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It’s been a tough few years for game developers, and that’s why Eve Crevoshay is focused on making a difference for them. She is the executive director of Take This, a nonprofit devoted to mental health issues for gamers and those in the gaming industry. And today she is receiving the Vanguard Award from Games for Change.
New York-based Games for Change (I’m moderating a few sessions at the upcoming Games for Change Festival on July 13 to July 16.) is a nonprofit dedicated to highlighting game changers who want to make a social impact through games or immersive media. The Vanguard Award recognizes people who advance the mission of using games to change the world for the better. Past winners include Mark Barlet of Able Gamers and Gordon Bellamy of the University of Southern California and the CEO of Gay Gaming Professionals.
Crevoshay, who says she is the product of hippie parents, has been executive director at Take This for four years and she came to games by accident, after she met her husband David Edery, a game developer. During her time on the job, game developers have had to endure mental health challenges related to the pandemic, mass shootings, the #MeToo movement, #BlackLivesMatter, crunch, and more.
Crevoshay is an outspoken advocate for speaking up about mental health issues and she and Take This helped with Mark Chandler’s efforts to create TIGS, the International Game Summit on Mental Health. Those events have had rare moments of candor where game developers speak openly about mental health issues they have faced in the hopes of spreading the message that we are not in this alone.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Congratulations. Can you describe the award more for us, what it entails?
Eve Crevoshay: What I know about the Vanguard Award is just that it recognizes someone who’s doing exciting and compelling work in the space around Games for Change’s mission, which is to advance the potential for games to be used in ways that change the world for the better. That’s certainly what I strive to do every day in my work. I know it’s chosen between Games for Change and the previous award winner, who was Mark Barlet from Able Gamers. Those are two great organizations working in games alongside what we do.
GamesBeat: How do you look at your mission? What is your mission?
Crevoshay: There’s the way that I personally look at it, and then the way I think about it from an organizational standpoint. I’ll start with the latter, which is that we’re trying to make the game industry a more humane and more informed place for people who make and play games. We do that by looking at what are the things specific to games that have both positive and negative impacts on mental resilience and well-being. We think pretty broadly about mental health and well-being. We can and do do a lot of stuff to talk about mental illness and diagnoses and getting treatment and so on, but there are so many important aspects of playing and making games that have to do with protective vectors, or the negative potential impacts of mental health and well-being. The ability for people to have the tools and the resources internally to respond when things happen, to respond in healthy and appropriate ways when things happen. We’re always thinking about that. That’s how I would describe our mission. It’s easy to repeat our mission and our vision, but it’s really about how we make that happen on a daily basis.
GamesBeat: How did you get interested in this?
Crevoshay: The sound bite is that I was raised by hippies in northern Vermont. That’s influenced everything about my worldview and my sense of purpose. I’ve always wanted to change the world. It’s funny. On Friday last week I was part of the career day at my daughter’s fifth grade class. We were talking about why I do what I do. Well, I’m an executive director, which means I talk to a lot of people and answer a lot of emails, but what I really try to do is change the world using the systems and tools I have. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. It hasn’t been a straight line to that, but I’ve always been in nonprofit and charity work. I’ve used my specific skills around communication and writing and storytelling and thinking strategically. It was always a question of figuring out how that fit in with what I wanted to do in the world.
I did a variety of things in a variety of nonprofits, but when I came to Take This, I was becoming increasingly interested in decreasing the stigma around mental health and mental illness. Helping people talk about it and communicating about it. Helping people understand what it meant to have a mental illness, what it meant to get treatment and support, and what it meant to have a supportive community around you, why that was so important.
I came to games by accident. My husband is in games, and that was how I met the folks at Take This, but it wasn’t like — it wasn’t something I was planning to do. I kind of fell into Take This. It’s been awesome. It’s amazing to be part of this community. It’s amazing to be able to do the work that I do inside this community. I didn’t really plan for this specific career move, but I love it. I really love it.
GamesBeat: How many years at Take This is it now?
Crevoshay: It’s been four.
GamesBeat: I imagine that when you were growing up, there was a lot of stigma anywhere you could see around mental health.
Crevoshay: There’s stigma everywhere. There’s also a real misunderstanding about mental health and what it means. Especially when–I’m 43. In the ‘80s and ‘90s the conversation around mental health was really one about people’s worth to society and to the world. That didn’t exist if you were mentally ill. That’s a harmful conversation, and it’s one we’re still grappling with, but there’s more and more acceptance of it.
I see, in my own extended family, people whose mental illness was so stigmatized that they didn’t get the treatment and support that they needed when they were young, and that’s snowballed into much worse outcomes as adults. It was clear to me along the whole spectrum of mental illness, from the relatively common anxiety and depression to much more serious psychiatric illnesses, that that kind of supportive community and space–if it doesn’t exist, it really can snowball quickly.
GamesBeat: When you looked into gaming, starting however long ago it was, what did you find about the relationship with mental health?
Crevoshay: What’s really interesting is how much the conversation has shifted in four years. Which is good. But some of the same issues still persist. When I started, the issue was crunch culture. We were talking about toxic environments in places where people make games. And on the other side, among game players, the controversy was just starting around the WHO adopting “internet gaming disorder” as an actual diagnosis. Which still exists, but has now been debunked. The moral panic around games has never gone away, but there was an urgency to that conversation four years ago that’s muted a bit now, because we have much better science around it.
In the U.S. the challenge we’ve had is that we have these mass shootings all the time. A lot of them are perpetrated by young men who play games and are in online spaces that are game-adjacent. The moral panic conversation around violence in games and shooting in games and disaffection is a tough one. We try to bring science and reality to that conversation so that people who play games don’t feel like they are vilified too much. That’s a tough one.
GamesBeat: It almost seems like it’s taken quite a few catastrophes for a different perspective on mental illness to happen. The pandemic first of all.
Crevoshay: It does take a catastrophe, but it also takes–there are two pieces, a couple of different pieces to that conversation. One is that the science needs to be there. There’s better science, better research around it. And two, the public conversation in the U.S. is so tied to the political reality and to the state of misinformation and disinformation. It’s a complicated thing to tease out.
One thing that’s complicated about this is that people want to claim that games are not political, or they don’t have a meaning, a culturally relevant meaning. But they do. Games are both a reflection of and a statement that describes culture, that creates culture. Comments on our existing reality and our ways of thinking. We know that people are able to distinguish between in-game violence and out-game violence. Violence doesn’t translate. People make a specific distinction between the two. They’re not learning things or practicing them.
But with that said, the environment in which people play games, the space around them, the social environment, the chats, the specific stereotypes that are in games, those do have an impact. We do have to think about them critically. As my research director says, games are social currencies. They have a meaning to them. It’s nuanced. We have to be very careful in these conversations. It’s a very nuanced conversation.
GamesBeat: For a long time people who did this sort of thing were simply summed up as crazy.
Crevoshay: Which is, one, “crazy” isn’t an accurate clinical term. It’s a legal term that was used. And two, what does that mean? In conversations, for example, around white supremacy, hate is not a mental disorder. That’s an ideological issue. How do you parse out people’s real mental illness from ideology, and how do you do that in a nuanced way in public conversation?
GamesBeat: I don’t know how long ago exactly things started to change, but it felt like about 2019 that it became more acceptable to come out and acknowledge that people were having a hard time, more acceptable to say, “Hey, I need some help.”
Crevoshay: There’s been a couple of things. The general public, broader cultural conversation around mental health has shifted. The pandemic really changed things. Suddenly everyone had to talk about mental health. The series of revelations about gender-based harm in games that started with Riot and a bunch of streamers and folks in that community in 2019, and then snowballed with Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard. That’s opened up the conversation about harm in games and well-being games a lot. You had your platform early in the pandemic with the GamesBeat conversation, where John Smedley and I had the opportunity to talk about mental health in games. John shared his story and that was really wonderful.
I see that there’s no–it’s a forcing function. It had to change, because it really wasn’t working for so many people. But the pandemic has been such a profound piece of that puzzle. Suddenly managers in studios and studio leaders were confronted with widespread mental distress and lack of well-being. They were experiencing overload and burnout themselves. The conversation–that’s where I see the most profound shift, to be honest.
GamesBeat: I remember John Smedley saying things like one in six people have depression. But nobody comes forward to acknowledge or admit it. It shouldn’t take an act of bravery in order to simply say that you’re like a lot of other people out there.
Crevoshay: It’s a complicated thing, because people are entitled to privacy. The thing is, our lives, our working and professional lives, are not ever entirely separable from our personal lives. These health challenges, as much as we feel the desire to keep them under wraps sometimes to protect ourselves, they’re part of our lives and our reality. But people in all walks of life keep those kinds of health challenges private for all kinds of reasons. There’s two sides to every coin.
GamesBeat: As Take This moves into this whole context we have around mental health, how do you figure out the ways you can be most effective?
Crevoshay: We do a lot of listening. What are the things that keep coming up in conversation, in surveys? We look at the survey that GDC does every year, the IGDA survey, and a variety of other data points to work through. What is it that keeps showing up? What are people concerned about? What’s scary? And then we follow our noses.
Also, what’s in the news? It was very clear to us pretty quickly that we needed to address gender-based harm and sexual harassment and abuse in games. And not only did we need to do that because the people who work in games are harmed, but that was a contributor to a broader context of problematic design and behavior that was tolerated among people who play games. One follows the other. Online harassment generally of people who make and play games. What does that mean? How does that play out? Hate speech and harassment and toxic behavior online is a major focus for us.
And then we’re always just trying to increase literacy around mental health issues. We’re working increasingly in the streamer and creator community, because that’s a space that was very stressed during the pandemic. People came to streamers and to those communities for mental health support, a lot, and in ways that streamers were not equipped to handle. We’re developing a whole set of resources and tools and explainers for that community specifically, because they’re really without the support they need.
GamesBeat: Are there key topics you train people around, like talking about burnout?
Crevoshay: I break up our work into a few buckets. We have research that we do. We have workshops and consulting inside the industry. We do a lot of advocacy and public speaking, and then we do a lot of community support and community building. That’s our Discord community. We have our Twitch channel, although that’s currently inactive, or on hiatus. But we’re trying to build community and talk about how to build healthy communities. How do we get as much information out there to the broader community as we can? How do we help studios be better? How do we help the industry be better? And then doing high-quality research that will move the field forward generally. Those are the pieces, the levers we have to push.
GamesBeat: When you hear everyone talking about things like the metaverse, how we’re all going to be living online, what do you think?
Crevoshay: Just a reality check, but we already live online. Our lives are mediated by phones and screens all the time already. Especially for people who play games and work in games. This is our space. This is our world. The metaverse–I’ll say this. I’m a skeptic, and as much of a Luddite as one can be in this industry, in the sense that–maybe I just don’t have enough imagination about it yet. But the metaverse to me is just a more realistic version of what we already have.
We already have social spaces online. We already have different types of environments, different types of interaction, different ways of showing up in the space as an avatar, as ourselves, on video, text, voice. All these things already exist. It’s just trying to make that more of an umbrella, a comprehensive thing. Great. The thing is, we already know that some of the same issues around safety and access and moderation exist there already in the spaces that are metaverse-like, the same way they exist in non-web3, non-metaverse spaces. It’s the same, because we’re using the same paradigm of free open space and not heavily moderated, not heavily designed with positive design–if we want these spaces to be positive, we have to actually decide to make them that way.
I’m going to get a little heated. But otherwise people can be shitty to each other really easily. The reason social media is a mess is because the design assumptions behind it are a mess. We’re using those same design assumptions in the metaverse and in game communities, or we have been for a long time. We can do better. We know how to do better. We’re developing that expertise, and we have to use it, or this is going to be a shitshow of a place. Excuse me, don’t use that quote. But it’s going to be the same problematic space that exists already.
These things are in our control. We can make a lot of choices on our own about what these spaces look like and how they function. We know enough to know what it takes to do that. It’s our responsibility to do that well.
GamesBeat: Some people have some hope that technology can help, with things like automated safety screening and AI applications.
Crevoshay: Absolutely, yes. Tech is a tool, a necessary tool. Tech to moderate and to screen tech-based interactions is absolutely necessary. But anyone who thinks that tech is going to answer the problem is mistaken, because the tech is the tool. We are still humans interacting with it. We still need a human response and a human perspective. That’s always going to be the case.
The tech for moderation and all of that is still based on reaction. It’s still based on mitigation and removal post-event. What we need is creating a space where that doesn’t happen in the first place. That comes around from humans who make the design choices, the content choices, the moderation choices, and build a community, build a space that is intentionally more positive, more cohesive. Those things are not AI or ML tools. Those are design decisions that we are making as humans about the tech. The tech is not agnostic. The tech is made by people for people. We’re humans first. These problems are all human problems.
GamesBeat: On the issue of sexual harassment, I know Mark Chandler was advocating for the creation of Chief Wellness Officers who were advocates for employees, as opposed to human resources, which seems to be an advocate for the company.
Crevoshay: And that’s correct, yeah.
GamesBeat: That’s what has to change in order for better outcomes related to harassment investigations and other kinds of internal investigations.
Crevoshay: Let me think about how I want to respond to this. The idea of external advocates or advocates who are expressly there for workers is important, because systems in companies exist to reinforce themselves and protect themselves. The legal structure around HR and employment does not–all of our assumptions around how we address and investigate and punish people around harm – harm generally, including gender-based harm – it really exists in a way that assumes that people are lying, and it exists in a way that is designed to punish people, but not heal anyone or change anyone.
The chief wellness officer idea is interesting. External worker resources, workers coming together around issues for mutual support and action, that’s sometimes necessary. We’ve seen that recently. I think also, the dynamic of–it’s important that systems change, that people recognize that if they really want to address employee well-being, burnout, employee longevity, and productivity, then they need to find ways of increasing the amount of transparency, the amount of healing and support and repair that can be done, and the level at which people are genuinely given accountability. The expectation that they can change, the space to change, and then the accountability if they do not.
That’s both something that needs to happen inside companies, inside studios, and also needs to happen more broadly across the industry. None of our tools right now exist to provide repair, healing, or change. Those are the only things that are going to repair this stuff, that are going to fix it. And so–yeah, chief wellness officer is an element of that, but it’s a much more holistic picture that I see, a much bigger picture than just that piece. That’s an element.
GamesBeat: What are you optimistic about as far as progress today?
Crevoshay: Take This has partnered with Feminist Frequency to do the Culture Shift project. We have people working with us to do this accountability and repair work. That’s hopeful. I see the conversation being much more open and invested in the potential for change. That’s pretty awesome. I see a lot of movement around game content and thinking about what it means to build thoughtful communities. What it means to build games that intentionally do away with stereotypes, that intentionally tackle tough content in ways that are compelling and fun as games.
I see companies confronting online harassment and toxicity. It’s a big hill to climb, but it’s one that people are starting to climb. The truth is–I talk about all these big ideas and I’m being kind of critical. But I recognize we’re talking about large-scale change of a pretty entrenched set of models. That takes a lot of work and time. These are not simple problems. I can talk all I want, but this is going to take some work. I see that starting to happen. It’s complicated, and it’s going to take time.
GamesBeat: It must be gratifying to receive some recognition in a space where the mission seems so gigantic.
Crevoshay: It sure does! What’s really cool, though–Take This and Games For Change are going to be starting to work together some more. We have some stuff coming up. The opportunity to–what this honor does for me is it gives me another place where I can talk about this stuff and be an advocate. I sometimes describe my job as, “talking about mental health as loudly as I can, in as many places as possible, as often as possible.” Because that normalizes the conversation. It gives people a place to talk about it. It plants new ideas. It’s awesome that I get to do that over and over again, and that’s what this award is giving me the chance to do once again. I’m appreciative of that and of Games For Change.
I’ll be leading a session on accountability and repair at the festival. Susanna asked me to do that, which is wonderful, because it’s this recognition that if we want to make great games and we want to change the world of games, we have to think about who is making them and in what context. Is that a positive environment? That’s really important if you’re going to do the change work. It has to be in a context that hears the voices that need to be heard, and not just hears them, but listens to them and acts on them. That part is very important to me.
The last thing I’ll say is that this is a tough time for people. That’s okay. If it’s tough, give yourself some time and space. It is always okay to not be okay, and it’s always okay to need support and help. We have our crisis and emotional support resources out there, and that’s important to us, that people know that’s available. That’s the most important thing we do every day.