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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Toxicity in Gaming Is Rampant. This Nonprofit Is Fighting Back

“It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this,” says the famous quote from the iconic game The Legend of Zelda. In life, it is dangerous to go it alone—and having a supportive community is critical, particularly for people experiencing mental health challenges.

This memorable line of dialog inspired the name of the nonprofit Take This, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in November. The organization has been promoting mental health by combating toxicity in the gaming space for the past decade, and its reach and impact continue to grow and create positive change. Take This was founded upon three key needs and goals: support, community, and mental wellness. 

The organization’s reach is far and wide. Among its projects, Take This is working with the US Department of Homeland Security to investigate racism and sexism in the gaming community. 

Building Stronger Communities

Take This is committed to building better gaming communities and working alongside game developers to ensure anti-toxicity measures are built into games. The nonprofit’s vision is a welcoming gaming community that supports gamers who are experiencing mental health challenges. 

The work of Take This trickles into many corners of the gaming industry. Executive director Eve Crevoshay tells WIRED that the organization’s mission “is about reducing the stigma and increasing the support for mental health and mental well-being in games in the gaming community.” This means Take This is looking at what factors are unique to video games that either support or challenge people’s mental wellness, Crevoshay says: “How do we create the conditions to increase well-being?”

She adds that a lot of what Take This does is about looking at how people experience making games, playing games, and “being in online game spaces and in game-adjacent spaces like Twitch or Discord.” Making those spaces the “best experience possible,” says Crevoshay, fuels the mission of Take This. 

Combating Crunch

Another part of the nonprofit’s mission is engaging in conversations around mental health. “What we did at the beginning,” says Crevoshay, “was say, ‘Hey, mental health is an open conversation. We’re going to bring this to the table.’”

Mental health awareness—and coping strategies and resources for mental health challenges like depression and anxiety—is shifting dramatically as more people speak openly about mental health. Take This created rooms at PAX, a series of gaming conventions, where people could go to “escape the intensity of the gaming floor,” says Crevoshay. “Because game conventions are really loud, stimulating, and intense.” The intention of these rooms was not only to provide an escape but also to start a conversation about mental health in the gaming community. 

Mental health issues don’t affect just gamers, of course. There are also game creators and developers who need these resources too. “Crunch,” or working overtime when developing a video game, is common in the gaming industry, and Take This is committed to reducing its negative impacts. Creator burnout is also a focus of the organization. 

“Crunch is when a team is working an extreme number of extra hours, and it has been a prevalent problem in our industry,” says Chelsea Blasko, co-CEO of Iron Galaxy Studios, an independent video game studio that has partnered with Take This. Blasko says it’s something that Iron Galaxy Studios works really hard to avoid. The studio prioritizes employees’ access to mental health resources, flexibility during working hours, and more. If someone needs to take their dog to the vet, for example, they can do so and “not feel guilted or harassed by their team or like you’re letting them down,” Blasko says, adding how crunch creates “really negative pressure to overwork yourself.” Iron Galaxy and Take This partnered and hosted panels about avoiding crunch, and Take This has hosted workshops for the studio’s employees. 

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Blasko explains how the pandemic was a catalyst for increased mental health support. “We saw this increase in mental health needs by our employees,” she says. The need for additional resources to help the studio’s employees cope with stress in both their personal and work lives led to the partnership with Take This. 

How Did Take This Take Off? 

Take This had a sad start but a happy outcome. The nonprofit’s founders created Take This following the passing of Matt Hughes, a game journalist who died by suicide. “It’s OK to not be OK, and it’s also OK to ask for help!” says a Take This blog post in memory of Hughes

Crevoshay writes how the passing of Hughes “catalyzed our founders to do more than grieve and to found an organization dedicated to erasing the stigma of mental illness in the game community.” The nonprofit’s commitment to helping the gaming community find mental health support is propelled by the memory of Hughes and the life that was lost. 

Blasko says that Take This is unique in how it approaches mental health in gaming. “There are things that are kind of unique to the gaming industry,” says Blasko. “And one of the things I love about Take This is they provide tips for finding a therapist—a process which can be daunting and feel stigmatizing.” Blasko admires how Take This and Iron Galaxy are “really committed to destigmatizing mental health issues.” 

Take This is uniquely positioned in the gaming industry because, Blasko says, “they understand these challenges in a way other organizations don’t.” 

Jeff Burrell, the head of social impact at Riot Games, has worked with Take This on several  initiatives. He praises the organization’s work, saying the nonprofit’s team has “a great reputation in the games industry, and in particular their research and programs are very well thought out.” 

Burrell and Take This identified an opportunity to create materials and resources for streamers to “help create a positive change,” he says. Burrell explains that the impact of this was twofold. It wouldn’t only help streamers with their mental health and potential burnout, “but it would also help those in their communities and in their chat,” he says. 

Riot Games and Take This have collaborated on creating mental health curriculum for the gaming community and addressing creator burnout. Burrell and Take This have also focused on the needs of marginalized people in the gaming industry and have worked to make gaming a more inclusive space. Riot and Take This hosted panels around this topic and have made them available to the public, including one on Black Identity and Gaming Mental Health.

Combating Extremist Ideologies in Video Games

The gaming world can have positive and negative effects on a user’s psyche. Playing video games generally promotes well-being, provides stress relief, improves cognitive abilities and problem-solving skills, fosters a greater sense of belonging, and allows you to explore different parts of your personality. 

But there’s a flip side. In the world of video games, extremist ideologies have become “increasingly prevalent,” according to a recent study from Take This’ research director and research psychologist, Rachel Kowert. Kowert reports that people who identify as gamers may be more prone to extreme behaviors, including racism and sexism. The way these extremist behaviors and beliefs develop is less clear, however. The study looks at how certain personality traits—like attachment style and degrees of loneliness—can fuse with gaming culture to “amplify support for extreme behavior … to embrace antisocial attitudes and behaviors.” 

Take This is actively working to fight this. The Department of Homeland Security recently issued a substantial grant to Take This to help investigate radicalization in gaming communities. 

Creating a gaming community that is more open and inclusive is at the forefront of Take This’ mission. Whether it’s combating extremism or creating welcoming and mental-health-positive spaces, the organization sees these initiatives as key to affecting positive change and making the gaming world a better, more magical place to be. As another quotable line from Zelda says, “Courage need not be remembered, for it is never forgotten.”

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