Burnout Management in Player Support

Written by Tony Won



“While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us.”― Benjamin Franklin


Player Support teams have been dealing with increased pressure, especially in the world of live service games, raising concerns about long-term mental health. Burnout is a hot topic that has its roots in three separate groups – the game company, the players, and the support agent themselves. Properly addressing this requires that we give attention to all three major sources. Companies need to strive to create an environment that protects players, and employees. Players need to work on self-control, and how they communicate feedback. Agents who want to stay in the game should improve resilience. The pain of disruptive, and immoral behavior is felt strongly on our teams that handle player issues, and content moderation.


Another challenge is that we have access to super powerful tools with few barriers to access. Technologies that we enjoy for many good purposes can also be used for evil. Social media gives everyone a megaphone, including the town gossip, and the conman. We sit at the early stages of generative AI tools, which will increase the challenges we face, but also help with our ability to combat them. The perpetual arms race against bad actors across our digital ecosystems is only increasing in complexity. The boundaries between the physical, and digital world have never been clean, and we are on a trajectory to blur the lines even more.


Though the issue is primarily moral, it also has serious business, and legal implications for organizations. When social media companies began to be cited in long-term studies of mental health before Congress, it was obvious that further regulation was incoming. To date, the most relevant ruling was the Facebook settlement of $52 million for mental health damages to their content moderators Social media companies are easy targets for politicians, but I argue that the video game industry is next. Trendy business conversations classifying games as a platform only increase the likelihood that we will face similar risks. Constant deprioritization is no longer an acceptable position.


Support Stress and Law Enforcement

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” Friedrich Nietzsche 


The first source of mental health risk to address is probably the one we have the least control over, which is the constant immersion in harmful content. Viewing child sexual abuse materials (CSAM), violent images, and other evil content all day long is not good for people. We know this instinctually, but our study of human psychology continues to verify the negative effects. Our conundrum comes from the fact that we have jobs meant to protect others, and mitigate this danger, similar to police work. In an article published by The Guardian, “Inside the Mind of a Homicide Detective”, Dr. Candice Waltrip shares that people who spend 60 percent of their job hours or more dealing with disturbing material have both an increased risk of vicarious trauma, and PTSD. Choosing to fight against the worst parts of our societies extracts high costs, especially from those on the front lines.


I use law enforcement analogies often because of the parallels of constant exposure to the worst elements of our society. The Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology published an article titled, “Protecting Police Officers Against Burnout: Overcoming a Fragmented Research Field”, that I found particularly helpful. You can tell from the title that we do not have a good handle on this problem, even in an old institution. There is even less material for moderation teams. This is another point where we could team up across professions, and in fact, we already collaborate in areas like self-harm prevention, and wellness checks. We do not have to reinvent the wheel, just improve on it.


In combination with constant exposure to harmful content, we also have the ordinary challenges that player support teams must face. In the article just mentioned, the authors highlight a list of items as the main causes for burnout. Here’s a summary of where I found similarities between the feelings of police officers, and support agents:


  • High Demand – there’s always too much to be done. (And we wish we could get to it all)
  • Chronic Stressors – we may not deal with life-or-death situations or violence in the same way, but we do spend our days working in a mostly emotionally negative context.
  • Low Human and Material Resources – our teams run extremely lean in game companies, and our software development, and hiring needs permanently sit at the bottom of the priority stack.
  • Heavy Bureaucratic Processes – born from fear, and lack of trust
  • Low Legitimacy from the Population – the jobs are often talked about in a derogatory manner, the pay tends to be low, outsourcing has a bad image
  • Lack of Support from Family and Friends – a natural consequence of the above


It is important to include this list because it is the full work experience that causes burnout, not just the review task. In my introduction, I divided the responsibility for improvement between three groups: companies, players, and the agents because there are actionable items for each. When effort is made on all fronts will mitigate burnout more comprehensively. Factors, like the low legitimacy from the population, will not be addressed because they are not directly solvable.


Management of the Work Environment to Mitigate Stress

“The garden suggests that there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway.” – Michael Pollan


Good managers in this space are constantly pruning like bonsai gardeners. They take care of the people, and their environment. Management includes not only the personalities of the direct managers, but also the systems at a company that influence behavior. We tend to oversimplify management opportunities, limiting solutions to communication styles, and personalities while neglecting the critical rules of the company that affect the day-to-day.


On the art of people management, I will summarize my methodology by saying that we must engage our employees in constant dialogue about value for them, and the company. Strong relationships contribute to a higher quality of life, and reduced stress. This approach, however, is more labor intensive than management by checkbox. It also requires good communication skills, organization, and a combination of other competencies that are difficult to find together. A Gallup study concluded that companies fail to choose the right person the vast majority of the time, and that only around 10 percent of the population is naturally predisposed towards good management practices. Our experience verifies this.


Beyond the individual manager, we have various systems at work that influence behavior. Most of these are standard corporate best practices, like HR policies or evaluation systems. Some of the most important ones, however, may be undocumented practices, like gossip, or workarounds. You will want to study how these practices create the stories at your company.


According to groups like the NIH, and the World Health Organization, we are facing a broader mental health epidemic. It is insensitive to offer a mental wellness program if employees believe the workplace is toxic. Making these benefits available are steps in the right direction, but they leave a lot unaddressed. Here are some ways to reduce dysfunction:


  • Make player support a normal part of the game dev process
  • Discourage excessive overwork
  • Share positive work narratives, engage bad ones
  • Discover true team productivity over time by involving them in the discussion
  • Hire enough people for the work and pay them competitively
  • Create mechanisms for tradeoffs, especially when new work emerges
  • Ensure that their hiring and development needs are not always last
  • Get good software tools
  • Prune your processes regularly
  • Encourage good relationships at work


Poor management practices increase stress, and are a popular reason for quitting. Recalling the parallels with law enforcement, officers get discouraged when they are prevented from doing the right thing. We find the same pattern in healthcare, and education. An inconvenient truth is that moderators would characterize many places of employment as hostile environments with little to no autonomy.


Here are eight ideas for the moderator role that you will want to address:

  1. Automate Review As Much As Possible – a sophisticated tool will prevent engagement with harmful content for our players, but also for our moderators.
  2. Use Image Filters to Mitigate Negative Effects – AI can mitigate negative impacts on moderators by altering the images and video before manual review
  3. Adult Education Focusing on Mental Resilience – the company has the responsibility to provide ongoing education and support for increasing mental toughness. Training is good, but I would recommend a partnership with local university psychology departments if available.
  4. Create Clear Escalation Processes and Policies – It is helpful to have ways of easily searching your knowledge base, especially for newcomers. Remember that speed is critical, and country-specific details need to be there. Collaboration with law enforcement for certain cases will be necessary (i.e. wellness checks, obligations to report illegal activity, and certain kinds of threats, etc….)
  5. Community and Peer Discussion Groups – we need to address the risks of isolation and loneliness, creating opportunities for employees to connect. Try to find volunteer leaders among the employees because they often have high trust with other moderators. Be careful about trying to exert too much control over these, as it may decrease effectiveness.
  6. Experiment: Work Division and Total Time Exposure – a common mistake is to constantly assign the same individuals to the worst kinds of material. There is an argument to be made for specialized teams of exceptionally resilient people, but these are limited in number. Lessons from policing suggest that 60 percent of total work time is a good upper limit, though no academic studies for content moderation have yet been conducted. I would encourage teams to experiment, and do daily journaling.
  7. Create Exception Handling Criteria – there may be edge cases where the current issue is too much for the moderator to handle. It could be the extreme nature of it, a detail that triggers a personal connection, or cumulative effects. Whatever the reason, we should create escape hatches for employees to take a break, or ask for help. If the priority is their mental health, we need to make room for it in our workflows.
  8. Provide Resources and Encourage Treatment – companies will vary on the support they are able to provide, but we should all be sharing information on where to start. There are free mental health hotlines, some providing connections to clinical psychologists. On-site services are a luxury, but they do exist in larger corporations. Subsidized programs are also a popular option.


The last comment I will make about management involves the challenge of the client-vendor relationship in these operations. We outsource a lot, which introduces alignment and executional challenges. It is hard enough to influence a work culture at your company, let alone a different one. Better collaboration is required.


We Are Popular Punching Bags

“The civility which money will purchase, is rarely extended to those who have none.” – Charles Dickens


Service employees get treated poorly on a regular basis. There are a number of reasons for this behavior, some understandable, and others just mean spirited. Part of the cultural calculus is a feeling of entitlement, best summarized with phrases like, the customer is king. Whatever the reason, it is easy to take your anger out on an employee whose job is to build a positive relationship with you. Forbes published an article on the stress of customer-facing jobs, stating that 74 percent of contact center employees were at risk of burnout. Granted these surveys seem to have been conducted during peak covid hysteria, but we know that it hurts to be a popular punching bag.


The first point to make is that I am asking for your help. You can make such a big difference for the health of the video game industry. Most articles focus on call-center management alone, but we know that customers have a responsibility for civility too. Education, and public service announcements are a thing, as well as influencer content, but in the end the decision is personal. The school of conflict resolution, and moral instruction is a private one. Social pressure prevents some escalation for in-person conflicts, but there is much less hesitation to become belligerent when dealing with a faceless voice, email, or text exchange.


The more extreme element that we cannot address here is the origination of harmful content itself. Appeals will not work with most of the people behind the creation, proliferation, and sharing of it. This is primarily a matter for parents, families, friends, mental health professionals, lawmakers, law enforcement, and governments to tackle more directly.


How to Play Good Defense

“He who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the universe.” – Marcus Aurelius


Every individual who takes these kinds of jobs must improve their resilience if they want to avoid burnout. Most employers, however, primarily screen for empathy. While some are adjusting their hiring profiles, old habits die hard. Resilience is not a skill. It is the outcome of your habits, what you most often practice and what you believe. It is not a mystical force that you can speak into existence either. One does not simply declare mental toughness. My aim in this section is to give people a set of ideas from which they may create their own practices to build resilience.


If resilience is the ability to overcome hardship, it follows that we should categorize the challenges from the moderator’s perspective:


  • Study the Reality of Your Workplace and Embrace It (or not) – learn how to manage up, how to negotiate raises and promotions, how to workaround constraints, how to change things, how prioritization works, all of the realities of how to get things done. When you feel that you have a decent grasp on this, you then have to decide how you want to deal with those items which you find frustrating. Your agency in decision making is important for building the grit you need to do well.
  • Develop Valuable Competencies – A question I get from time to time is, “what skills are most important for the future?” My answer has always been a mix of timeless skills, and emerging ones from tech. Being good at your job relieves stress, and helps prevent burnout because your feelings of accomplishment are based on evidence. Everyone identifies with their work on some level, which is why building true competence also helps build resilience. From my perspective, the top five skills are communication, critical thinking, statistics, data (SQL, hadoop, visualization software, etc….), and AI (ChatGPT, LLMs, prompts, etc….).
  • Focus on What You Can Change – Anxiety is the high stress worry that comes from thinking of the possibility of bad things happening. It is highly correlated with depression and other mental health concerns, and while it has been on the rise in recent decades, there was a massive 25 percent spike during the pandemic. The ongoing effects have lingered, and the WHO has sounded the alarm for increasing treatment. Reactive measures are good, but being in my industry, I am always interested in getting as close to root causes as possible. My message to people in this job is that you should be concerned with what is in your ability to control, which is mostly your reaction to challenges. Write down your fears, and make plans to beat them.
  • Build and Maintain Healthy, Deep Relationships – We all benefit from deep human connections. There is no other way to gain depth if you do not spend significant amounts of time together. Make regular plans to do sports, have coffee, read books, play games, whatever, but please remember to fully engage others.
  • Exercise is Good for Your Mental Health Too – your physical health and your mental health are connected. This is an often neglected topic in mental health treatment, but the data is clear. Aerobic exercises, in particular, have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. Start easy, and work your way up gradually.


The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has done a lot of research on resilience in children, and have identified what they believe is a common set of factors that predispose them to positive outcomes despite great adversity. Here are the four themes:

  1. Facilitating supportive adult-child relationships
  2. Building a sense of self-efficacy and perceived control
  3. Providing opportunities to strengthen adaptive skills and self-regulatory capacities
  4. Mobilizing sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions


The overview ends with strong notes of optimism, stating that while children enjoy higher levels of adaptability, resilience can be developed at any age. In the conversations I have had with professionals, there is sometimes the regret of wasted time or not knowing something sooner. We cannot tie ourselves up with what could have been or what one should have done. It is much more fruitful to deal with the matters of today, of what is real at this moment.


Conclusion: We Can Be the Better Tomorrow

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” – Helen Keller


We are engaged in a conflict that will leave its scars, yet it is a worthy sacrifice to shield many others from unnecessary harm. Work becomes more satisfying when we talk about the ‘why’, and part of the reason, I believe, is because it sparks our intrinsic sense of value. When your reasons for being are strong, a person has the potential to become a force. My aim is more than just keeping you going to your next vacation or bonus. I prefer that you become as tough as nails. At the same time we acknowledge that management has a lot to address as burnout spans across industries. Lastly, the gaming community itself needs to consider how it communicates, both in-between gamers, and with those that support them.


Together, we can be a part of a better tomorrow.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of GGWP. The content provided is for informational purposes only.

About Tony Won

Tony Won
Tony Won – LinkedIn

Tony Won has made significant contributions to the gaming industry, particularly in the realm of player support and customer experience. He founded Player Support LLC and has been instrumental in leading player support teams at top gaming companies, including Epic Games and Riot Games. His advisory role at TELUS International further showcases his strategic insight into business expansion within the gaming sector. Tony is recognized for his innovative methods in enhancing player engagement, integrating technology, and building scalable operations that have markedly improved customer relationships and operational efficiencies. His expertise in strategic planning, community engagement, and problem resolution highlights his commitment to improving the gaming community’s online interactions.