The previous year in the video game industry was punctuated by multiple high-profile layoffs, studio shutdowns, and the occasional genuine scandal. One of the results has been a new public chapter in the ongoing conversation about the personal and mental toll that game production takes on the people who create them.
Take This is a Seattle-based non-profit organization founded in 2013 by game journalists Russ Pitts and Susan Arendt, following the suicide of a colleague. The organization, which takes its name from a famous line of dialogue at the beginning of The Legend of Zelda, works to “provide resources, guidelines, and training about mental health issues in the game community, thus reducing the stigma of mental illness.”
Take This’s most visible service is the AFK Rooms it’s been providing since 2014 at gaming conventions across North America, such as the Penny Arcade Expos. An AFK Room is a quiet place for con-goers to relax, away from the noise and hustle of the show floor, with a friendly staff of volunteers and clinicians to help visitors regain their calm.
Raffael “Dr. B” Boccamazzo, Take This’s clinical director, led several panels at last year’s PAX West about the potential use of games, particularly tabletop games, as therapeutic tools and vehicles, such as “Am I Playing a Role: Identity Exploration and RPGs.” Earlier this year. Dr. B opened Save Point Behavioral Health in Bellevue, Wash., in partnership with Seattle-area clinician Sarah Hays. He’s also a regular player at Clinical Roll, a regularly livestreamed tabletop game played and run by a group of mental health professionals.
Eve Crevoshay, Take This’s executive director, has been working with non-profit organizations for 15 years. In addition to Take This, she also serves as a managing director for the New York-based musical charity Found Sound Nation.
GeekWire: I sat in on your panel at PAX West 2018 about games as an identity exploration tool. I was curious, walking out of it, why Take This is specifically focused on video game enthusiasts. What drew you to that cross-section of the population?
Eve Crevoshay: We’re part of the community. The founding story was a story about a colleague of Russ and Susan’s who committed suicide, and it started a conversation inside the industry.
Mental health challenges exist throughout the population. That’s not a surprise, but every community and every subculture needs a language in which to talk about that. It needs a friendly space and a friendly language. Every industry has specific challenges related to mental health, and the games industry is no different.
So Take This is a game culture-specific, games industry-specific response to mental health challenges, and is very deliberately engaged in that community in order to support it. There are lots of mental health organizations out there that don’t speak game, and are skeptical or not supportive of people who are really into this culture, and the very different, very cool ways in which people love and are fans of games.
Raffael “Dr. B” Boccamazzo: To jump onto that and add to it from a mental health perspective, there are a lot of mental health professionals who really view geek and gamer culture as an extremely monolithic construct. We exist to, in some respects, bridge that gap, between mental health professionals and geek and gamer culture, where we can explain that no, a video game is not just a video game.
Game studio culture is a very different experience from triple-A to indie, and they have different stressors. We are able to offer and teach some of those things to clinicians so they can provide the appropriate support for the nuances of this culture.
Crevoshay: We have a paper called “Crunch Hurts.” We have a very specific set of conversations and services that we provide inside the game industry that are designed to address the specific nature of creative work, of the developer cycle, the boom and bust cycle that exists within game companies … the specific challenges around the culture in games companies. … We consult on organizational culture and practices, community management, mental health safety, and online environments.
GW: I didn’t know you did so much on the ground within the industry itself. Obviously, everybody knows you from the AFK Rooms.
Dr. B: Even with the AFK Room, one of the things I like to tell people is that it takes a lot of work to look like nothing’s going on. Before we bring an AFK Room to a show, we end up doing a full consultation and evaluation of a show to make sure that their policies, practices, the way they work with their staff and attendees, and their infrastructure are conducive to an AFK Room without turning it into something it’s not. We do a lot of back-end work just with the AFK Room program, in addition to all this consultation stuff that we also do.
GW: To help make conventions more accessible and welcoming to people who might be neurodivergent.
Crevoshay: Not just neurodivergent.
Dr. B: One doesn’t have to have a diagnosis to find conventions challenging and/or overwhelming.
Crevoshay: Just to parse it a little bit, because this is often a confusion that comes up, is that neurodivergence isn’t technically a mental health diagnosis. It’s a separate category. People with it often need the AFK Room space, for example, but there are a lot of other situations and experiences that people have, or specific environments that are challenging for people whether or not they have a diagnosis, and whether or not that is a psychiatric diagnosis or something else.
One of the things we really strive to do is normalize the experience of mental health challenges because it’s very, very common, and it’s not something to be embarrassed about.
The more we talk about it, the more we can provide a space, to say, “This is OK. If you’re having challenges, don’t be embarrassed about it. Don’t try to hide it. Come to the AFK Room, come use our resources.”
Say you feel like this is happening in your workplace. Seek out Take This as a resource in your workplace, in your community, knowing that what we provide first and foremost is just a place where we accept and respect that part of everybody’s divergence.
GW: We’re talking a lot right now about crunch in games development, especially in the wake of events like Telltale closing or the culture at Rockstar. What are some of the challenges you’ve seen as a non-profit, dealing with the effects of crunch time in the video game industry?
Dr. B: If you look at the [International Game Developer’s Association]’s developers’ satisfaction surveys over the last 10 years or so, you see an emerging awareness of the fact that game developers work hard. In some cases, it’s self-imposed, because games are a passion, and it’s really easy to get locked into your passions. In some cases, it’s a culture at the studio, a sort of unspoken expectation that you will work hard, and you will finish all these projects and then some.
Regardless of the reasons, overwork exists in the games industry, and again, looking at the surveys, it looks like it’s slowly getting better. But it’s still happening, and we know that there are negative effects to overwork, regardless of what industry you’re in.
It just so happens that there’s this culture of overwork in the games industry, and we want to do our darnedest to make sure that people are aware that that’s a thing, but also have some appropriate practices on how to avoid that thing, and actually make their work more efficient and creative in the process.
Crevoshay: I would add that not only is overwork still a thing, but consider the particular challenges of being an indie developer, outside of the large studios and outside of the protection of size and flexibility, where you’ve got to worry about funding, timing, and resources.
That’s common across creative industries, and we see it as a place where self-imposed crunch really still exists. For example, Mike Wilson, who’s on our board, is from Good Shepherd and Devolver. He’s been in the industry for years. He’s noticed — he’s been very vocal about this — a number of the indie developers at Devolver and Good Shepherd showing up with major mental health crises during the process of development, because of the toll that can take on their lives and livelihoods.
It hasn’t gone away, even though it first became a real hot topic about 15 years ago in the games industry, and it’s still a major thing.
GW: Are you talking about the “EA Spouse” thing?
Crevoshay: Yeah. Devolver has commissioned a great game, Fork Parker’s Crunch Out, and it’s about crunch. It’s a limited run, and the proceeds benefit Take This. It’s a generous thing that Mike and Devolver have done, and it’s a fantastic description of what crunch can do in a game form.
GW: So it’s a Super Nintendo-styled game, or it’s an actual cartridge?
Dr. B: It’s an actual cartridge.
Crevoshay: In the presale, Mega Cat Studios received a number of messages from people in the games industry, some anonymous, some not, saying “Hey, this is the story about some crunch that I had 10 or 15 years ago. It’s still traumatic for me, I’m still afraid to talk about it, but thanks for making a game about it.”
What that says to me is that these experiences and the culture that supported them are still around, and it’s still a big deal. We need to continue to validate that experience and the trauma it can cause, to say “Hey, that’s not OK.” Take This still needs to be the voice in the industry that says mental health matters, mental health challenges are normal, and these practices do not support mental health.
GW: There’s definitely a feeling that you earn your bones in the games industry by putting in those 10 years of crunch, where you don’t really sleep and you live off Skittles.
Dr. B: My first thought was, “Yeah, if you make it 10 years.”
You’re absolutely right. I think that for a lot of people, it’s for the best of reasons. Games are their passion. It’s the same thing you’d see with a musician or an actor. It’s hard to set limits on your passion when you want it so badly, but it makes it easier to crash and burn.
GW: Do you think that part of it is the culture, where the higher ups know that there are a lot of passionate young programmers who’ll put in that kind of work, and who can be replaced relatively easily?
Dr. B: The majority of the people we encounter are incredibly well-meaning. They’re just passionate. You get a large enough sample, you’re going to get malevolent people anywhere, but really, the majority of the people we run into just want to make games.
Crevoshay: The reason that Take This offers management training as part of our consulting services is because these things are hard. They take knowledge, and experience, and figuring out structure, and that’s not how a lot of these companies start, right? A lot of these companies start because somebody says, “I want to make a really cool game!” Then two and a half years later, they have seven employees, and everybody’s about to not be paid for the 15th month.
It’s really about how does Take This provide resources to the community in a way that supports, recognizes, and honors the passion, but gives it some structure and some parameters.
GW: I’ve been talking to a lot of people lately who tell a lot of stories about that passionate workforce being up against more mercenary sorts of management. It’s interesting to see a perspective from your side of things. You’re seeing a different side of the business just because of who comes forward to you, and your specific areas of expertise.
Crevoshay: There’s a narrative that labor’s going to engage in that’s not our narrative. The truth is that we, Take This, have to provide and create as big a tent as possible, because everybody is affected by mental health challenges and everybody is going to need support.
So we are as inclusionary and as welcoming as we possibly can be. That’s intentional, because we also recognize that there are a lot of nuances inside companies, communities, and fandoms, we need to try to honor them, as long as they’re safe in terms of mental health practices.
We just developed and launched our Take This streaming ambassador program. It’s our entrée into this certification process, saying that we’re going to create parameters about what makes a safe mental health space, and we’re going to ask these streamers to adhere to a set of behavioral standards. We’ll provide them with some training and resources that they can bring to their communities. We’ll train them, we’ll train their moderators if they’d like it, and that creates expectations of what will happen when you show up in this streams, in these communities, and in these chats.
That’s something we’re planning to bring across the industry. There’s a basic level of behavior and interaction that’s safe and appropriate for supporting mental health. That’s where we want to start.
Dr. B: There’s an acronym that we’ve been using a lot lately. It’s a great mnemonic because all you have to remember is “extra virgin olive oil.” EVOO: Empathize, Validate, Offer Options.
Crevoshay: In addition to creating safe spaces, we also want to provide these people, who are advocates for mental health, with parameters about what they should do, and what they do not need to do. A Take This ambassador would know what the parameters are, and doesn’t feel like they’re compelled to offer therapy because that’s not appropriate. Stuff like that.
GW: It seems like there’s that middle range of streamer where they end up being a sort of advice columnist to their audience whether they like it or not.
Crevoshay: That’s a level of emotional labor, and that’s come up in the streaming community.
Dr. B: All the time.
GW: I’m curious. It seems like relatively specialized psychological language, like “triggers,” has become more mainstream in the last few years. What’s your perspective on that?
Dr. B: I hate to be a contrarian, but I still think it’s a relatively unknown concept. One of the struggles that I run into when educating people is that they know the words but don’t know the meaning. As part of our destigmatizing effort, I try and coach people to stop using psychological terms in common parlance, because they don’t necessarily understand what it means, and we end up conflating normal experiences with these psychological terms.
Some of the kids I work with, who I’ve worked with long enough, if a new kid comes into my group and says, “Oh, my God, I’m so triggered,” the rest of them know what’s about to happen. They know the talk the kid is about to get on what that word actually means.
One of the things we encounter all the time is, “Oh my God, I’m so ADD,” and we have to educate people on what that means. This is both personally and professionally meaningful for me, because one of the things I’m very open with is my autism.
GW: Your Twitter bio used to say that you have Asperger’s?
Dr. B: Technically, Asperger’s doesn’t exist anymore. It’s all been combined into autism spectrum disorder as of 2013.
But one of the things that goes along with that, a lot of the time, is attentional challenges. For me, when someone’s like, “I’m so ADHD,” I think, “Do you really want to know what that experience is like? Do you understand what it’s like to be distracted by a piece of dust floating by and literally forget what you were just talking about?”
That’s not a daily occurrence, that’s a minute-to-minute occurrence. That’s what it’s like. We exist to educate people on these psychological terms that I think most people are misusing.
We're gearing up for #PAXEast and looking for volunteers for the #AFKRoom and the #HopeBooth! If you'll be in Boston for the show and can spare some time, we'd love to have your help! You can sign up here: https://t.co/cUQDoaRYqE pic.twitter.com/SgP92GoDXg
— Take This (@TakeThisOrg) January 31, 2019