Brett Schnepf was a veteran of the game industry, with decades of experience. Earlier this month, he killed himself. In a GoFundMe campaign for funeral expenses, his son Duke recounted with pride how his father was part of so many amazing teams in the video game business. The elder Schnepf had worked on the original Xbox, Flight Simulator, Sidewinder, and many other projects. The original Duke controller for the Xbox was named after Schnepf’s son. I held that controller many times, and as I think of the joy that it brought, and his death makes me so sad.
The suicide devastated a close circle of friends in the game industry that was already reeling from the pandemic. And it’s one reason that The International Game Summit on Mental Health Awareness (TIGS) is urging men to come forward and seek help when they need it, TIGS founder Mark Chandler said in an interview with GamesBeat. Schnepf was one of Chandler’s best friends from the 1990s. The death was one more blow in a pandemic that has claimed a lot of people, and it was yet another reason to highlight mental health in gaming.
Last year, Chandler and Eve Crevoshay, executive director of Take This (a mental health group for the game industry) hosted the first-ever TIGS event for mental health awareness in games last October in Toronto. And Chandler noted at that time how sad it seemed that men were too proud to admit that they needed help or too embarrassed about going public with the stigma of mental health vulnerability.
“The biggest problem that I had with last year was that I was the only male there except for one other person,” Chandler said. “That was unbelievably disappointing.”
As he was working on this year’s event, Chandler also wanted to make sure they addressed the topic of suicide in the game industry. And then the surprise news of Schnepf’s suicide came as a complete shock to Chandler. Schnepf was one of the first people Chandler met in games.
This year’s TIGS will have between 60 and 75 speakers, Chandler said. One of the prominent speakers will be John Smedley, the co-creator of online games such as Everquest and who now runs one of Amazon’s game studios in Orange County, California. Smedley has been openly talking about his depression and how he manages it in the hopes of helping others realize they are not alone. Smedley urged people to talk about mental health and seek help. For that honesty, we gave Smedley the 2020 Vision Award at our GamesBeat Summit event in April. We also gave Crevoshay our Up-and-Comer award for her work on mental health in games.
Chandler said he hopes that the presence of high-profile men in the industry will help. And women are welcome, too. The speakers include folks like Brenda Romero, CEO of Romero Games and award-winning game designer; Tammy McDonald, game industry veteran; Mike Wilson of Devolver Digital; Kate Edwards of the Global Game Jam; Gris creator Hector Fuster; and many others.
“Men are not talking about getting support,” Crevoshay said in an interview. “John Smedley is a notable exception. He is clear that he has depression and he has a very specific self-care process and that everyone in his orbit is aware of what’s going on and they are supportive. And that’s a really powerful thing and it doesn’t happen often enough, especially with men. Given the number of men in games, this is a conversation that needs to happen.”
The event will also touch on issues such as diversity, wellness, self-care in streaming and content creation, and the risks of gaming-related disorders, where people may play too much. Sessions will have both game industry veterans and medical experts such as psychiatrist Bruce Ballon. Other topics include game design for empathy, mental health and community management, ethics and immersion in games, personal testimonies, mental wellness in indie games, accommodating differences, why representation matters to mental health, and health concerns in esports.
Crevoshay hopes the turnout will be improve because it’s a virtual event this year. It will have a single track of talks on October 7 and October 8.
“Last year, we had this amazing gathering that was very intimate with folks from the industry talking about some of these issues, and it was very productive because we had some really substantive conversations,” Crevoshay said. “We can’t meet in person this year. But what we can do is bring a lot more people to the table.”
She added, “The profile of the speakers is significantly different. And that’s really exciting for us because it means that the conversation is really advancing. And the level of exposure to these issues is really increasing. That’s fantastic. Like we saw at GamesBeat Summit, the conversation is elevated. We’re also simultaneously trying to maintain that sense of community and camaraderie.”
Chandler said the group is still seeking sponsors to help with the costs, and he hopes that corporate support will materialize at a time when everybody needs help during the pandemic. It does have an anonymous supporter, but the group would also like more official support from companies across the industry.
“This pandemic causes negative momentum, but it’s drawing attention to the issue for sure,” Crevoshay. “I feel really gratified that people want to have this conversation, which has been an uphill battle.”
When Crevoshay got involved a couple of years ago with Take This, not much conversation was taking place about mental health and its connection to other challenges in the game industry.
“It’s not insurmountable. These are hard problems. And they exist across a lot of places in the industry and the world,” Crevoshay said. “I often say that my job is to talk about mental health as loudly as possible as often as possible in as many places as possible, just so the message gets across that it’s okay to talk about it.”