Breaking The Doom-Scroll Cycle

In uncertain and stressful times, take a page out of the Community Manager playbook and learn how to take a step back.

Breaking The Doom-Scroll Cycle
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“Hey, I figure you’re asleep, but thought you should know…”

It was 2:30 am in the morning, but the sound of the Skype notification still woke me up, turning my phone on and pronouncing that I had a private message waiting for me. Years of work in the games industry using Skype, the (at the time) darling of the internet chatroom/communications medium, my ears had gotten used to that exaggerated watery drip sound, such that I could actually wake up to it.

What was so important that someone else on the development team, who happened to be up at that hour, was messaging me about? A thread on the official forums had gotten a little out of hand — a cosmetic bug that was causing hair to clip through a character model had turned into a pages-long debate about developer priorities, the supposed proper way for the character to have their hair modeled, and all the inflammatory fun that went with it. The greatest hits were all present — the developers were lazy, the development team should have caught this in QA, the developers should be fired — you get the idea.

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Did I have to get up, especially as the message sent to me assumed I was asleep (and thus available)? Was I really going to be able to do something at such an early hour? The answer to both questions was more than likely no. But for those of you who don’t know, Community workers in games have all experienced the feeling of being wired to jump to try to address players’ needs, no matter when or how the issue or feedback or bug report comes in. Most of my peers who work in this area of games feel a natural sense of empathy for how other people feel in general, which feeds very conveniently into a front-facing position in which perceiving sentiment and emotion are advantages.

But for myself and the other fine folks who serve as the games industry’s version of MMORPG “tanks” — those toughened, beefy character classes that must hold the attention and hostility of the enemies while they’re killed — we know that this empathy holds a double-edged sword, and it’s easily triggered. That other, sharper edge comes in the form of “doom-scrolling” — that practice of reading bad news that then triggers having to look through more of it to try to be better informed.

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When I went to check on the thread in question that was on the forum, I became curious about some of the other things that players were saying. I found a thread on recent stability issues (“they’re awful, what are the developers thinking”), a thread on speculation on what should be released next (“anything but what the development team thought of last time, it was stupid”), and a thread connected to the one that I was originally pinged about looking at “what else didn’t look right” and how the development team should make sure to take care of those problems right away as well. In short, I was essentially doom-scrolling, or in this case, doom-threading.

This kind of behavior works against your own sensibility of wanting to be more informed, a normally benign thought but which, in certain situations, can work against you in some of the worst ways. Community workers in games have a need to ensure they have their fingers on the pulse of the player community, and that means having good ways to know what the current issues are. Reading your feedback channels is one of the main methods of doing that. But in this case, where you form a habit of finding and seeking what else might be wrong, you have to be careful you don’t tip yourself over the edge into a practice that hurts your own mental health and well-being.

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This wasn’t the first time I had gotten up at an ungodly hour to try to figure out things that were wrong with the player community I was responsible for helping shepherd. Every patch for a game brings with it a hyper-focus on ensuring there isn’t a game-breaking issue or problem on the horizon that can prevent players from enjoying the game as intended. Leaving issues unaddressed or not responded to can undermine the trust a Community worker has established to serve as a two-way channel between developers and players. In many ways, the position is designed to ensure this doesn’t happen.

But there are limits. My physical and mental health began to buckle under the constant need to have to doom-scroll and doom-thread my way to reports that, while needed, were not necessary to have to constantly handle and deal with. I’d have trouble sleeping, then trouble eating, and then finally, trouble focusing during the time that I had to actually work. I’d always be thinking about the next thing that might go wrong, then when searching for current issues, keep finding more, worried that I might miss something, becoming more stressed out at what was piling up. These days, that risk is even greater when so many people are working from home and trying to ensure they are seen as productive.

When I began zoning out in the midst of my work, out of pure despair, I knew something had to change.

Breaking The Doom-Scrolling Cycle In Three Steps

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  1. Disengage completely from the source of the doom-scroll.

Assuming what you’re reading about or needing to address isn’t a matter of life or death, or absolutely critical that some kind of action needs to be performed immediately, disengaging is the first, necessary step to breaking the doom-scroll cycle. Turn off your social media, your news alerts, your chat alerts, and your access to any channel that you’re using to look through the doom-scroll.

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Disengaging doesn’t mean you’re never going to address or read about what you’re seeking. It just means you are removing yourself from the equation for a time. It’s an action that not only shields you from the exponential effect of the doom-scroll, but it gives you some measure of control back. Loss of control and the sheer magnitude of what you’re seeing is some of the worst parts of doom-scrolling, and taking that control back is one of the first steps to feeling like you’re able to do something to fix it.

As someone who has worked in the Community space in games for over a decade, I have a myriad of ways in which I’ve been reachable — Skype alerts, Slack pings, Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, more than one phone — you name it, I’ve probably had it attached to me at some point to let me know if there’s a problem with a game I’ve worked on. All of those get shut off when I disengage — like I did one time on a latency issue that appeared to be gaining traction in the midst of a ton of problems with a server patch one morning. With my work not immediately needed while investigation occurred, I simply took the time to shut myself away from engagement channels exploding with reports of a problem I was fully aware that was occurring, but that I had no immediate ability to address. If it’s not a matter of life or death, and you’ve communicated your availability, it’s ok to take a bit to step back and away from the problem.

2. Determine the time you need before coming back to the issue and spend that time doing something you want to do/enjoy.

The time you need to get back to what is stressing you out can vary, and it depends on how you’re feeling. Sometimes you’ll need an hour. Other times you might need a day. In yet others, you may need a little more. Regardless of what that would be, you’re going to want to spend that time doing something you want to do, preferably something you enjoy. Part of what destroys us in the practice of doom-scrolling is the denial of our enjoyment, our happiness, and our contentment with our overall situation. And the more we doom-scroll, the more that feeling increases.

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Even if the reprieve is ultimately temporary, it is a necessary break for your mind and body — especially if what you decide to do is something that you actually want to do and/or enjoy. Breaking to do something like losing yourself in a favorite hobby, perform tasks towards a personal project you’ve wanted to do (but haven’t found the time to work on), or if you can’t think of anything else, to clear your mind through a walk, meditation, or other similar activity, is almost therapeutic in its doing. It’s not just liberating, but also re-aligns your brain away from what you’ve been so stressed about. Our brains need this kind of mental reset regularly, as it allows us to expend energy in another direction in preparation for tackling the problem you disengaged from in the first place.

In the case of the server patch and latency issue I mentioned before, I determined that I needed a solid hour not thinking about it while other data was being gathered. At the time, I was messing around with music video editing — a creative process that I’d engaged in every so often over the years but which I still enjoyed. I spent that hour trying to think about how to set up clips from the Kenshin OVA anime to a James Bond title theme (in this case, Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name”).

This brings us to the last step of breaking the doom cycle.

3. Return to the issue, come up with at least one actionable step to address it and dive back in.

Having walked away from the issue, and then spent time on something else to clear your mind and reset it, the last step to breaking the doom-scrolling cycle is to come up with something to do about it. It doesn’t have to be a fully-formed plan — sometimes it may take more thought to try to ensure the problem is solved (or it may require more than just you to deal with it) — but one single actionable step is often enough to feel less powerless about the ability to do something about it.

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There’s a reason why the saying “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” is so popular. Changing or fixing something sometimes takes the form of many incremental steps instead of one huge leap, and incremental changes, which are arguably much easier to do, allow at least some feeling of progress. Being able to do something — even one thing — towards a potential solution gives you back some of the agency you may have felt taken away from you. It also gives you something tangible to hold onto, something that puts you on the path to fixing whatever might be wrong. No matter what impact that actionable item is, it ultimately will make you feel at least a little better about a situation that doom-scrolling tends to cause.

In the case of the server patch and latency issue, once I’d spent my time trying to inexplicably fit rock/pop to the pre-Meiji era of animated swordsmanship, I was able to think of a way to tackle the problem at hand — investigate the common threads, report back to our engineering team, get the necessary technical tests for our customers to perform, and gather feedback, all while communicating awareness of the issue and the promise of regular updates while the investigation was being carried out. By the time the morning was over, the issue had been pinpointed, addressed with a specific hotfix to target it with minimal additional downtime, and our players were once again happily logged in and doing their thing.

A trend in the fight to break the doom-scroll

If there seems to be a theme or trend that all the steps that you take to break the doom-scrolling cycle, you be correct. That theme, unequivocally, is “self-care”.

Oftentimes when we encounter something that we can’t help but make ourselves feel worse about as we find out more information, it is ultimately hurtful to us — not necessarily in the sense that it actually physically causes us pain, but in the more intangible, yet no less impactful pain of our psyche, our mentality, our ability to think and deal with the inevitable hardships we encounter every day. Doom-scrolling saps that stability, that endurance that is necessary to deal with the painful things that we read about or we encounter, whether they are close to us personally or are issues that are global that can affect us through collateral damage.

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There might seem to be a negative perception of having to break away from something that at some point might need to be dealt with as if we might be seen as ignoring the issue or closing your eyes to it. Nothing could be further from the truth, because what we’re doing in breaking that doom-scrolling cycle is taking care of ourselves so that we can come back to the problem in the first place. That self-care can take many different forms, from this simple anti-doom-scrolling process I’ve laid out, finding an outlet to release your stress, taking advantage of a mental health professional’s expertise, and more. The point is that there is nothing shameful, weak, or wrong about recognizing our own need to care for ourselves when needed — it’s actually a strength to do so.

One of the biggest challenges in games when you’re a Community worker in games is understanding your limits, and knowing when it’s time to back off for a bit. It’s a constant fight for us to tell ourselves that the problems of a game we’re working on will be there when we come back to them. Given the choice between soldiering on through a haze of doom and despair to get things done faster at risk to our mental health, and walking away from it temporarily, delaying a fix but able to come back to it with fresh eyes (and a fresh head), I’ll choose the latter every time.

Ultimately, no solution to the doom-scrolling effect is foolproof, even the one that I’ve laid out in this article. But we owe it to ourselves, and (in the case of Community workers in games) to the players we help oversee, to give ourselves every fighting chance we can get to fix issues. We’re no good to anyone trapped in an endless cycle of existential dread and depression, and breaking that cycle whenever we have to gives us that much more ability to ensure that we never get imprisoned by it ever again.

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