In this first entry in a multi-part blog series about game development and ADD, I explore what it’s like inside the mind of someone who makes games and suffers from severe attention deficit disorder. Hope these posts offer some insights and tips to help other folks who face similar challenges.
Most of the time, my brain feels like the Millennium Falcon — always threatening to rattle itself apart as I blast my way through a vast hyperspace of to-do lists on any given day. Sometimes I’m firing on all thrusters, and things are going smoothly. Other times, that stupid thing inside my skull does THIS:
Welcome to the Hyper-Mind Hell Vortex. Are we having fun yet?
ADD, Game Dev, and You (and me)
Look, I’m no special flower. Tons of adults have ADD or ADHD. I’d venture a guess that many of my fellow creatives out there — whether they’re writers, game developers, or entrepreneurial folks of another sort — have it too. It sucks. And it’s awesome. At different moments throughout the rollercoaster of daily life.
Most people who have serious ADD/ADHD take some kind of mind-bending meds that help manage symptoms and allow them to function like a normal human being.
I don’t. Never have. I probably should. It’s a tough personal choice.
ADD is such an in-grained part of my being, that I can’t really separate it out anymore. Or could I ever? I was diagnosed with ADD around 1998 — and I mainly got tested for it to confirm some suspicions and get access to the academic supports I needed at the time.
I rarely talk about my ADD. I don’t think about it much. Hell, I don’t even consciously notice it most of the time — until it manifests in awful, irksome ways that affect me, my work, and those around me.
Which is like EVERY EFFING DAY.
I manage to get by. How? We’ll get to that. Eventually.
First: some quick background: I’m 35, married (bless my wife for putting up with me), and self-employed. In addition to my full-time freelance writing business “day job”, I co-founded Touchfight Games— a small indie studio that makes “quirky games for quirky people.” And I create (often dark, creepy, and weird) solo project games on the side. And I self-publish books and online courses for writers and creatives. And…yeah you get the picture.
In some ways, my ADD makes juggling an inhuman level of big, crazy spinning plates possible, but it can also be a curse that frequently derails me at the worst possible times in the most frustrating of ways.
If you happen to have ADD, dear reader, your mileage may vary, but here’s a look at how some of my own symptoms manifest and affect me.
THINGS MY BRAIN DOES WRONG (AN INCOMPLETE LIST):
My mind NEVER SHUTS OFF – No matter what I’m doing, my brain is almost always in a rapidly churning state of constant bustle, and it’s absolutely exhausting. It’s often hard to just be in the moment without also thinking about a zillion other things. And sometimes I need to rest, or I just DON’T want to think about anything. Not possible, at least most of the time. This is part of the reason why I have so many things going on at once and so many side projects. If I don’t channel that energy somewhere, it starts to drive me nuts.
I forget everything – Well, not everything, but I forget about most important things, then somehow manage to remember totally random things that typically aren’t important. This drives both myself and my wife bonkers. If it’s not written down somewhere, I’ll most likely forget it. Which leads me to the next point:
Staying tidy/organized is not my bag – Being self-employed, I have managed to wrestle this demon into submission just enough that I can the things done that I need to in order to run my various businesses, but it’s a HUGE struggle. And in-general, my physical world typically devolves into messy chaos every few days. One reminder note quickly becomes three, which soon turns into a pile, which spawns other piles, which then becomes a TEEMING MASS OF ROILING PAPER HELL choking the life from my workspace. Seriously. Here are a few pictures of my desk snapped seconds after I wrote this sentence:
Somehow I’m able to mentally “tune out” the mess, which is why it gets to this level (or worse) of clutter. I do tend to operate better and be less stressed on the days after I clean ye olde desk.
OOOO! OOOO! SQUIRREL! – Did I mention I’m easily distracted…to the nth degree? I was in the middle of about 3 other things when I suddenly decided to start writing this post. Very meta, no? I often forget what I’m doing in the middle of doing it, yet I can never just do ONE THING at at time. Therein lies my dilemma.
Complete focus is often impossible…except when it’s not – There’s a weird thing that happens every so often where I get into “the flow” of whatever I’m doing. When that kicks in, I can spend an entire day making crazy progress on a single thing — be it a game project, a book, work deadlines, or human world things. But almost every other waking second, I have a very, VERY hard time staying focused on the task at hand. It’s not that I don’t want to pay full attention, it’s that I often CAN’T – without significant mental overexertion. I have tricks for overcoming this, which I’ll share in a future post.
I get overstimulated and mentally drained easily – I’m at my best in the early portion of the day. Beyond noon, I start to fade and find it increasingly hard to function. Having my brain constantly spinning at high speed means that by the end of most days, I’m completely fried and exhausted. Not unlike normal folks, true, but it can be severe.
On days where I have multiple deadlines or game dev meetings, I turn into a zombie towards the tail end. On a related note, I also have random days where I experience what’s commonly referred to as “brain fog,” where no matter how hard I try to shake it, I suffer through prolonged states of fuzziness and mental cloudiness. This basically takes my normal level of struggles and ratchets it up to 11.
So…that’s a good breakdown of some of the things I struggle with RE: ADD, though it’s not a complete list.
All of this can be completely frustrating and exhausting to try to deal with on a daily basis, but I don’t let it get me down. My point in all of this, aside from sharing my experiences for others to learn from, is to show you that despite these setbacks, I still am able to be successful. As a business owner, as a developer, and sometimes…as a human being.
How does all of this relate to and impact game development? We’ll talk about that in-depth next time. Ta ta for now!
Want to get updates on my upcoming game projects and have the opportunity to beta test secret things? Join my game dev and interactive fiction list!
Thanks for the personal viewpoint. I’ve known a few people with this problem/blessing and everyone is subject to it to a certain degree: the buddhists call it “monkey mind,” and it’s often chittering away or jumping from tree to tree.
Not to say it doesn’t have advantages, which are apparent. But if you aim for more balance at certain times, I recommend a practice from a Mindfulness perspective: scanning the environment and scanning the body.
This just means stopping what you are doing and tuning in to your environment, listening to the sounds, become aware of activity in the environment and the state of things, without judgement–just being aware.
At a further stage, this awareness is transferred to scanning your physical body and noting how it feels, becoming aware of any tightness or pain in any part of the body. Ask yourself how you feel, in a physical way, and receive the answer non-judgmentally.
These simple practices give you a break from the mind, and help you keep your mental and physical health in balance.
Good luck in all your endeavors!
Pingback: Otaku Links: Deru deru deru
Hi there! I got here from Lauren’s Otaku Links, and while I haven’t read your posts before (and I plan to explore your blog further, if I don’t get distracted after writing this comment), I really appreciate this one, and I hope I remember to check back for the next post.
I have a more mild case of ADD (the quiet, non-impulsive type), and meds help a bit, but the ADD symptoms become particularly obvious when I have to use my mind a lot or juggle very many things. I recently graduated from college, and I play with the idea of doing more freelance stuff someday—editing, writing—but I’m not sure if the idea could ever be feasible, especially full time. I struggle so much with time management, procrastination, etc., that I’m not sure how well I’d manage without a third party to give me structure. And then there’s the fact that things tend to take me a lot longer than the average Joe, and when you’re paid per project, that could be a problem. So I’m really interested in hearing more about how you manage. (Which means I’ll either explore your blog until it’s suddenly way past the time I meant to go to bed, or… well, you know… squirrel!)
Also, I totally relate to the ability to “tune out” messes. I prefer a tidy room and desk, but after a certain point, I don’t even know where to start, so I continue to tune out the mess as a survival mechanism. I’ve read that organization is an “executive function” most people have some natural capacity to harness. For me, it’s a complex problem solving exercise. There are so many things I’d rather spend that brain energy on than cleaning.
Aspiring game designer and writer here, I’ve struggled with ADD for a long time, so this article is very relateable. I’m trying to find my own ways to cope with this, but I really hope to see more posts like this and some of the ways you manage it in the future. Thanks!
Can relate, it’s sometimes hard to imagine for me that some devs can go full on 8+ hours a day going full ham making a game.
First off I want to tell you that I almost cried when I found this post as I thought I was a lone game developer with ADD. I loved your post as I can relate to a lot of the problematic enigma of ADD.
I have had ADD for as long as I can remember but did nothing to to remedy it until about a year ago when I finally decided that thing we’re not going well as I could not focus on a single one of my projects. I went to a doctor and they told me that they did not see how I even fuctioned after tons of testing they prescribed Ritalin. I was on it for 6 months then got off because I no longer had health insurance that covered my prescription. I am happy to say that as of this week i have new health insurance that covers the costs of my Ritalin.
All in all I just wanted to say thank you for writing such a great post it really motivates me to succeed in the game development community.
Thanks for sharing! It’s definitely a real challenge at times. I can only imagine how much Ritalin might help me focus on days when it’s virtually impossible. I personally choose to avoid prescription drugs unless absolutely necessary, especially long-term, so Ritalin isn’t really an option for me. But I’m glad to hear it has helped you find the balance you need to be able to better focus and make progress! Keep on keeping on! 🙂