Game developers share their insights on working with ADHD

Features
5 months ago by Peter Amato

Though the GDC roundtable focused mainly on game devs, a lot of the takeaways are applicable to anyone with an attention-deficit disorder.

Joel Gonzales uncaps his marker and turns to a fresh page on his easel. The attendees that ring the too-large room fidget and murmur while Gonzales, the Firaxis Games UI lead who pitched this ADHD in the Game Industry Roundtable to the Game Developers Conference, waits for them to quiet. He gestures to the easel.

“I thought structure might be good for this crowd.”

The widespread laughter confirms we’ve all come to the right room. Gonzales copies down suggestions for topics to explore, most of which are never covered. If they are, they’re immediately abandoned before momentarily resurfacing later in the hour. Fittingly, the roundtable focusing on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is the most disorganized GDC event I’ve attended.

I don’t mean to be disparaging; I’ve been living with ADHD for 25 years. Mostly for my own benefit, I listen closely to the discussion for what nuggets of advice I can glean. And there are some great tips buried in the meandering group dialogue! Gathered below are the most coherent tips for living with ADHD that the roundtable helped me pick up or reinforce. Most are useful even if you’re not interested in working in games!

(Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional! If that’s what you feel like you need, you should instead seek out someone properly trained. I am someone who works full-time in games while stuck with my previously acknowledged attention deficit. See these tips not as coming from someone trying to treat you, but from someone else who sought this advice.)

Keep the Internet Away and Your Hands Occupied

The internet and ADHD don’t mix well in a work environment. If you’re one of many that work exclusively on their computer (and/or their phone, like in my case), it’s too easy to distract yourself online when work gets boring or too demanding.

As I looked around the room at the roundtable, I noticed something in common between many of those engaged in the discussion: their hands are occupied while they speak or listen. Some younger-looking attendees played with fidget spinners in the corner. Others held pens for taking notes. Jonathon Goulding (see his helpful tweet below) shuffled a deck of cards as he chimes in to the discussion. While others’ gazes drifted toward phones and laptops, theirs stayed on the person speaking.

If your hands don’t need to be touching a mouse, keyboard, phone, or writing utensil, keep them busy with something else! If you’re required to work on or adjacent to the internet, you can either: a) grab a pen or designated fidget object instead of opening that distracting browser tab, or b) work in airplane mode or disconnect your wifi when possible.

Write Things Down

To be honest, there’s probably some sage advice from the roundtable that didn’t make it into this piece. Why? Because I didn’t write down as much as I should’ve. While it’d be ridiculous to constantly transcribe your life, diligent note taking can be a useful skill for one with ADHD, especially if you work in games.

For anyone working on the press side of games, that’s a no-brainer, but other developers might find this a helpful tip too. One thing I did not expect going into my first gamedev job was the amount of daily meetings studios can have, along with the myriad things to remember going into and out of them. While unwilling devs should beware of accidentally becoming the team’s designated note-taker (I’ve seen it happen…), jotting down important points you want to make or post-meeting tasks can be a helpful, if simple habit to form.

As I left of the roundtable, I was reminded of a general rule imparted by my childhood psychiatrist: if there’s a lot going on, write down everything you really want to remember.

Beware the Allure of Crunch

“Crunch,” also known as “that hellscape of prolonged overtime, constant deadlines, and little extra pay,” is already... a bit of a hot topic in the games industry. Combine the current struggle for games workers to unionize with crunch’s preexisting abysmal reputation and most developers would tell you the practice has little allure, if any. However, devs who have trouble staying focused might tell you differently.

Much of the room nodded in agreement when one attendee said he “likes” crunch. It keeps him on task. I get that. Fear is a powerful motivator. It’s difficult not to focus when you don’t have time for distractions. But crunch has serious mental and physical side-effects, as any veteran of triple-A development can tell you. Even if you’ve never designed, programmed, or written so fast before, be wary of neglecting the rest of your life. If you must endure crunch in your career, see it as a lesson that you are capable of willing yourself to work more efficiently, instead seeing it as the only way you can do so.

People Out There Want to Help

If you’re simply looking for advice on wrestling with ADHD or casual self-help, games-themed non-profit Take This has covered the disorder often in their self-care focused content. They’ll even help point you toward finding a therapist if you’re seeking one. Companies like NeuroPlus offer brain training help for children and adults with attention issues, though their subscriptions and equipment can be pretty pricey. In short, some quick Google searches can go a long way.

Look for Help in the Right Places

A recurring piece of advice from many devs at the roundtable was to find someone you can rely on at your studio who complements the strengths and weaknesses that come with ADHD.

While I agree with the sentiment that fostering teamwork is a positive thing, it’s not exactly fair to expect a fellow dev to always function in a support role for you. It’s one thing to ask a coworker questions about the level editor, but it’s another to always expect a person to pick up your slack or even let you vent to them. If support is what you need and nobody in your life is providing you with enough, you may want to consider therapy or counseling. If you feel you might need medication to manage your symptoms, you may want to seek out a psychiatrist specifically.

#GDCADHD

Toward the end of the roundtable, the room decided on a Twitter hashtag to continue our scattered conversation.

A quick search for #GDCADHD will point you to the handful of posts that followed over the week, as well as a handful of profiles you might find to be worth following!

Join Our Discord Server!

Gonzales ends the roundtable by inviting everyone in the room to add their email to a list. This list will be used to set up a sort of “ADHD in Games” Discord server, which will then supposedly lead to the forming of an ADHD Special Interest Group of the the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). Whether or not the SIG is ever actually formed, if you want to join the Discord server (as soon as it’s established, that is; there were a ton of emails) you can reach out to me at amatopeterj@gmail.com, and I’ll personally make sure you’re added to the group.

One last time, I want to reiterate that I’m not a mental health professional. Nor am I even good at adhering to my own advice. I wrote most of this article in two minute bursts while distracted from my mostly unrelated job. Perhaps that should be the last piece of advice. If you find the above tips just “aren’t that simple” to follow, you’re mostly right. Keeping yourself on track with ADHD is hard, especially if you’re working in, or trying to break into games. But if there was one main takeaway from this year's GDC roundtable on living and working with ADHD, it's this: you’re not alone.

All photos via the official GDC photostream.