(Featured Photo by Katherine Chartier.) I see burnout coming in the distance. It’s an old familiar friend. One I’ve done the dance with at least 3 times before in my gaming career. It’s that temptation of knowing my life would be infinitely easier if I just ceased designing or staffing games all together, that I have a day job I love and so much in my life which isn’t this source of constant stress. As I contemplated this uncomfortable truth over the last few days, however, I hit a realization that we’ve all known a while but I did not want to face:
I have never burned out in gaming because of creating; I’ve only ever burned out because of the people.
I could create until the cows come home. On good weeks, I average writing well over ten thousand words and there are still more trapped inside my head. When games are going good, plot is flowing, players are filled with excited story, and the out of character drama is to a minimum, I’ll come up with more plot and design than I know how to ever handle. The fountain never stops. But when the inevitable love of gamer drama and lack of care in words on the internet begins to surface, that creativity fount abruptly trickles dry. I begin to question every choice I make — not to the point of just making better choices, but to the fear of making any choices at all.
The game community has some horrible habits which drive many of the best game designers, developers and organizers off the craft at all. I doubt we’re the only community with them, I hear this from a lot of my friends across a wide range of professions, but this is the place where I can write from experience. Those habits include (but are not limited to):
- Looking for every little mistake to be angry on the internet about them as loudly as possible
- Forgetting there are people behind these decisions, not just words on paper
- Leaving no room for forgiveness or learning how to do better in the future
- Forgetting that every game designer is human and makes mistakes
- Giving the community no time to learn and grow as we go through a lot of rapid changes in a society that is becoming better, more aware, and more respectful
- Insisting every design be totally functional, if not perfect, before it ever hits the public
- Not accepting that not every game is for every player; sometimes you’re just not the audience for this design and THAT IS OKAY
Now I know a bunch of you are mad already, so there are a few important things to emphasize before I continue:
- No, this is NOT ALL GAMERS. In fact, I’d say it’s about 10-15 percent of a very vocal minority and the almost 90 percent left are amazingly lovely, non-toxic, fully understanding, forgiving, supportive creators/players who are the ONLY REASONS I KEEP DOING THIS. But that vocal ten percent has driven more amazing designers away than it’s kept around in the community, I promise you. And it seems low, but that 10-15 percent number means that as LARP gets more popular, the raw number of people making toxic, bad-faith criticism gets higher. In a 50-player game, it’s 5 people and manageable, but in a 500-person game that’s ten times the emotional self-care creators have to do just to avoid burnout — which, itself, burns them out.
- Actively dangerous people should be called out and publicly handled in the community. Things like sexual assault, repeated, targeted harassment, and/or a pattern of targeted, abusive bullying are not things to be be swept under the rug because you are scared of being a toxic gamer. We’ve allowed these things to linger in our community too long and only protected ourselves through a whisper network through way too many years. If someone is an active danger, don’t give them a pass. Now, I can’t tell you where this line is, and it’s one of the hardest things we are trying to learn in gaming to this day. But it’s a thing that weighs heavy on my mind and heart on a daily basis.
- Respectful, constructive criticism is always a good thing, please see Lyn Hilton’s guest blog from earlier this week.
So, I’m not talking about those above things. I’m talking about the fact that your game creators are still only human themselves and are absolutely going to make mistakes. Even when trying to take into account for sensitivity, a diverse player base, accessibility issues, and more, there will be something we miss. When putting together a system, we often have stared at it so long for so many months that a gaping hole with go lost to the entire team because our eyes are cross. As we communicate between different cultures, something which is utterly not an issue in another place might be blinding and glaring elsewhere. The world has gotten a lot smaller, information travels a lot faster, and people are emotionally burnt out on all ends of the spectrum, so we are quickly forgetting how to be kind to each other.
While it’s always been this way, I feel like it’s actively gotten worse over the last few years. As the United States continues through this time of active oppression and unrest, all of us are at our wits end. Things we might have handled with grace before suddenly are the little pushes we need to go over the edge. Disenfranchised people are literally scared for their lives and watching themselves be actively erased and threatened by our government. Any little place of control, respect, and visibility is a place to be held onto tightly. I get it and, frankly, as a white queer woman in the United States, these last few years are the first time I’ve ever actually felt scared over showing my identity (and I acknowledge I’m still GREATLY among the privileged where society is concerned.) So, I understand why everyone is on edge and there isn’t much room for forgiveness over mistakes in our spaces.
However, as I’ve said, your game creators aren’t perfect. We’re going to get things wrong. We don’t have the time or money to hire the perfect team, write the perfect system, or do a series of background checks for every person brought into our staff. I’m one of the lucky people who does actually manage to scrape by some money in gaming and when I looked at my hours/income from this past year, I made a little over three dollars an hour. It’d be far lower if it wasn’t for my Patreon. I’ve also put ALL of that money DIRECTLY back into gaming. And I’m still getting it wrong. I know I always will, because I’m not perfect, I come from a place of privilege, and I’m not a mind reader. But, as I start developing for 2019 and we focus on creating an entirely new larp/production company, I find myself exhausted just thinking about presenting things to the gaming community again. I have been burned by too many times and am not certain it’s worth touching that hot stove, even if we might cook something great.
But, it is. These stories are worth telling. These systems are worth designing, making better, more inclusive, more safe. They will never be perfect, no, but they are getting better and that is the WORK WORTH DOING. So, I’m asking gamers everywhere to take a few minutes and be more conscious of the vitriol being spread on the internet. Take a breath, step away from the computer, and truly evaluate your words before hitting enter. Remember that your game creators are real people and, I promise you, most of us didn’t go in designing to make people out of character uncomfortable, unsafe, or erased. Give us room to fail forward and help coach us when we do make mistakes. Angry words on the internet often shut down conversation when open dialogue, explanations of where we went wrong, and assistance to do it better in the future would help better our entire community. Give us a chance to learn, please. Remember we were your friends once. Help us develop better, not damn us for not being perfect the first time.
And no, no one is obligated to do the emotional labor of teaching us to do better. For Velvet Noir (the new project) the first paid hires we are bringing onto staff are cultural writers because, frankly, I’m too white to write this respectfully and I acknowledge it. I would rather disenfranchised voices get paid before I do. But, if you have the energy to turn mistakes into teachable moments with creators who are trying their best, I think it’s worth doing. If you don’t, even recommending sensitivity readers and others who we could compensate for the work is a huge help.
Assuming that we’ve gone into design to make shitty things or be shitty people is a sad state of affairs, but that seems to be much of the blame that has been thrown around the internet. I really hope, in 2019, we can see the start of this cultural change instead of continuing to drive off some of our best minds because they simply couldn’t do it any longer.
(If you liked this and want to support an exhausted, broke game designer doing what I love, I do have a Patreon I keep forgetting to remind people about. https://www.patreon.com/spacebetweenstories. Even a dollar or two helps keep the game fires lit and all gets directly poured back into the community.)