With all the stories that have been coming out recently about abuse in the games industry, there’s one personal story that I’ve only been telling a few close friends. Now, after giving it a lot of thought (with no small amount of anxiety issues) I thought that it is best to share it publicly so that people who may find themselves in similar situations may be able to recognize it and find someone to help them gather the courage to act. It took me a long time to realize how I was making things way worse for myself by not leaving in time, sometimes even reacting violently when close friends told me I needed to get away from this because I didn’t want to believe it. But 2 years later I truly believe I made the right call in the end, and I hope this helps others do the same.
When I started at my previous workplace a small but quickly growing indie studio, the company had a fantastic team culture. I was proud to join that team because of their great history, but also their vibe as a fun company to work at. However, halfway through my time there, a new CEO stepped in, one with lots of previous experience in the industry (and who kept flailing his years of experience whenever he wanted to confront someone’s opinion).
He came first as a friendly figure, always inviting me for dinners and drinks and giving advice on how to do my work as a Producer better. Since I considered myself someone new in the industry with still a lot to learn, I honestly started to trust this person and his advice. Unfortunately, it all took a horrendous turn for the worse as he became the most abusive person I have ever met, causing both me and many other co-workers a great deal of psychological burden, some of which still causes me anxiety breakdowns several years after leaving the company.
There was a constant of him complaining that I was shit at my job and that if it weren’t for him being friends with me, I wouldn’t even be able to find a job as a Producer in the games industry. This happened in emails, Skype conversations, meetings... but also with him often walking into the production room and loudly yelling and calling me incompetent in front of the entire team I was supposed to lead. And the worst part is that I started to believe him. With my trying to learn to do better and me trusting him at the time for his years of experience, I honestly believed that I deserved all the crap that he was throwing my way.
Even worse, more than a couple of times he would “punish me for my mistakes” by forcing me to go to the office to work alone in the weekend and do administration tasks such as equipment inventory and tagging while I reflected over my mistakes.
Many times I felt like his puppet: I would make and execute plans for the production of the game and the milestone deliveries to our partners, and two days later he would barge into the room, sometimes noticeably high, yell at me because he didn’t like the plan, and literally dictate to me what I needed to change in the plan, even though those changes meant having to introduce an extreme amount of crunch for the whole team. As a CEO, he kept overruling decisions from producers and team leads last minute or close to milestone deadlines, claiming that he had 30+ years of experience in the industry so he knew better what we had to do and we should shut up. Because of this, there were months I would end up frequently working past midnight, doing 70+ hour work weeks, and even then having to go back to work in the weekend to finish, all of these extra hours unpaid.
If anybody in the team left on time, I would be yelled at because I had allowed someone to leave without finishing their job. If somebody tried to take the legal 3 weeks of vacation in Denmark, I would be yelled at for being too weak to deny them, claiming that in the games industry people shouldn’t take vacations until the game is done, and then I would be yelled at again because the CEO would have to step down to talk to them and do my job of cancelling their vacations. Needless to say, employees with more experience wouldn’t budge and would still take their legal amount of vacation days, to his annoyance, with him claiming that people in the Danish games industry think they are special butterflies and they will never succeed because of it.
Other examples of abuse would include him telling others that he was going to put me under another producer because that would hurt my pride, or him telling me that he was giving me a specific task because he knew it would hurt the ego of the other producer. Also constantly bringing up that I was way overpaid and that he “knows game producers making Halo games that earn less than half” than me (despite my salary being well below average for my position), or how much money the company had lost on previous projects and how they were all my fault.
The absolute worst moment however was when I got laid off and given a 3 months notice, but the CEO told me within closed doors that, depending on how well a specific project that he was putting me in charge of went, he may be able to hire me again. At that point, I was feeling so useless from the constant negative comments against me, that I tried to cling on as hard as I could to my job, and started to work even more extra hours, my mind completely shattered and having nervous breakdowns where I would have to shut myself inside a meeting room and start crying. Right before those 3 months were over, I was hired again, with a new temporary contract that specifically pointed out an updated role description which stated among my work assignments I would also have to do “anything from fetching milk to visiting IKEA”. Months later I was told by the CEO that he never had the intention to lay me off, and that he had done so “to teach me a lesson” and see if that way I would start applying myself harder.
Things got way worse after that, with even more bullying, yelling and constant reminders that I was failing and how our external partners were “continually unimpressed” with me. He would often insult other team employees in front of me, some of them personal friends of mine, even claiming that one of them who was out on sick leave due to stress was faking it just so that he could steal the company’s money away. He even threatened employees with lawsuit actions who had left and were talking to others still in about job offers in other places.
Eventually I ended up going to a psychologist, who helped me regain the confidence I needed to leave the company. When I handed over the resignation letter, whereas the rest of the owners of the company were very understanding about it, the CEO took me to his office, closed the door, and started to yell at me with the following:
1. He said I couldn’t leave the company at this point, because one of the projects was not doing well and it was entirely my fault, so I had to “man-up”, own my mistakes and fix them.
2. When I still insisted I had to leave, he said that “a lot of people working here that you care about will get hurt if you leave now, and it will be your fault”.
3. Finally, he gave me two options:
---- I destroy the resignation letter, stay in the company until the project is over, after that I quit if I want to, he will write me recommendation letters, stay friends with me and keep inviting me to the company parties and events
---- I still go ahead with my exit and, as he very specifically said, “I will destroy you to pieces”.
This person being someone with a lot of contacts in the videogame industry, and having seen how he reacted to other situations, I was terrified. I walked back home still with the resignation letter in my hand and spent the entire weekend in a state of anxiety. Eventually I decided to go ahead on Monday morning and email the resignation letter to him and HR, so that I wouldn’t have the chance to be pushed back by him again. He found some new excuses to yell at me (he found out I had told 2 co-workers that I was leaving and he said that I was actively jeopardizing the project by doing so), but after that he stopped talking to me from that moment onwards, avoiding me and acting like I was not in the room which, in all honesty, was a much better situation than what came before.
It’s already been more than a couple of years since all of this ended, but I still have anxiety attacks whenever I talk about what happened to me there (and writing this has used up an enormous amount of my energy). In retrospective, I see so many moments where I should have been able to argue back with him when he was trying to bully me, but at the time I felt so little, inexperienced and, frankly, truly believing what he was saying about me, that I was incapable of fighting back.
Now I work at a different company where the situation couldn’t be any more different. I actually get thanks from my managers and positive comments whenever I do something well, and if I make a mistake, they offer helpful advice while understanding why I did it.
But I hope this experience will at least help others recognize this type of pattern from abusive managers and find someone to talk to about it that can help reinforce their self-esteem and, hopefully, push for a change or leave the abuser.