Anyone who has attended a large gaming event like PAX East may have noticed a dedicated quiet room. But the AFK Room from Take This is more than that. It's a space for those who suffer from anxiety or depression and have had flare-ups in the middle of the event. It's a place of solace, a place to have sincere dialogue about mental health issues, and it's a place of love and support.
Years after it was first founded, Take This is now expanding further. Beyond sponsoring weekly shows like the What's Good Games podcast, the charity is fortifying its partnership with ReedPop and PAX via a grant from Child's Play. Former executive director of the International Game Developers Association, Kate Edwards, has also transitioned to a new executive director role. Fresh off this promotion, Shacknews stopped by for a quick cup of coffee at this year's Game Developers Conference to discuss Edwards' new role, the continuing growth of Take This, and how to go about seeking help, even when it feels like help isn't there.
Shacknews: Can you talk about how Take This got started?
Kate Edwards, Executive Director: Take This got started when Russ [Pitts, former journalist] & Susan [Arendt, former journalist] and Dr. Mark [Kline, Psy.D] came together. They felt compelled because one of their colleagues in the industry committed suicide. That was basically a tipping point for them, where there has to be a resource to help people. There's got to be something. We should not be seeing this happening. This shouldn't be happening anywhere, but because we're focused on the game industry, that was their goal was to create a resource to help people.
You're not going to stop all mental health issues, but one thing we can do is help stop the stigma against it. We know, for a fact, that the more people are open and talk about it, the more they're able to cope with it. And then perhaps they won't take their own life. They won't do something drastic when they're facing these really serious issues that are affecting them.
Shacknews: How do you feel the organization has grown in the past year?
Edwards: In the past year we've gone through a lot of change, in terms of switching our vision from doing this kind of normal AFK Room program, which is really the tentpole program of Take This. That's the one thing that people really know us for. They see us at PAX events and E3 and that's where a lot of people have come to know about Take This. But we feel that all of the similar things that we really are committed to is scaling our effort.
And so that's the really big thing in the past year that we've decided, with my coming on board, with [Devolver Digital co-founder] Mike Wilson joining the board, and with other board expansions that we're looking at, with the Ambassador Program that we're about to kick off, all of these things that's started to congeal in the past year or so, we've realized that there's a lot more that we need to do to scale the effort. The event space is obviously going to keep happening. The AFK Room is going to keep happening, especially now that we have a nice grant from Child's Play to keep it going at the PAX events. But we realized that we really have to start scaling. If anything, the vision has expanded.
Shacknews: Let's talk about the AFK Room for a second. How does the team go about preparing for events like PAX East. How do you go about securing the space, sorting through volunteers? Walk me through that process.
Edwards: When we're partnering with an event, typically what happens is we have an event reach out to us and tell us, "We'd like to have an AFK Room at our event." Usually in the first year, we run a room, we do an assessment. Our main clinician Dr. B [Raffael Boccamazzo, Psy.D] will go there to the event, he'll basically get a feel for it, understand the space, talk with the organizers, get a sense of what is this event, what kind of attendees are here, what are their needs, and what kind of space would be available? After we make that assessment, he'll come back and basically say, "I recommend that we do it. Here's some things we need to ask for, if anything." It depends on the situation with that particular event.
Once that's decided, if it's a new event that we've never worked before, what we'll do is look for a clinician partner in the local area. So we'll try and find somebody who can be the clinician who's going to be in the room during that time. So we have to do a lot of screening, we have our network of people, Dr. B will go out and start doing outreach to recruit a clinician or two who can work the room during the event. We always find them, but it's a hard process. You need to find a clinician who's open to it, you have to find one who's also open to video games, so you have to do a certain level of screening.
And then of course, for the volunteers, too, you want to make sure that you're recruiting people who understand the gravity of the issue, that they're going to be working the quiet space and they need to respect that, and they also need to know the appropriate behavior, like once they're in the room as a volunteer, what they should and shouldn't do. So we go through all of that with them, as well. For an established event, like a PAX event, we basically have our people in place. We have a group of trusted volunteers who have done it before. For an existing event, it's a lot more turnkey. We just know, "We're gonna be doing PAX West again, we pretty much know the same crowd, we might need to get a few more volunteers." But for the most part, it's much easier to implement.
Shacknews: You recently announced the Ambassador Program for Twitch and YouTube streamers. Can you explain what that entails?
Edwards: Historically, we've had different streamers come to us and say, "Hey, I really believe in your organization. I, myself, suffer from a mental health issue or I know people who do. I'm really passionate about this. I would love to stream for your benefit and help raise money for Take This." Or they want to talk about mental health issues on their show. And of course, we love that and it's fantastic. It's been a bit ad-hoc at the moment, but it seems to be increasing and we felt that if we're going to have people who really desire to represent us and really want to talk about these issues, we should help them out and prepare them for doing it in a way that would be appropriate.
So the Ambassador Program is essentially a way for people who are really serious about wanting to help us out in this and be a representative of the organization. We will put them through a process, where we train them up on ways to talk about mental health, how you interview about it, how you discuss it, things like that. Not using terms like "crazy" and "insane." We work them through that and also things they can do, like what's the most effective thing for streaming in terms of raising donations, things like that. Basically it's just adding a more formal process and so we've linked them as an official ambassador of our program. And they're willing to be an ambassador of our program, which also means that they're committed to the organization and to our values and to our mission.
Shacknews: Are there any particular streamers on board?
Edwards: Not yet. The program hasn't officially launched. So right now, we're just putting the process in place. We're aiming to launch at PAX West this year. Once we launch, that's when we're going to start the recruitment process.
Shacknews: You, yourself, have been in the industry for a long time. How have your years of experience helped you in your transition to Take This?
Edwards: This marks my 25th year in the game industry and I've done a lot of different stuff. I've been at Microsoft, I've been a consultant, I ran the International Game Developers Association. I think one of the things that's key about my years of experience is that it's given me enough perspective in terms of not only knowing how to run organizations, especially with advocacy focus, because that the key function of my IGDA job was advocacy work, but it's also that I've interfaced with so many developers worldwide. I've met thousands of developers and I've come to understand a lot of their pain points, I know what a lot of their issues are, the mental issues are at the forefront for a lot of developers.
So I know that's one of the reasons why, after I left the IGDA in 2017, Russ asked me to join his board. I was instantly... yes, I will do it! I strongly believe in this mission. Because in all my travels and interactions with developers, mental health issues is either an overt thing that they're dealing or it's a subtext to other issues. Say they're running an indie studio and they describe how they are always, completely stressed out. That is an issue that they have to deal with. It's a very serious issue and they don't know how to deal with the stress. And it starts to lead to other problems, like they can't sleep, they have constant anxiety. These are issues we need to focus on as an industry. And so I felt that my years of experience in dealing with this and talking with developers prepared me well for this type of role.
Shacknews: Lastly, and I know this is going to be a bit of a harder question to answer, what do you say to anyone who feels that they want to reach out for help, but feel that they can't afford that help, given how expensive health care is in the United States?
Edwards: I think the most important thing is that they should ask for help, regardless. Ultimately, you don't know what resources might be available where you are, especially in the U.S. where resources vary from state to state and even city to city. Some cities have good infrastructure, you might have a good program locally that you can take advantage, and some places might not have anything. I think you have to ask, you have to make sure people know. That's one of the biggest problems that we see from people that suffer from mental health issues is not talking about it. That's the number one step. They have to be brave enough to step out and talk to people they trust, whether it's family, friends, colleagues.
Especially in the game development space, I can guarantee that if somebody wanted to speak up and say "I'm dealing with constant depression" or some other issue, you will almost assuredly get someone else who comes in and say "I do, too. I'm glad you told me that, because I want to talk about it, too." Because you find yourself in a community of support, which is really, really important. No matter where that comes from, whether it's fellow developers, your family, or somebody, but making sure people around you know that you're dealing with this not only reduces the stigma about talking about it, but it gives them the opportunity to help you. And you never know where that help is going to come from.
If it does come down to being a financial issue, that's a whole other issue to deal with. But even there, there might be ways to work it out. It tends to be location-specific, but the important thing is, you have to say something.
For more information about this non-profit organization, visit the Take This website. Find more information there about its various programs, as well as much-needed information about dealing with mental health. Remember that it's okay to admit that you need help, because no matter what, you are not alone.
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Take This' Kate Edwards on the New Ambassador Program, PAX, and More
Great interview, Ozzie!
Thank you for the article. I miss this kind of thoughtful content on Shacknews. I've run into Kate at many conferences and she is an amazing leader in the industry.