The Games Industry is Toxic

Content Warnings: crunch, burnout, layoffs, general toxicity

Toxic Mushrooms on a computer Art by Chris Furniss

One of my most memorable birthdays was during my first games industry job. We were in the middle of several months of crunch, so I was still at work the midnight before my birthday. My friend and I took a break and got two beers out of the fridge to celebrate our two birthdays (one day apart), clinked bottles, then went back to our desks. We were working 80+ hours a week and it didn't look to be letting up anytime soon. It was pretty devastating a couple of months later when the game we were working on was canceled. I had just spent months of my life crunching and I was utterly burnt out physically, mentally, and emotionally. I didn't even have a finished game to show for it. That birthday memory? It's not one I look back on fondly.

If you've never experienced burnout, it's hard to convey just how soul sucking it is. Nothing I did made me happy. I was exhausted and irritable all the time. I wanted to sleep all day every day, but even when I did that, it didn't get better. This is what I felt like for a year. An entire year of going into work and browsing the web because I couldn't focus. I had been programming for 10 years at that point and loved it to bits, but I couldn't find the energy to do it. It just wouldn't come to me. The worst part was, this wasn't even my first experience with burnout in the games industry - I had been taught to do this.

Game Developer University

DigiPen describes itself as “A Leader in Game Development Education” and while it certainly taught me a lot of game development skills, what I learned most was that it is acceptable and often required to drive yourself into the ground in the pursuit of making games. At our orientation meeting for the incoming class, the president of the school proudly proclaimed that 50% of the students would drop out because it was “too hard”. It was clear he considered that a good thing. The school had structured the class schedules so we would take five years of courses compressed into four years and there were multiple semesters where 22 credits were the recommended course load. We looked at that as a source of pride because most colleges only recommend 12-16 credits per semester. I now realize that is an incredibly unhealthy amount to take on.

Students regularly stayed at the school until 10pm only to reappear at 8am for another 14 hour day. It was pretty common for students to have mental breakdowns. Some just disappeared never to be heard from again (literally) and many developed substance abuse habits to cope with the unrelenting stress. And just like the president of the school said, a majority of the class had left by the end of four long years.

I barely made it to graduation. I was so detached from school and personal life that I genuinely had a hard time feeling any emotion. It was difficult to understand how wrong that should have felt because so many people were experiencing the same thing. I paid DigiPen tens of thousands of dollars and they taught me how to burn out and then gave me a diploma at the end of it as a congratulations.

Lepiota brunneoincarnata - Deadly dapperling Mushrooms

The Toxicity Runs Deep

When I say the games industry is toxic, I mean the behaviors of the people as a whole in the industry are detrimental to the health and well-being of themselves, their coworkers, and their families. I've heard stories about almost every major company out there that range from a low burn of toxicity that occasionally bubbles up to completely and unrelentingly toxic all the time. There are pockets of people, teams, and companies that aren't toxic, but they're relatively rare.

Here are some examples of toxicity in the games industry:

I have so many personal stories across multiple companies and decades that it's hard to remember specific instances as they all blend together into one big ball of pain and the longer I stay in this industry, the bigger that ball of pain gets. I am not the only one with a ball of pain - almost everyone I know in the games industry carries their own. These horrible stories are so common that when I talk to people outside of the industry, they inevitably ask about them. It's what we're known for.

It Gets Worse

It's not a secret that the vast majority of the games industry is made up of cisgender, heterosexual, white men. Because they're the overwhelming majority of people in the games industry, we tend to only hear and talk about toxicity that affects them. However, toxicity doesn't affect everyone equally, it disproportionately affects our underrepresented and marginalized communities. While my story is one of a cis, white man, it is important for me to include and highlight what happens to those in our industry who aren't a part of the majority. Their stories are not mine to tell, but they're important to listen to if we want to understand the full depth of the toxicity in our industry.

Here are some examples of toxicity specific to the underrepresented and marginalized communities in our industry:

The additional layers of toxicity due to racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and ageism compound the effects of the already existing toxicity that permeates the industry. Game Devs & Others: Tales from the Margins is a must read for understanding how this toxicity affects people.

Amanita phalloides - Deathcap mushrooms

The Great Lie

We tell ourselves that the industry has to be this way in order to create the amazing games we all love. We tell ourselves this because the alternative is absolutely terrifying. If games could be made without all of the pain, suffering, and abuse… then that means we chose that path ourselves. We chose to suffer not because we had to, but because we wanted to.

Let me be clear: when I say we, I mean the people who lead companies - executives, managers, and senior employees. We are the people most responsible for how our industry functions because we have the power. We make the decisions to hire and fire, we pay the salaries, we teach others the ways we make games, and we exhibit the cultural norms that others follow. We have that responsibility whether or not we want it.

Over and over I've had game developers tell me that games are inherently harder to make than movies, music, and non-game tech - but I don't agree. Games are harder to make because we use harmful development practices by ignoring decades of research and knowledge from other industries and because we ignore the ever-present emotional abuse that exists in our companies. We intentionally make it difficult so that if we fail we can have something to blame other than ourselves. We push those of us who don't look or act like us out of the industry with microaggressions and hostile work environments so that we can feel special and unique as game developers.

The examples I've listed aren't one-off instances - they're a pattern of behavior. I've seen and experienced the effects of this toxicity in person. They are representative of how we behave as an industry. They are representative of us. We need to own up to that before we can change our behavior.

The Long Burnout

After 15 years of this, I am tired. I am bone-weary. There are days, weeks, and sometimes months that I want to leave the games industry. I ask myself on a semi-regular basis why I'm still making games when I'm paid less and have more stress. What I mentioned at the beginning happened to me early on in my career, but it has not dramatically improved over the years.

I've been at a company that declared bankruptcy, two of the companies I've worked for were acquired and drastically changed, and I've survived all of the many layoffs except one. I know many people who have been laid off several times and a few who have been laid off twice from the same company. Multiple games I've worked on, that account for several years of my life's work, were canceled. Why do I keep doing this?

I've dreaded going into work because I was terrified of interacting with emotionally abusive “rockstars”. These interactions gave me a near constant anxiety that spanned months and were responsible for too many sleepless nights and nightmares to remember. I've had studio leaders tell me to avoid those “rockstars” as a way of tolerating their abuse instead of dealing with the situation. I've been told how necessary they are even when their teams are underperforming because of how they treat everyone else. Why do I keep doing this?

Seriously, why do I keep doing this?

This is not a new question and The Long Burnout isn't a sudden thing. It was built piece by piece by managers telling me to crunch, companies promising me raises and promotions that never happened, emotional abuse and indifference by people in charge, interactions with toxic fans, and the ever-present fear of being told my job is gone tomorrow because of a layoff or studio closure. I've watched as my friends leave the games industry because of how beat down they are and I wonder if I will follow soon.

When I was laid off a year ago, I seriously considered leaving and getting a different tech job. I interviewed at a number of different tech companies but never found one that quite fit. Even though at times it's caused me a lot of pain, I still love the games that we create. I've wanted to make games ever since I played Lode Runner on my father's computer as a kid and that desire is hard to give up. I love games and I love creating them.

Galerina marginata - Autumn skullcap mushrooms

An Industry Wake Up Call

We need to change. We desperately need to change. We've already lost so many people's voices because of how we treated them.

I didn't know early on in my career how harmful this toxic behavior was. I didn't know how to push back on leadership when I was suffering partly because I didn't even know I was suffering. I didn't realize how powerful I could be by speaking up.

If you are a cis, white man in the games industry, I need you to educate yourself and use your voice to stand up against the toxicity in our industry. Why you? Why did I single out cis, white men, including myself? Because we are the majority of game developers, we are the majority of management and leadership, we are paid more than everyone else, we are the most likely to be rehired by someone else if we are let go, and we are the least affected by the toxicity since so much of it is focused at people of color and white women. I'm not going to ask those most marginalized by the toxicity to fix the problems that we created.

Educate yourself on the harms of the toxicity in our industry and then use your voice to push back. Not just to your coworkers or manager, but also in large meetings. Stand up for others who haven't found their voice yet or don't feel comfortable using it. It's going to be really strange speaking up at first, but it gets easier the more you do it. As Kim Crayton always says: Cause a scene and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Read books on how to run healthy teams and how to be a good manager. Even if you're not a manager and don't want to be one, knowing what a good one looks like can be incredibly helpful when you're advocating for change. Push others to do the same. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is an excellent starting point for getting teams aligned behind a common goal. The Goal teaches how to prioritize work over the long term and build a pipeline to ship a product. The Manager's Path is an incredibly detailed, bullet-pointed guide on what an engineer's career looks like from just starting out to being the CTO of a company and what each role's responsibilities are. Multipliers discusses the behaviors that help multiply team output and also the behaviors that accidentally detract from the team and cause harm. These are books I recommend every single person who works on games read regardless of what you do.

Follow these books up with many, many more. There is no end to learning about this stuff, it is an ongoing process.

Join a union. Seriously. Please join a union. The games industry has not historically had them, but that is changing with the work from Game Workers Unite. They are in the process of creating unions in many different countries, so if one doesn't exist in your area, reach out to them and help set one up. Don't wait for things to get really bad before you work with your colleagues to set boundaries for management. Be pro-active and join together to push for a healthier work environment.

Read books about toxic masculinity, sexism, and racism because they are at the cause of many of the behaviors we see in our industry. It might seem weird that I'm suggesting books that have nothing to do with game development, but these will show you how many of the cultural behaviors in the games industry are toxic and how to help change them. So You Want to Talk About Race is an absolutely amazing book that is the perfect starting point to learn about race, privilege, intersectionality, and micro-aggressions. Why Does He Do That? delves deep into why emotionally and physically abusive men behave the way they do and what to do about it. More than one of my past managers are described in that book. Crash Override is a phenomenal book by game developer Zoƫ Quinn that details the abuse and harassment she received from the gamergate mob. The Will to Change shows a way forward for men out of the toxic masculinity that we were brought up in.

Follow people on social media that are a part of underrepresented and marginalized communities from our industry. They deal with the most toxicity and have often been fighting against it the longest. I'm not going to list anyone here because doing so will send harassment their way, so please do some work to find them yourself. The fact that they'd be harassed by merely being in a list is proof of the fact that we have a long way to go to get rid of this toxicity.

Amanita bisporigera - Destroying angels mushrooms

Do Something Today

Set up a meeting with your manager and ask how you can help improve the working conditions for your team and company. If you're in management, bring it up with your leadership team. If you're not at work, please email yourself a reminder right now - I'll wait. After the meeting, set a recurring reminder for yourself to talk to them every month. The toxicity in our industry is not something that can be easily fixed, so it's going to take years of work and following up.

Buy one of the books I mentioned above and read it. If it particularly speaks to you, buy several copies for your team. Set up a reading club to discuss the books and talk about how you can apply what you've learned to what your team is doing. Repeat with more books.

I am not somehow excluded from this responsibility. I have been toxic in the past and I'm positive that I won't be perfect in the future. When I started in the games industry, I emulated the culture around me and it's taken a lot of time and energy to unlearn the toxic behaviors that I thought were normal and even expected. It is imperative that we change and make this industry better for ourselves, those who work with us, and those who come after us.

Do It Before It's Too Late

I was originally going to end this article with an uplifting paragraph explaining how I believe we can pull together to make the games industry less toxic. I do believe that, but I also believe that unless we get everyone to help now, we're going to lose too many people from this industry in the meantime.

Remember that ball of pain I mentioned? This article has been incredibly difficult to write because I've had to partially unravel that ball and closely inspect it. I've had to surface memories that I'd rather not think about again. I hope that you take away something from this article and help change our industry. Please learn from my experiences and take action today.

Listen, I know what I'm asking for isn't fun or easy or what you want to be focusing on. I would much rather use my energy to make games than talk about and fix a toxic industry, but I can't change it by wishing it were different. I have to do the work. I'm asking you to join me.

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