The Overlap of Gaming and Mental Health

This weekend, two of my biggest passions – gaming and mental health – collided rather violently. I’m still not sure what to think of it, and my bias (or counter-transference, to use a fancy social work-y term) may be obvious. I’m trying to be detached, so I may come off sounding cold, but it’s not intentional; I just felt the need to write about this, since it deals with two big areas of interest in my life.

So, a little background: there’s a roleplaying game company called Palladium Games, run by a man named Kevin Siembieda. It’s often a very polarizing company in the RPG community, as they have a tendency to promise games they don’t always deliver on (one book, Mechanoids Space, has been available for pre-order since 1994, with no evidence of it ever being any closer to done), or have fundraising campaigns for the company to essentially replace things like personal collectibles, and melodramatically naming them (this was the Crisis of Treachery, which occurred in April, 2006; see this link). There are some very loyal fans, and many former fans who have been, or felt, burned very badly by supporting this company.

In 2013, Palladium acquired the rights fora Robotech miniatures wargame, in collaboration with a company called Ninja Division; they began to raise money for this on the Kickstarter platform, and the Ninja Division involvement allayed a lot of those worried about Palladium’s involvement – it raised over $1.4 million, and was slated for delivery by the end of 2013. Almost immediately, though, the production was plagued by mistakes and delays, and it became clear that Palladium had basically total control, and Ninja Division – whose involvement had made many backers feel safe – was barely involved at all. It was pushed back six months, then a year, and then Palladium proposed that, to allow them to raise a little extra cash, that they be allowed to sell advance copies of the game – which, by all rights, should go to those who had backed the project – at the nation’s largest gaming convention, Gen Con. A survey was put up, and Mr. Siembieda noted that any backers not responding to the survey would automatically be assumed to be in support. This did not go over well, but it turned out customs delayed shipment anyway. Some product – the first wave, of at least two and possibly more – was eventually delivered later in 2014, but as of today – over three years past the original predicted delivery date – wave two has still not been delivered, with no estimates as to when it might appear. So, backers, many of whom paid hundreds of dollars for this product, hold a substantial amount of bitterness.

Enter freelancer Carmen Bellaire, who has done work for Palladium in the past, some of which was on the Robotech Tactics Kickstarter. He has formed his own company, Rogue Heroes, which he was planning to have produce a boardgame based on Palladium’s RIFTS property. He had, presumably, seen some of the bitterness about the Robotech Kickstarter on that project’s Comments page, but decided that he should try and advertise his proposed product there nonetheless (you can see his original post on the topic here¬†as well as the posts that followed his). His post was aggressive and confrontational, and this encouraged similar aggression and confrontation from a community that already felt betrayed and bitter. Arguments fired back and forth for about a day, before Mr. Bellaire said he was done, that he was leaving. That was that, as far as the Robotech Kickstarter supporters were concerned, but clearly Mr. Bellaire took it harder than it appeared.

According to a project update from Mr. Siembieda on today (February 19th), Mr. Bellaire, not long after his leaving the Comments section, apologized to Mr. Siembieda, and then not long after that attempted to kill himself. We know this because the update (which can be found here) goes into this in some detail, and Mr. Siembieda, essentially, blames the backers for this project – not just the ones who argued, but all of them – for Mr. Bellaire’s crisis.And so we come to the collision of gaming and mental health. Many of those who commented on this update were – to put it politically – less than sympathetic to Mr.Bellaire’s plight, and some even appeared to take a sort of glee in it (you can see the comments if you scroll down past the update). Many are also contrite and wishing Mr. Bellaire the best and hoping for his recovery, and there is a lot of discussion here.

For me, I have little experience with Palladium; I played one of their games once, many years ago, didn’t really enjoy it, and have only known it since then by various online discussions. I have no stake in the Robotech Tactics Kickstarter, except in my knowledge of its poor handling. But I do have experience with suicide, having attempted it myself twice; and seeing it happen in such a public way, and in the gaming circle I spend a lot of time in, is new to me. I’ve spent much of the day today looking into this, because it’s something I don’t see happen in such a public forum – especially a gaming forum – and I’m torn on how to respond here.

For one, I read Mr. Bellaire’s original posts talking about his upcoming game on the Palladium message boards (you can see them here) and he’s significantly less confrontational. I don’t know what made him change his tone between the two areas, but in my experience reading the Comments sections of Kickstarters that are quite late or having large problems, the people there are often quite angry – justifiably – about having paid money for something that may never appear. Engaging with these angry customers seems to work best when you remain calm and non-confrontational; if Mr. Bellaire had gone to the Kickstarter Comments with the same degree of calmness he displayed on the Palladium messageboards… well, I don’t think he would have gotten a happy welcome, but it would have probably toned down the harsh reception he got.

But that seems like I’m blaming Mr. Bellaire for the inciting the commenters, and I’m not; I’m just curious as to why he decided to change the tone of his approach. As someone who has struggled with major depression for over 15 years, I know that the insults and aggression Mr. Bellaire received, while harsh and unpleasant, may have been weathered by a person not struggling with mental issues – but they would have likely been deep, biting, and felt intensely personally by Mr. Bellaire. Being confronted by people he assumed might be part of his main customer base verbally ripping him apart – which may have led him to assume that his business venture would be a horrible failure, affecting everyone in his life negatively – I can see how this would cause a depressed mind to turn to thoughts of suicide. And I feel for Mr. Bellaire, and I don’t wish any ill on him; I know that while it may seem selfish and terrible to outsiders, suicide makes perfect sense to the person contemplating it. A suicidal person would feel so terrible that they would likely assume their presence in the world is a net negative, and that their loss would actually be a gain.

I do question that Mr. Siembieda would make this so public, though. As someone who has attempted suicide, I know that it is an intensely personal problem, and while support from family and friends is always welcome, making it public often shines a spotlight on parts of our lives we don’t want others to see. Making this news public might indeed have the permanent effect on his work life that Mr. Bellaire feared, because now his mental issues are spread in a public forum, made available to thousands (at minimum). I say this knowing that mine are, as well, though I don’t get nearly that kind of traffic here, but my choosing to disclose my previous suicide attempts was just that – my choice. We have no knowledge if this disclosure was made at the behest of Mr. Bellaire, or if Mr. Siembieda simply felt the need to use it to excoriate his customers.

And this is why I think that many of the most vicious and harsh commenters are being so unpleasant in their comments on this topic – Mr. Siembieda, with his constant broken promises and questionable choices has exhausted all his credibility to most of his supporters. They have no way to know if this is real news, or if Mr. Siembieda has made it up simply to gain sympathy, and to be able to blame the Kickstarter backers. I don’t know, honestly; I am not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, given what I have read over the years, but my knowledge is incomplete. So many people may feel comfortable in sounding terrible because they assume this is just a play for sympathy and not a real occurrence. Some, of course, probably feel comfortable being terrible because they feel anonymous. Some still feel angry because they have, essentially, been cheated, but realize that their anger should not be directed against Mr. Bellaire, especially now. And some have realized they are likely to never see the products they have paid for, but have come to peace with that, and feel sympathy and compassion for a person in need.

Personally, I hope that Mr. Bellaire makes a full recovery, and gets all the help he needs. I have survived suicide attempts before, and they are not easy to come back from. Reading the way this progressed – how it went from a somewhat aggressive initial post to internet arguments that apparently escalated, in his mind, to a cause worthy of suicide – has made it all too clear to me how badly anonymous arguments over the internet can very easily move otherwise rational people to irrational ends. While I wonder at Mr. Siembieda’s motives in making this news public, I do agree with at least part of what he has to say – words can kill, and in this case they very nearly did. Reading the reactions of the gaming community I consider myself a part of has made me simultaneously both proud and ashamed of the reactions I have seen. I’m still processing this, as well as some other news I have gotten in my own life recently.

Sometimes, when interests in your life collide, they do so with disastrous consequences.