugging code or even just trying to figure out why your players keep running to the right when there’s obviously nothing there. These are all problems ordinary game developers deal with on a day-to-day basis.
But what would you do if you were not only expected to work on projects on-site, but also in your free time in order to meet deadlines? Even outside of the expected crunch time? What about if you were required to pay for the opportunity to experience all of these stresses out of your own pocket, compounding further stress onto an ordinarily difficult lifestyle?
These are additional struggles students of game development deal with on a day-to-day basis.
No matter if you study computer sciences, game design or game production, students frequently deal with much of the stress of the standard game developer lifestyle often compounded with much more. It’s difficult to imagine just how much more taxing dealing with these problems can become when suffering from a mental health disorder.
For developers at most established studios the solution might seem simple – speak with Human Resources. As difficult a decision it can be, they’re often equipped to give you advice and have an intimate one-to-one conversation which can help you work through some of your issues.
So that’s what Darien did.
Darien is afraid of asking questions in class to professors or peers, afraid of bothering people with problems he perceives as small and gets stuck on difficulties which he thinks he should intuitively understand. Some days he’s wrought with anxiety over what might go wrong and what he might ruin for others, so afraid of failure it makes it difficult for him to find a reason to get up in the morning.
To help cope with his problems he sought a councillor to speak to, hoping being able to vent and discuss his issues with them would help alleviate some of his worry. Unfortunately, his counsellor had almost no understanding of video games, or what it’s like to develop them. When he told the counsellor he enjoyed games like Dragon’s Dogma, Fallout and Enter the Gungeon the counsellor responded with “Oh, so murder simulators”. Flabbergasted at the idea that his counsellor wrote some of his most important coping mechanisms off as “murder simulators”, Darien stopped counselling and never went back.
Trish was a star student in high school and graduated in the top 10% of her class.
She has held herself to that standard through to her post-secondary career, well on her way to graduating with honours. However, her program (much like game development as a whole) actively teaches her that failure is a part of the learning and iteration process and encourages students to fail frequently – something that goes against everything she learned in her previous years of education where doing things by-the-book was rewarded. This change of expectations contributed to her developing anxieties about failure and caused her to struggle through simple matters like small assignments or difficult group dynamics.
Trish also sought a school counsellor like Darien to help her deal with her growing mental health troubles. She found school counselling did little to help her, feeling like a one-sided conversation where few of her problems were addressed. Her hard work paid off when she successfully got an internship at an established AAA studio, but when it came time to return to school she found herself pressured by her employer to stay working at the studio full-time, something which might benefit her in the short term but put her in a difficult situation. This only added to the anxiety she experienced daily, stuck between mutual pressured from her academic institution, each working towards their own interests.
Oftentimes school counsellors are the only treatment options offered to students in postsecondary institutions.
When your only option at alleviating your stress fails, where else is there to turn to?
Darien finds talking about his issues is vital to dealing with his anxiety, and the most important part of that is having someone available who understands – something which schools with counsellors focused on general programs fail to do. Student counsellors who cover a wide berth of students from a number of different disciplines can only connect with each of them so effectively. Moreover, counsellors who haven’t worked with game developers or (in some cases) don’t even play games or see the value in them make it difficult for students to speak to them about matters affecting them.
Trish also believes specialised counsellors could go a long way to help students, as well as systems which could make counselling more accessible to students who have had little experience in dealing with mental health issues such as herself.
Alex worked an apprenticeship set up through his university at a company for low-wage, staying at the job beyond his apprenticeship to help pay for his education. However, he soon found that working and attending school for 60 hours a week began to take a toll on him as he developed an intense depression. He struggled to get out of bed, plagued with constant migraines which impeded his ability to attend classes and perform at work – eventually he had to drop both the school and his job altogether.
Alex says postsecondary institutions, especially universities, need to focus more on employability instead of education and teach more applicable life skills like time management. This could serve to benefit not only the student and future employers, but also would help students attend classes on a regular basis and achieve more during the university experience. He believes apprenticeship programs should have a clear goal in their implementation instead of doing so to fit the norms of education.
He also believes that employers hiring students need to take steps to ensure flexibility with their student hires, his worst experiences with his employer stemming from working “just to get the job done” instead of on tasks which allowed him a degree of creativity and freedom to explore his personal interests, as well as the areas which he preferred to focus on and exceed expectations in.
Raj had similar issues during his co-op placement working at a small technology startup. Raj has social anxiety which causes him to struggle at school, especially with handing in assignments on time since he frequently works later than his deadlines and invests more energy than is expected of him.
His tasks at his co-op were not only outside his desired profession, but he struggled to deal with his employers who mismanaged the company and resulted in him working late, afraid to say no for fear of repercussions. They also failed to deliver him payments on time and continually put them off. Due to his condition, Raj was afraid to confront them to get his payment and simply waited in the hopes they would eventually get back to him. After a few months they finally delivered, but not without missing a few hundred dollars of overtime which he still hasn’t received and likely never will.
Raj doesn’t feel he can approach his co-op counsellor since he worries they work primarily in the interests of their school’s reputation and less for the students, something which puts them at odds with student interests when it comes to asking for advice or consultation. He believes that employers should be absolutely confident that they’re up to the task of employing students when hiring them, instead of viewing students as a means of cheap or hard-working labour to perform tasks outside of their team’s expertise.
A lot of these tales are why Michelle, a student working on a Masters in Production and Design, is working on a game called Depression Simulator. She’s dealt with depression for most of her life but has only recently began speaking openly about it, hoping to eliminate the stigma against people speaking openly about mental health issues and encouraging others to seek help for them.
While she admits her schooling isn’t responsible for her condition, she doesn’t think it’s helped much either. She cites the competitive nature of getting one’s “foot in the door” in the game industry as a primary issue since the constant underlying stress of exceeding expectations and building a strong portfolio is pervasive through a student’s life.
Working in game development can be a struggle enough as-is, but the struggle for students is not only similar, but also new.
Academic institutions and employers alike should remain acutely aware of the many difficulties that students with mental health issues deal with not only to minimise the difficulties affected students face but to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable and strong enough to pursue their passions.