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GDC 2024: Occupational Burnout 2024: Causes, Impact, and Solutions

TL;DR I gave a talk about burnout at GDC 2024 with my co-speaker, Tim Stobo. The talk and slides are freely available on the GDC Vault, and a summary write-up is available on Game Developer.

What is Burnout?

Picture provided via Adobe Stock.

Burnout was designated as a syndrome by the World Health Organization in 2019, and according to Drs Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, it is caused by exacerbated and sustained stress in the workplace. In some countries, burnout is a medical diagnosis. If you're a developer reading this, chances are you've burned out before or know someone who has. It is my personal belief that burnout is one of the most prevalent and pervasive workplace hazards within game development, which is destroying people's lives, careers, and the studios in which they work.

The Beginning of Burnout: Symptoms

I've burned out twice during my time in game development. Each instance happened years apart. One was related to crunch, and the other was not.

I can confidently say the impact of burning out on my mind, body, personality, personal life, and career upended my life. Both times, I lost large mounds of hair, couldn't adequately sleep for months, and turned into a cynical form of myself I didn't recognize. As a former competitive athlete, I was confused and frightened by the immense exhaustion I felt that no degree of vacation or holiday could fix. Burnout dramatically impacted my memory retention during the worst of it. I wish I could say I'm the only one who has experienced these symptoms, but I'm not. When experiencing full-on burnout, these symptoms and side effects are often the rule, not the exception.

In each instance of burnout, I thought I could push through the bad to see the light on the other side. If I could just get through this one bad project, better handle that one terrible manager, or regulate my personal self-care and attitude properly – all of this would get better. I took regular vacations and used up my PTO, thinking everything would improve with some time away. Instead, I'd return to work feeling worse than when I'd left.

The first time I burned out, I left my role and position completely. I decided to pursue my dream of graduating from college and finally chase my dream of becoming a writer. Thankfully, I accomplished both those goals and took up a position teaching at a university. I slowly returned to game development, this time as a game writer and narrative designer. Surely, I had learned from my last round in game dev and would have done better this time. You can imagine my surprise Pikachu face when I found myself back in Burnout City, but this time, I had no idea how I'd gotten there. I hadn't worked over forty hours a week and was well paid. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, 'How did you let this happen again?'

Studying Burnout Research

Lis Moberly and Tim Stobo, a lead designer.

However, one key difference existed between my first burnout marathon and my second. I had gone to an absurd amount of school and learned about research methods, analysis, and how to delve into databases. So I did what I always do when I have a problem these days – when in doubt, go to the library. I quickly found a small mountain of burnout studies, articles, and books to read.

I also spoke to anyone I could with qualified expertise in the area – neurologists, psychologists, doctors, burnout intermediaries in countries such as Sweden, and organizational behavior specialists. And, of course, I spoke with my friends and others who had experienced burnout in game dev. It turned out it wasn't hard to find these people. If you go into any kitchen, launch party, or game dev Discord server, you'll find people reeling from the impact of burnout.

In particular, I met Tim Stobo, a AAA lead designer who was also on burnout leave in the Netherlands. Despite the time zone upheaval between his country and California, we started speaking regularly. We exchanged notes, papers, and emails. We created one of the first known surveys in the game industry asking developers about burnout. We were stunned by the degree of response, but the answers were invaluable. They painted a clear picture of what was happening in our studios and what we needed to do to address the problem.

The Path to GDC

A snapshot of the last-minute panic edits to our slide deck the day before our presentation. There was a lot of Pocky involved.

So there we were – two burned-out developers with a hard-earned pile of information we wanted to share with our friends and the industry. We decided that taking the stage at GDC was our best bet at helping our friends and colleagues. Thankfully, some of our friends had given a talk on burnout last year. Our friend, Doctor B, outlined a high-level breakdown of burnout elements, and the rest of the panel shared their personal experiences with burnout during their time in game development.

Tim and I wished to build on that talk. Our goals were simple: We wanted to establish what burnout is, dispel the myths that research has debunked about burnout, and illustrate how the syndrome is being experienced by developers themselves. We hoped that devs would better understand what had happened to them and that studios would be better able to respond properly.

There was so much Tim and I couldn't cover at GDC about burnout, but we understood that in order to have the nuanced conversations developers need about burnout, we'd have to build a solid foundation first. I am grateful we were given the opportunity, but there is still far more work to be done.

Looking Forward

Burnout is a topic that cannot be fully summarized in a single hour at GDC. I will later publish an annotated bibliography from our talk, but for now, the talk and its slides are freely available on the GDC Vault. Bryant Francis at Game Developer also wrote an excellent summary of the talk that is freely available.

We want to especially thank everyone who has spoken to us about their experiences over the past three years. Burnout is a vulnerable topic, and we were humbled by how many people shared some of their hardest experiences and truths with us in order to help us move this effort forward. Thank you, thank you.

For those who wonder whether there is any hope at the end of the burnout tunnel, I believe there is. It took a lot of work, but in both instances, I found that with time, distance, and a hard evaluation of what mattered most, I was able to recover. My memory returned, I could laugh and enjoy my life again, and the exhaustion that had settled into my bones faded. I will speak more about what recovery looked like and how that fits in with broader findings about burnout in the future. For now, I am grateful to have been a small part of the conversation about burnout in games, which I believe must continue in order to support the developers who make the games we play and love.

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