ADHD and the games industry – Mediatonic’s Anna Hollinrake on her diagnosis, and how best to support neurodiverse employees

Anna Hollinrake

Develop:Brighton, organised by Tandem Events, is set to return from the 12th-14th of July, with the games industry descending upon sunny Brighton for another conference packed with talks, networking and business opportunities – and that’s not even mentioning the beach, which is bound to be a more attractive prospect now that Develop:Brighton has returned to its traditional July slot.

And as we look forward to our annual trip to Brighton, we thought we’d get a taste of some of the talks available at this year’s event. There’s certainly a wide range of topics to choose from – from discussions around Houdini to top tips for TikTok.

While you should absolutely check out Develop:Brighton’s website for the full list of speakers, this month we’d like to focus on one specific talk, centering around managing ADHD in the video games industry.

Anna Hollinrake, creative services art lead for Fall Guys at Mediatonic, will be delivering a talk titled ‘ADHD City – Weird Things That Help for the Creative (but noisy) Brain’ – in which Hollinrake will be going through her own diagnosis, how ADHD can present within the games industry, and teaching strategies for coping with distraction and brain noise whilst working on video games.

ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a condition, usually diagnosed during childhood, that affects a person’s ability to maintain their attention and cause changes in energy levels (among other things).

It’s a deeply relevant one to the games industry – particularly right now. According to the 2022 Ukie Industry Census, 10 per cent of the industry have a condition affecting their concentration, such as ADHD. That’s an increase from 3 per cent from the 2020 survey, and significantly above the estimates for ADHD among the adult population at 4 per cent.

While ADHD has of course always been here, the disruptive move to home work due to the pandemic has exacerbated many people’s symptoms – leading many in the industry to be diagnosed for the first time. Since the shift to working from home and hybrid working seems to be a permanent one, it’s more important than ever that both companies and their employees understand the challenges and support required when dealing with ADHD in the workplace. As such, we sat down with Hollinrake to find out more.

How and when did you come to be diagnosed?

[ADHD] was something that I really had to get to grips with, and hadn’t really suspected, until lockdown happened. And suddenly, all of the tools that I now recognise as being effective ADHD methods to focus and work more effectively suddenly vanished overnight. I’d had a few suspicions that the way that I approached work might be a little unusual, but I just thought I was eccentric! I was just better at working at night, I would suddenly just work in these huge intense flurries and I could produce absurd quantities of work under a very short deadline – But that was very variable as well.

During the first lockdown, I really needed external structures to help focus. There’a key element of the ADHD toolbox called body doubling, which is essentially, if somebody sat next to you doing something, even if it’s not the thing that you’re working on, that presence tends to get you into the headspace to focus on the thing that you need to. It’s something that I’ve used unintentionally extensively throughout my life –  I used to sit on Google Hangouts for eight hours a day, just sharing my screen and idly voice chatting with people online in completely different countries, we’d all be painting and working together.

So once I’d had that moment of realisation, I posted about it. Quite a few people reached out to me and suggested different processes that could speed things up because it’s very slow getting diagnosed on the NHS, and that involves paperwork.  I proceeded not to do that for a year. Then, in January 2021, rather than going through all of these methods I just went the path of least resistance and just asked to be referred on the NHS. It takes a while – the NHS, as everyone is acutely aware right now is chronically underfunded, especially with regards to mental health support. And for me, I was very lucky that it took me a year. But even since that in terms of further support, I haven’t had a huge amount. I got my recommendation, and a stamp of yes, you have ADHD, and that’s kind of been it. But still, I’m very appreciative to have that. But it does take a while, and there are some people that have been waiting for a couple of years.

You know, it’s quite funny. When I was getting diagnosed with my psychiatrist, I said I worked in games and she laughed and said ‘oh, I see so many people who work in games. I saw someone from games just yesterday!’ It does seem to be a thing.

How does your ADHD present itself in the workplace, and how do you manage it?

It was just generally not being able to focus as much as I’d like. If there’s something that’s quite intensely admin heavy, it would require a lot more cognitive load to be able to dig into a really complex email, for example, or source a lot of very complicated files. And I think there’s a lot of internal frustration as well, the feeling that I can’t do the tasks that I need to tackle or I’m not quite sure where to start. I have a lot of methods and tools that I’ve kind of gleaned over the years to tackle that, but it doesn’t make it less difficult to just jump in.

ADHD brains benefit from structure, and losing that can be just completely disorientating. Like all those things you do when going into an office or established work from home setup, that no-one really had when they were suddenly forced into their bedrooms to work. There’s so much that was lost because of that.

There’s ways of getting around it. I use a lot of deadlines to get things done, and if I’m going to lose something, I’ll be much more engaged. I did a short story writing course, and I was really struggling to get the homework done. So I said to my friend, ‘if I don’t get my short story piece written in the next hour, I have to give you £15.’ My friend, who knows how my brain works better than I do, said ‘Okay, I’ll take that £15 and I’ll donate it to the Church of Scientology. Because I know you’ll hate that.’ Yeah, that really motivated me.

I’ve also tried to make my workspace as pleasant as possible. One of the things that I realised was making my brain very noisy, was just the fact that I had a very cluttered desk – from both a visual perspective and also as an artist, it was really getting to me. Also anything that stops me from focusing – being dehydrated, being cold. I have a huge weighted blanket, and if I keep it here, it’s too much effort to pick it up and move it – so it keeps me in one spot as well as keeping me from being too cold.

And then I do things like externalise my brain. A lot of my ADHD traits have been wanting to do lots and lots of external stuff. So alongside my full time work, I have my online shop, I go to Comic Con, I do talks and workshops at universities… Trying to maintain all of that can be quite overwhelming. I use Notion to timeline everything out and set myself tasks so that I can let myself forget about stuff that is in the future. Because I know that once it appears on the timeline, I’ll have like the allotted amount of time to tackle that. That only works because it’s also been stripped of anything that I don’t need, that’s too noisy or too much effort. Because the minute that I’ve created a system that’s too cluttered and requires effort to use, I’m not going to use anything. So it requires a lot of self acceptance and kindness.

I briefly had an ADHD coach as well, who gave the incredible recommendation of using the voice to text dictation feature on your phone. So I’ll talk through a lot of emails, if there’s a big feedback session, I’ll usually dictate that. Ideally while walking around because, especially with  a lot of especially hyperactive type ADHD-ers, the movement helps to get the brain moving.

Is there a stigma around ADHD, and simply being accused of being “lazy”?

When I went in for my diagnosis, it was terrifying. The fear that you were just lazy and useless, and you could concentrate because you are bad and broken. That it was your fault. And that terror becomes very acute when you’re on the precipice of being labelled ADHD or not.

I’m kind of terrified to talk so openly about it, but part of the reason I pitched the talk is because I’ve had that experience of seeing someone speak about something and realising that it was okay to talk about it. Or to raise the point of ‘hey, maybe I have this as well.’ I’ve had quite a few messages from people asking questions about how I approach things, how I got diagnosed, or if I have any advice on how to manage that. Or simply saying things like ‘thank you – I think that I might have it and it’s good to see people speak out about it.’

What can companies do to support staff members with ADHD?

Understanding is really important, it’s something that needs to be built into between the line manager and the person with ADHD. I think there’s lots of little things in terms of communication that can be adjusted. Things like how feedback is given, whether it’s something that they prefer to talk through, or whether it’s a very clear bullet pointed list of what to approach.

I also think having a space for neurodiverse people, as a kind of support group is really wonderful – or even ADHD coaches, I got my ADHD coach through work and that was very helpful. Plus it would be extremely useful to have those body doubling spaces digitally.

But also just a general understanding that brains work in different ways, every person is different and requires different things. And I really want to avoid making people feel like ADHD people are too much effort, because that’s blatantly untrue. Given the sheer number of people in games who likely have ADHD, it’s kind of important to avoid making people feel like that. I know so many phenomenal ADHD people who are absolutely killing it in terms of what they do. They’ve taken the thing that they’re obsessed with, and have turned it into a career. I think that level of very specific passion is pretty rare.

Anna Hollinrake will be addressing the Develop:Brighton conference on Wednesday 13th July. 

About Chris Wallace

Chris is a freelancer writer and was MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer from November 2019 until May 2022. He joined the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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