Neurodivergence and Game Development: How to Work In Games With ADHD

After attending this year’s GDC, there’s something I’ve never written about before and figured it was time I did. I have received a lot of acceptance and support over the years; and lately, have been seen myself reach out to others & offer advice (limited that I can, mainly links) to resources on neurodivergence, adhd, and general “productivity” habits that don’t really “increase” productivity from a neurotypical standpoint.

If you’ve been watching me grow over the past 5 years you’re probably already aware of this fact. If you’ve ever worked with me at a game company, studio, or personally, then you’ve absolutely know and probably helped me recognize it in myself (thank you).

I have self-diagnosed ADHD.

While my brain and my heart have decided this, I can largely get by in a world that doesn’t seem to recognize it in me. For me, it causes symptoms of “depression” or “anxiety” or in general “why am i overwhelmed all the time and i just want to do something but I can’t right now or wait what if I did how is it 2am and actually I don’t really think I did anything?!” Because of this, I’ve had therapists tell me that “Yes, this seems right and I can already tell by talking to you you have it. But look at how much you’ve accomplished! You’re successful and overall good and managing so we’re not going to give you a formal diagnosis because of [x][y][z i blacked out the reasons I think b/c my brain tends to filter out BS].”

I wanted to talk about my personal experience with Neurodivergence, and how maybe that experience will help anyone out there frustrated in Games thinking they have to conform to neurotypical standards to succeed. You Don’t.

One look at my personal to-do list and you’re already asking “How do you do all of this?!” Honestly, I don’t. I let “obligations” slide. I have my instagram accounts go “dormant” for months. In my own words, I’m constantly asleep, procrastinating, or unfulfilled. And this is fine.

No I mean it. This is actually fine.

I mean, I’m in narrative systems. What is this? A competition to find the most niche conflicting design disciplines and somehow mash it together? Feeelings~~~ maaaaath~~~ weeerddss~~~ somehow I will make stories systematically write themselves through mechanics~~~ (that’s not exactly what I do otherwise I’d be breaking NDA, lol). Point being, I do a lot of conflicting and context switching priorities throughout my day at work. And I love it!

In my brain this makes sense.

And I’m sure for you it makes sense too. Right? Maybe in all of us we have that voice that says I wish I could do [x], but we never act on it. In my brain, I don’t have that precursor thought. I just do [x] and completely forget that I was supposed to do [y.] This has hurt my career in the past. I’ve worked extra hours because I forgot the main purpose of a task. I struggled to make deadlines if I was given too much lead time between milestones. And when I say struggled, I don’t mean I didn’t make the deadline. I mean I pushed myself so hard to make it in such a short amount of time that I burned out right after doing it!

I think we’ve all been there. At some point. So if you’re neurotypical reading this, I’m not trying to convince you that you’re not. I am trying to show how I’ve maintained some semblance of sanity.

Here’s what I do; I hope it works for you.

I maintain a sense of balance in my life, by focusing on the growth that I’ve had this past year, and recording each task I’ve completed every day, no matter how small.

My coworkers say “you have a lot on your plate!” I still feel like I’m never doing enough. To combat this feeling, I write out the smallest sections of a task “fix this blueprint” or “investigate why this function doesn’t work” and then I check it out. Sometimes “investigate” doesn’t mean I need to fix today. It does mean I need to know what’s going wrong.

My whole life I’ve done this. Since I fit into neurotypical norms, these practicies seemed more mature for my age as a child. In reality, I really forgot what I did that day if I didn’t write it down. Now as an adult, stands up freak me the hell out. I literally don’t know what I did, because I just do things. So by writing everything out in a list along with meetings and slack messages on paper, I can at least pretend if I forget.

When I was child I was labeled gifted. As an adult, I’m labeled crazy. I never stopped to reflect on this, until I went to a series of microtalks about accessibility and inclusion. It opened my eyes to the way others have been treated and have walked through their journey to get to their definition of success, not others.

There’s a lot to be said for success that is doing a lot, and maybe not even doing it all that well. But in a world where people assume you’re going to be a Wizard or Paladin (one stat, very high, much power) and you end up choosing the Bard or Fighter class (many weapons, many skills, no direction). It’s not better or worse in a team; it’s just different.

Game development studios need different. They need you.

I can context switch multiple times a day, multiple times in a conversation, and pick back up on the previous conversation because my brain only memorizes useless facts. Is this the same as getting distracted? To many people, yeah, but to me, when I talk to other devs, I say it what it is: context switching. And it’s hella needed in a fast-paced AAA environment.

Have 2 completely unrelated systems due on the same day? – No problem; my ADHD can juggle both throughout the work day because I don’t know how to focus.

Need to input lots of writing or data with a high risk of human error due to copy paste issues? – No issues! Let me put on some background cafe noise, get an espresso, and my ADHD will hyper focus the shit out of that loc spreadsheet.

Suddenly in a decision-making role and need to get consensus? – Let’s go this way! I don’t know if this is the right direction, but I’ll definitely choose a road and if we all realize it’s bad, I won’t hesitate to turn around–because this is literally all I know how to do in real life is spin or roll the floor going aaaaaaaaaa.

Can I always control this power? No.

Is my life chaos? Yes

But would I substitute chaos for control? NEVER.

I’m neurodivergent. And I’ve been lucky enough for no one to ever outright chastise me for being different.

Even if I’ve suffered mentally or emotionally because of it. A lot of it, really, is self-inflicted mind games of trying to confirm to a work ethos that doesn’t for my brain.

Game developers in AAA solve high level problems and dive really deeply into complex systems and understand the tiniest things. I have a high visual calculus score and conceptualization. Keep me in the high level and I’ll be jivving. Put me into my own work, and I’ll get very detailed. I can swim between high and low level thinking about my own work, because my own work gives me the time to get through it.

Learning new concepts and strategies in Game Design isn’t a comfort zone thing; it’s a brain processing thing.

When I get the feedback (and maybe you too?) that I need to step outside my comfort zone, quite literally, I am doing that every day. So I don’t know how much more uncomfortable I can get. Some days, I’m glad I understand anything at all. Other days, I understand everything and feel like a god!!

Frankly, there have been many times I might not understand a c++ concept, but I’ll definitely memorize it! (My brain is good at memorizing “useless” facts.) So then a team says “Lauryn’s the expert” in something because I memorized how it worked. But does that mean I’m good at it? Now I’ve got imposter syndrome. Great. And the cycle continues…

This article was to be a living demonstration of how it is possible to live with it.

Neurodivergence isn’t something to be ashamed of.

I’m pretty adamant that we all start treating it as more common than we initial think. It doesn’t matter how doctors, therapists, or evil co-workers label you. What matters is that you realize that YOU matter. You. Yes, you. Make the world a better, brighter place for us all. And you, yes YOU being proud of who you are. You are the most important piece of that game design team, even if the game design team, is only — You.

I don’t want to break the cycle or “overcome” my brain. I want to own it.

Maybe one day I’ll learn how to talk about it in a way that doesn’t take 1600 words. In the meantime, I’ve got a team and producer that supports everything I do and everything my neurodivergence brings to the table. I’m my own team in JIRA now, since my tasks don’t fit into a single disciple bucket!!! I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And I hope you wouldn’t either.