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Normalizing depression in the games industry

Chris Charla, Mike Wilson, and Callum Underwood talk about their own struggles with depression, what's worked for them, and changing attitudes within the industry

Mental health is something development studios are increasingly concerned about, but there are still relatively few developers willing to openly discuss their own struggles.

During a session at The International Game Summit on Mental Health conference yesterday, a panel of developers talked about their experiences with depression in an attempt to normalize such discussions throughout the industry.

Our Machinery co-founder and CEO Tricia Gray moderated the panel, which consisted of Microsoft ID@Xbox director Chris Charla, Devolver Digital co-founder Mike Wilson, and Robot Teddy's Callum Underwood.

Wilson began, saying he first realized he suffered from depression about 17 years ago, noting it is hardest for him to manage when he is idle for stretches of time. But over the years, he's found a variety of techniques that help provide some balance that keeps it from becoming truly crippling.

"Now I feel like it's my job and that of others who have suffered with it and are in a position to speak freely within the industry to do so," Wilson said. "I've been trying to bring up the issue of mental health in the games industry with independent developers we're working with and gamers themselves as often as I can."

"Step one is just to talk as openly and casually about mental health issues as you would about any health issues with people that you care about"

Mike Wilson

Understanding and helping people manage mental health just comes with the territory when working with creative people, Wilson said, specifying that includes engineers and the like.

"For me it shouldn't be any different a conversation than, 'Hey, how's that knee replacement going?' It should be just as casual a conversation with the same level of concern... I think everybody can agree step one is just to talk as openly and casually about mental health issues as you would about any health issues with people that you care about."

Underwood said he ignored his own problems with depression until they hit a breaking point while he was working at Oculus.

"I should have been the happiest I've ever been," Underwood said. "Everything was going well. Nobody hated Oculus back then, it was fun. But I ended up texting my boss that either I quit today or I take six weeks off because I need to go figure some stuff out about myself."

Underwood said it was difficult, noting he believes there's a greater stigma around mental health issues in the UK than the US, particularly when it comes to seeing a therapist. Nevertheless, he went into therapy and discovered almost instantly that he hated it and stopped going.

"But during that process, seeing doctors and having them tell me, 'You are depressed and you have anxiety, and that is a medical thing,' was like a huge weight off my shoulders that I didn't know existed," Underwood said. "Now it's a problem that I know exists. I can approach it, fix it, and handle it, whereas before that it was just, 'I feel sometimes I don't want to do anything, I feel very low and I get very stressed.' For me, I actually liked it having a label and I was able to approach it properly."

One such approach he advocates is not hesitating to take mental health days off work when needed. Underwood says he broadcasts them on Twitter when he takes them not just so people know to expect he won't be responding to work inquiries for the day, but to normalize the practice for his own co-workers and the industry at large.

"I know how I'm supposed to behave at work... The place I struggle is when I come home and there's so much I can do, but [I do] nothing. It sucks"

Chris Charla

Unlike Underwood, Charla doesn't broadcast his mental health status. In fact, he said this panel was the first time he's discussed the problem in public, and possibly the last as well. He's been coping with his mental health issues for a while, saying they first set in around college, when he just felt unable to do things.

"For me the big thing this takes the form of is the amount of frustration I feel being depressed," Charla said. "There's so much cool stuff out there, so much I want to do. I have the opportunity to do so many great things, but you have this weight on you and you just can't do it."

Similar to Wilson, Charla said his mental health is hardest to maintain when he's dealing with unstructured time.

"I know how I'm supposed to behave at work," Charla said. "You're supposed to work. Send emails, have meetings, have projects... There's a formula there. I'm not saying work isn't complicated and gray and weird and everything else. ...For me it really helps. The place I struggle is when I come home and there's so much I can do, but [I do] nothing. It sucks."

Underwood picked up on that idea, but warned that using work to manage depression has considerable drawbacks.

"I feel like I get a very unhealthy amount of self-validation through work," he said, adding, "I get more validation from my work and career and things I do with other people than perhaps is a normal person's experience."

Charla agreed, saying he has had to work consciously to do things in his personal life where he can have more or less success and know it's not tied to his career, like putting together zines or DJing.

Mental health days can help, but Underwood acknowledged sometimes there's a crucial meeting or obligation, and on those days he just puts on a figurative mask and takes care of it anyway.

Wilson said he actually finds it helpful to face down those kinds of obligations when he's not feeling up to it.

"When you're depressed, you just assume everything's going to be the worst... but most of the stories we tell ourselves in those situations can be counted on to be lies, a projection of the worst possible reality, which we very rarely actually face"

Mike Wilson

"Actually showing up for those things when you don't really feel like it is often important for me," Wilson said. "Just not giving up. Because when you're depressed, you just assume everything's going to be the worst when you get there. It's going to make everything harder, but most of the stories we tell ourselves in those situations can be counted on to be lies, a projection of the worst possible reality, which we very rarely actually face."

He added, "Everybody has to figure themselves out as far as how they cope with this, and a lot of it is just experimenting, but I encourage people to show up when they don't want to because it's most often a pleasant surprise. And there's just a sense of accomplishment, which is key."

That said, he heartily recommends anyone feeling like a "worthless lump" to stay off social media, because there is no shortage of people on social media who will be eager to agree with that assertion regardless of who you are or what you've done.

As for whether the industry is getting better at handling and understanding mental health issues, Wilson said possibly on the indie side of things where Devolver has the most experience, but improvements are not uniformly spread around the industry.

"From what I understand from developer friends who work at big companies, it's still tougher for a developer," Wilson said. "That weird pressure that game developers put on each other, there's still some of that leftover machismo about what a badass you are because of the number of hours you work, but secretly it's because you have nothing else going on and this is the one thing that makes you feel ok."

Gray asked the panelists if they found that acknowledging their mental health issues had cost them any of the privilege they experience as white males in the games industry, an idea Charla refuted.

"I don't think you lose any privileges, because I think privilege is something that society gives you," Charla said. "It's the head start society gives you because of how you look and what you are. You didn't ask for it, and it's also wholly undeserved... The unfair advantages people get because of privilege, I think they continue to get those unfair advantages no matter how they feel because it's an external unfair advantage."

"I don't want to say having depression gives me an edge, because that's not true. But I understand other people better because I go through the same stuff they do, and I think that helps me in my career"

Callum Underwood

Underwood agreed, saying it might actually make him relatable to people, particularly since he works with independent developers.

"I don't want to say having depression gives me an edge, because that's not true," Underwood said. "But I understand other people better because I go through the same stuff they do, and I think that helps me in my career. So no, I don't think my privilege is removed at all. I think it benefits. I feel having a better understanding of my own mental health and what other people might be going through has helped me navigate different developer conversations over the years and not just be straight-up business guy."

Wilson agreed, saying it was just another facet of white male privilege.

"In my experience, the feedback I've gotten from expressing openly is, 'That's so very brave of you,' or it makes you seem vulnerable or it's good for your brand... I'm not sure people who are not born in our position get that same level of, 'Wow that's so brave.' They might get 'typical woman,' or whatever projection of a racial thing you can say, or just that quiet understanding that this is something we're going to have to put up with as we try to elevate other people."

Underwood also noted that the panelists had additional privilege to talk about this issue because they are more established in their careers than many newcomers to the industry.

"I grant you that I'm able to talk about this now because I'm not scared of what someone might say tomorrow, because I'll just not work with them again if it's a thing," Underwood said. "You can't say that at first for junior developers and people at the beginning of their career. This is really important, and I also think it has to also happen at studios directly, to encourage this sort of thing and allow people to open up."

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