Mental Health: Challenges in the Game Industry

In this article, Kokku’s Head of Creative, Tamir Nadav, discusses the mental health challenges in the game industry, emphasizing the need for support amidst shifting landscapes and demanding work environments. He delves into how Kokku ensures to combat these hardships and works to foster a healthier workplace culture for our team.

I’m going to talk about mental health today, but first, let’s start by painting a picture of the industry as it stands now.

In the past 18 months, over 20,000 game industry professionals have lost their jobs. The average time to find a new job generally averages around 3 months, but this time is lengthening and many people have hit 9 months, 10 months, even a year without finding new work. While many companies offer severance packages, these are usually just a few months of cash – no health benefits, and no additional perks. There are less open positions now than there have been, and competition has never been more fierce.

All of this is constantly in mainstream discussion, but there’s a part that gets talked about less – the trauma of all of these events, and how they affect our mental health. While the specific way layoffs happen tend to vary, most of the time employees are caught by surprise. The first time, you may think that HR or your Manager want to discuss a new initiative, project, or just catch up, only to discover that you now need to completely upend your life and shift priorities. Then, when you start working at the next company, and suddenly a meeting with your manager appears with no note for 2:30pm on a Friday, you immediately start planning risk management in your mind. You check your savings, what you can cut back on in the future, maybe even start looking at LinkedIn prior to the meeting… just in case. That single incident has given you lifelong trauma and fear for surprise meetings. But in the games industry, and even tech as a whole, this isn’t a rare occurrence. For many, this has happened to them 2, 3, even 4 or 5 times over their career. And in the case of this author, 9. Nine times with no warning, studios have downsized, priorities shifted, companies have closed, divisions sold, and I have had to walk out with a cardboard box and realign priorities. And this is just one of the many ways that employee mental health can be detrimentally affected by the industry.

In countries like the United States, an employee’s survivability is very specifically tied to not only their salary, but their employee-sponsored health insurance. Unemployed individuals need to pay generally around $1,000/month for themselves or close to $2,000/month for their whole family. At a time without income, this is a terrifying proposal. However, even someone employed at a game studio may not have good mental health coverage. Worldwide, even nationally sponsored healthcare is heavily focused on the physical body, but mental health care requires significant outpatient contribution. We use our minds every day, all day, to create content or solve problems for our companies, yet this is the least protected asset we have all around the world.

To put it succinctly, Houston, we have a problem. Mental health issues are rampant among video game developers of every race, gender, color, sexual orientation, and nationality. The games industry is famously demanding, with many veterans complaining of long hours, toxic working environments, little vacation, and low salaries keeping employees trapped with loyalty. Employees are pushed down, overworked, underpaid, pushed to the breaking point, and then laid off on what can feel like a whim. Then, we find another company as fast as possible, tightening our belts to survive the long gap between paychecks, and things repeat. It’s important to say that we have definitely come a long way in the past few decades, but we are still far from addressing these core concerns.

There are programs out there that function similarly to work-sponsored physical health programs, focusing on mental health. These programs, worldwide, can help ensure that employees have all the resources they need as long as they also have the freedom to take advantage of these programs. In addition to just offering covered therapy, psychiatry, psychology, and medication, it’s critical for companies to understand that many of these sessions need to take place during the workday – very few therapists have very late or really early hours. Similar to “unlimited vacation” at many companies, employees are given the possibility, but encouraged not to actually use the benefit until after the next delivery, milestone, project launch, or other such upcoming deadline.

At Kokku, we have launched an initiative to use an online service for multiple monthly therapy sessions, 100% at the employer’s expense. This, along with regular internal communication on the importance of self care, mental health awareness, and healthy management techniques over projects, can ease the day to day and even long-term stresses. We can give our employees the space to breathe, to live comfortably, and to grow. Healthy minds lead to healthy bodies with better sleep, better relationships, and to improved work contributions.

We are not yet at a time where we can look around and say that we’re a healthy industry, especially not in the past 18 months. Not even close. But there are readily available resources for employers to use to help. There are micro changes, for example the scheduling of innocent meetings, that can avoid giving an employee a bad few hours, or a horrible night. Giving employees the ability to take control of their mental health, removing barriers of scheduling and budgeting, also goes a long way. Creating internal groups for mental advocacy and understanding employee general opinions on studio health will give all employees the ability to maintain their mental health.

There are also things that we can do now, as individuals, to protect ourselves against the stresses and traumas. When and where possible, step away from your desk for 10-15 minutes, at least twice a day. Breathe. For lunch, get away from your desk as an absolute minimum if you can – ideally leave the building. If you work from home, switch your environment as well – eat in your dining room, eat outside, anywhere except from where you work. If you can take a full hour (which you should be legally required to do, depending on your nation’s labor laws), see if you can sneak in a 20 minute nap as well. I only discovered naps in my 40’s, and it has absolutely made a difference in my mental state day by day, and long term as well.

Even with the unpredictable nature of the industry, employees are still paying the unnecessary price by sacrificing their mental health, their life’s stability, in favor of putting their passion into the projects they love. Into the industry they love. But just imagine what can be possible if these employees are well rested and not living with fear. To be able to receive on Thursday, a 20 minute meeting show up on my calendar at 3pm on a Friday, and not live in dread for the next 24 hours. I look forward to not having to write 3-4 LinkedIn recommendations per week, or sending colleague after colleague to other colleagues who posted a new vacancy less than an hour ago. These are still traumatic times, and we need all the help we can get. Worldwide, the first step to fight back is to champion mental health causes within your company. Start internal discussion groups and help raise awareness for the necessity of mental health programs, including fully compensated therapy/psychiatry sessions for employees. It starts with employees demanding change, then companies responding. In time, we can have a truly safe and healthy industry – of this, I am confident.