Making Meaning in Game Dev

Content Warning: suicide, mental illness

Disclaimer: This is an opinion article, and not meant to constitute medical or health advice. If this article brings up uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, please seek help. Some initial resources have been listed at the bottom of the page.

“Sixteen year old James is bullied at school. He doesn’t fit in, is teased and excluded. Dread follows him in each day, and he spends recess and lunchtime in the toilets, waiting for class to start again. James sometimes thinks about suicide. When he gets home to an empty house, he boots up his computer, puts on his headset, and joins his guildmates where he has a sense of belonging. A sense of mastery, friendship, and joy.”

I’m not a gamedev, but I’ve met a bunch of them. I’m a psychologist, my partner is in the game industry, and I’ve noticed something whenever I introduce myself as a psych or talk about my work with gamedevs. There’s often some kind of value-laden comparison of the work we do, with phrases like “real work”, “useful to society”, and “I just make games” thrown around. I guess I’m writing this to challenge some of those assumptions around the value of games in society.

Games are a lot of things to a lot of people, and I love the way that games are full of potential. They are challenges, escapes, relief. They are pleasure, distraction, revelations. They are cultural, political, philosophical. They are a product, a service, an experience, an art. They are a medium through which we tell stories, connect, share, and belong. I guess because of this very nature, games being as varied as the people who make and enjoy them, it can be hard to pin down their worth. It can be easy to scrap nuance and say, “Well, they’re entertainment. Nothing more than a bit of fun.” Certainly games can be fun, but they can be so much more.

“22 year old Jasmine is hit on as a female character, by a female character, in her favourite RPG. It is a lightning bolt moment for her as she navigates her sexuality. She feels safe and empowered in the setting to explore something that IRL is fraught because of her strict family and community. Jasmine connects on the forums where people have made fan-art of those characters together, and shares a collective fascination and desire there.”

At PAX, and recently at GX Australia, I eagerly anticipated the panels on mental health, mostly to hear from the audience about their experiences*. There’s such a shared feeling in that audience that games have made a huge difference to their lives, myself included. Maybe even helped them save their lives. Games do this through lots of mechanisms; through challenge and accomplishment (gotta get that trophy/Rank 1), representation (diverse player characters), agency (power to choose and move), connection (teamwork, guilds, competition), distraction (from quick phone games to full-blown raids), reward and progression (levelling up and opening chests), and much more.

“Max, 45 year old CFO at a corporate multinational, finishes their highly stressful workday involving high stakes and many people’s jobs. Angry and with a headache on the train back to their family, they play a few games on their phone, helping transition between work and home. By the time their partner, Jamie, meets them inside, Max has switched gears and is ready to help cook dinner and care for the kids.”

Gamers** are often some of the most passionate hobbyists out there, whether they express that through the hours they dedicate to games, through cosplay, through modding, through pages of forum posts or online walkthroughs and guides. I wonder how, when someone has created something that means so much to people they might never meet, is that not valuable? As a psychologist, I might have a strong effect on a few people in need, and the changes are often visible to me. Games can have a small effect on a huge number of people, and a strong effect on some, though mostly the creators won’t ever see the true impact of their games on their audience. Which is more valuable?

“Zhang, a 32 year old programmer, stays just a little later at work again. She’s in the zone and writing some really elegant code, ideas flowing faster than her hands can type. Next week is play testing and she can’t wait to see people experience the game that she’s worked on with her small team. Zhang finishes and sends through the latest build, taking a moment to thank the artist for their recent work on the polished sprites, they look fantastic.”

Finally, I wanted to note how games are meaningful not just for those who play them, but for those who build them. Game developers dedicate weeks, months, years to their games. Sometimes working alone, often with many other people, each person puts something of themselves into the work they do, and at the same time take something out of it. The rates of mental illness in the videogames industry are high, and so the need for protective factors like wellbeing and meaning is urgent. What meaning do you get out of the work you do, or if you like, the art you create? If you’re struggling to come up with something you think is valuable, ask others, google “how videogames have helped…”, check out and decide what is meaningful for you. Next time you introduce yourself as someone who makes games, do it with pride, and remember why you do it.


General Mental Health Resources:

Lifeline 13 11 14,

Beyondblue 1300 22 4636 ,

Mensline 1300 78 99 78,

WIRE (Womens Information and Referral Service) 1800 615 370,

Videogames Specific Mental Health:

Prescription Pixel,

Take This,

*The speakers were great too, every one of them!

**I realise gamers is a fraught term. Here I just literally mean it as people who play games.