Hi! I’m Melos Han-Tani (https://twitter.com/han_tani). I’ve been making indie games as a hobbyist and professional for almost a decade (Anodyne 1+ 2, Even the Ocean, All Our Asias).
Some friends have been talking about and asking about ergonomics – it’s something I’ve been taking fairly seriously since my mid-20s and making investments in that, I think, are far cheaper than the cost of later medication or physical therapy. So I’m going to go over my current set-up!
Let me just preface this by saying that obviously, all of this costs money and it’s not about shaming anyone if they can’t afford something. Some of this can be solved by workarounds (I used to use old package boxes or books as a footrest), but anything you can get here will help. Because I work full-time and rely on game development for my income, I’ve invested into the higher end of equipment, but even making adjustments with cheaper choices can do wonders for physical health.
Context for my work: I have a home office and work about 40-60 hours a week, though I’m probably at my computer in some way a lot more than that. I program, which is typing-intensive, and write music and design games, which are very mouse and keystroke intensive. If you do something like illustration this may not be as useful.
I’m in my late 20s and have dealt with wrist RSI as well as neck/back strain in the past (which are more or less gone under the right circumstances). I can’t play clicking or button press intensive PC games without a controller, I can’t use a regular mouse for longer than 15 minutes. This is partially from using computers too much over my life, but also years of bad posture growing up, and also sports strain (I was a competitive bowler in grade school, which puts a lot of strain on your body if you’re not buff enough (which I was not.))
Nothing in this article will be that useful if you work for 2+ hour stints without getting up, stretching, or drinking water. Find some stretches that work for you, in particular, the wrist, shoulders, arms, upper back, eyes, jaw, neck. Try to plan your day so that you can get up at least once an hour (30 minutes is best).
Exercise helps. You should try to stretch your entire body or get a little bit of cardio before working at a computer each day. This doesn’t have to be running a mile, but just enough that you’re ready for the strain of working at a computer.
It helps to learn to identify tension in your body – there are lots of physical therapy or massage videos you can watch. Things like muscle tension can lead to various types of other pain in parts of the body that might not even be the things that are tense.
If you can, light muscle workouts can help build a strong core which makes it easier to have good posture.
Good posture is knowledge and practice, and good equipment lets you achieve that posture. But good equipment won’t help much if you’re not using them with proper posture.
Eye and Neck
If you work at a monitor, generally you want to make sure that when sitting upright, you don’t have to tilt your head up or down to see your screen. (This basically rules out laptops!) The rule of thumb is your resting eye angle should hit the center of the screen, but depending on the work you do this can be higher or lower, or even left or right. You may need to adjust your software or monitor to achieve this angle (some software may focus your eyes on the left side of the screen, etc)
Your form with typing matters: don’t slump your wrists while typing. Rest your hands on your thighs when not typing, or off to the side in a neutral hand position. From your elbow to your fingers, your forearm should be straight – you don’t want upwards wrist tilt (like a waiter holding a big serving plate). I think a little downwards is okay, but to the extent that a loose wrist will tilt from gravity. I try to keep my wrist flat.
You want a little bit of tenting for your keyboard as it accommodates the natural rotation of the wrist more. Most good keyboards let you customize this. I use a fairly gentle tilt of a few degrees – find what works best for you.
The angle your forearm and upper arm form a the elbow is important for typing: about 90-110 degrees is good. The angle your upper arm and spine form is important, too – roughly parallel to 10 degrees is best (the idea being, you don’t want your elbows shooting behind your back, nor do you want to be reaching out uncomfortably towards your keyboard).
This illustration shows a pretty good forearm-upper arm angle, as well as a good upper arm-torso angle. The Spine to seat angle might be a bit too far back though.
There’s even more! How much your forearms are rotated inwards in order to type matters! But more on that in the keyboard section.
As far as your torso-to-thigh angle – I alternate between sitting up straight closer to the edge of my seat, and sitting up with my chair supporting me (slightly at an angle like the above illustration). Generally you don’t want to let your upper back slump forward, nor your neck to tilt downward or extend forward. Your neck should be parallel with your torso in most cases.
I’m not sure about the ideal upper leg to lower leg angle. I find anywhere from 90 degrees and up to be pretty good, as long as I can achieve the proper foot angle and upper body posture.
Lastly, your feet: they should rest flat on the ground comfortably without your thighs angling up too much (indicating a too short chair), or without the feeling that you have to extend your legs to reach the ground (too high of a chair). This is hard if you’re short (like me). You might need a footrest if you’re short (actually I recommend one either way, but you likely will need one if you’re short because most desks and chairs are designed for average heights, and you won’t be able to achieve the proper angles otherwise).
One more note on posture
Move around a little! It’s good to not just sit in one position all day, which is why adjustable footrests and sliding chairs are good. Good posture doesn’t have to be one position – it can vary a little.
Don’t feel like you have to follow these exactly: if something is causing strain or lasting pain then it might not work for you.
Say no to laptops!
I can’t stress enough that if you are a professional working with computers significantly, stop using a laptop ASAP and switch to at minimum, an external keyboard and external monitor. As much as whatever marketing speak might want you to believe, laptops are not designed for 40-60+ hour workweeks. If you’re in your teens or 20s and feel healthy still, you’re increasing the risk of eventual RSI, eye, and neck issues with hunching over the screen and the cramped, repetitive motions your hands have to do on a cramped laptop keyboard or tiny touchpad.
This, of course, could be mitigated depending on your childhood history and entertainment preferences. If you grew up playing tons of computer games or hanging out online, OR, if you do either of those now – those are risk factors. Someone who grew up mostly ‘offline’ and doesn’t use the computer much outside of work, might be able to use a laptop for longer. But I honestly wouldn’t recommend anyone use a laptop if they can avoid it.
Again, you don’t need to buy a desktop computer (I’ve never owned one) – just get a monitor and external keyboard. More on those later.
Chair – I use an Okamura Baron Chair. These go for over $1,000 new, but I found mine for around $400 used (depends on condition). The neck rest is not really needed as you shouldn’t be leaning back while working.
I believe this is a ‘soft mesh’ type chair. While this is vastly my preference over other types, there are some disadvantages to keep in mind (See https://www.btod.com/blog/mesh-office-chair-problems/ ). In particular, if you weigh a lot (I’m quite light and short), that may lead to the seat or back cushion distorting over a long time. However I’ve been using mine full-time for nearly a year and have not had any lower back pain since from when I used cushioned chairs. I find cushioned chairs make me sink in too much and focus pressure on the wrong places.
Always try to test a chair before buying, keeping in mind your height. Some chairs may not go low enough, some armrests may be too high.
My Baron chair lets me adjust how far the seat goes forward, as well as the obvious like height, or how far back the back of the seat will tilt. You can also adjust resistance of the back. The armrests can also be replaced with adjustable (rotateable and raisable) armrests, which is great – I actually don’t have these on my chair, but it would help a bunch as my elbows have to tilt outwards to rest on the armrest, and the armrest is about 1 cm too high.
I use an motorized sitting/standing desk which can be programmed to various heights. I try to stand an hour or two a day, it especially helps when I need to stay awake. But the main use is that it prevents you from having to sit all day which can lead to soreness. However if you take breaks and don’t overwork, not having the standing option isn’t a huge deal.
Because I’m short, I need a desk with a height of 60 cm, so that I can use my footrest and still have the correct typing angles. The vast majority of adjustable desks do not go this low, so I bought the Flexispot, which is about $400 and is motorized and very sturdy! Not to mention big.
I don’t use this, but if you’re on your feet a lot you might want a ergonomic pad to stand on. I stand in comfy slippers, which let me stand for roughly an hour before wanting to sit down. (Standing can be just as bad as sitting, which is why motorized desks are great since you can alternate easily.)
I use a BORDERLESS foot cushion (about $100). I know that sentence sounds absurd, but it has foam with just the right amount of give, and the taller side has a good curvature for your feet. It doesn’t slide around easily, has a washable cover, and can be pushed forward or closer depending how you’d like to rest your legs.
You can likely be okay with cheaper – anything with a curved end to it is good. (The shallower end of this cushion is for reclining which I never do)
You don’t need anything fancy, but if you don’t use a blue-light reduction tool (like Flux) you should download that. Depending on your needs you might want glasses or a monitor that can help reduce blue light further. You can find a good monitor new for about $100-$150. Some monitors have fancy features but I think if you take breaks for your eyes you’ll be fine.
I have a 1080P ASUS monitor – the monitor should be big enough to be easy to read but not too big that you have to move your head to read far parts of the screen. 1440P or 4K are fine (clearer to read) too, just make sure your computer’s GPU can handle it (looking at you, my 2013 MacBook that thought trying to output 4K was a good idea).
It’s worth mentioning that if you use a multi monitor set-up, try to keep stuff you only occasionally need to reference off to the side. You definitely don’t want to have your neck tilted for hours while working. (I use my laptop as a 2nd screen, and put stuff like notes there.)
With that in mind, you’ll probably need to stack your monitor on some books or boxes to achieve the proper eye to screen angle. There are expensive stands and stuff that can do this and let you adjust your monitor as needed. I’ve never owned one, but I do generally need a slightly higher monitor height when standing so I’ve considered it.
Use trackball mice. Trackpads on a laptop simply aren’t designed for any long term, serious work, and regular mice will eventually destroy your wrists or fingers because of the wrist movement required.
Trackball mice let you minimize movement by only requiring a ball be rotated to control the mouse cursor.
There are many trackball mice out there: experiment at a store to find what works well for you and your needs. If your RSI is not as far along, you may be able to use a mouse that you move with your thumb, or ones with huge trackballs. But for me I have to use a Trackman Marble.
I’ve used a Trackman Marble with my left hand for years, which runs about $60. Note that there are only four buttons and it’s only feasible to use three of them at a time. I use the tiny one for double-click, then the big left/right for left and right click. HOWEVER:
Lots of clicking is pretty bad for your wrists. I used to use NeatMouse for mouse emulation – letting my keyboard simulate clicks. For example, I might have 8,9 and 0 be left/middle/right click.
Nowadays I do this with remappable keyboards (more on that soon).
Also, depending on your work, you might be interested in auto-click software – software that clicks for you when you stop moving the mouse.
Note that some games are hard to play with trackball mice.
Keyboards come in various ‘ranks’, but I’ll just start with the best.
About $300-400 depending on features. I’ve used the Ergodox EZ for a little over 2 years and it’s the best keyboard I’ve ever used. My only complaint is that it could use one more row of keys.
the Ergodox EZ is fully remappable, meaning you can use a software tool to flash the keyboard and upload your own key bindings to it. This means you could make every key type “A” if you wanted to. Practically speaking, it means you can move around keys to where you need them to be.
It also has a concept of “layers” – with one keystroke, you can set the keyboard to an entirely different set of keys, either until you untoggle it, or until you release a key. For example, I have a hold-toggle layer that I use to zoom in and out of a scene in Unity (a game editor software). I also have a press-toggle layer that I use for mapping J, K and L to mouse clicks, and WASD to mouse movement.
I also have keys mapped to Alt+tab or Ctrl+tab macros. The Ergodox can do a lot. I also map the keys near my thumbs to mouse clicks as well.
The Ergodox is also, well, ergonomic. It’s fully split meaning you can move the halves around, so you can move it so that you shoulders are resting natural and open. There are keys rotated to work well with your thumbs. Keys are arranged straight (vs. offset like a regular keyboard), so your fingers extend more naturally to reach keys. It takes a few weeks to get used to, but is great.
You can also tent the keyboard slightly (I use a tenting of a few degrees). You can also give it lights (I don’t use these) , or a wrist rest (I don’t use these as my wrists slump – I rest my wrists on my thighs or at my sides when standing.)
You can also customize the key switches to your preference, for comfortable key feedback (which may affect wrist/finger fatigue). I use MX Cherry Brown.
If you don’t want or can’t afford the Ergodox, there are plenty of alternatives. However, the majority of keyboards are NOT programmable and so you’re limited to the manufacturer’s design. Split keyboards are better than non-split in all cases, but it’s best to get ‘true’ split keyboards (where it’s two halves). Keyboards with tenting are better than none, but you need a ‘true split’ keyboard to adjust the tenting to your body’s preference.
For one, any standard external keyboard (with a USB plug) is better than a laptop keyboard, simply because you can then elevate the laptop or move it away from you.
Here are some okay cheaper alternatives:
The Periboard is about $60 – it’s a great ‘starter’ ergonomic keyboard. As you might notice, it’s gigantic – you pretty much need to use a left hand mouse with this or you’re going to be reaching too far to the right.
The Sculpt is pretty good, too:
Beyond that things tend to go into the mid to high $100s. I would say if you’re looking at that range you’re better off saving for the Ergodox – it’ll last longer and it does about everything you might need.
I used to use SoftFlex computer gloves (I’m not sure if the maker is still selling them) for years, but rarely do nowadays as most of my wrist pain has been alleviated by my chair, keyboard and desk investments. To be honest computer gloves feel hard to recommend and probably depend on your situation a lot more than other stuff I’ve talked about.
SoftFlex computer gloves will redirect pressure away from certain nerves to reduce RSI / carpal tunnel /etc pain.
But with my current setup, if I take breaks and stretch the wrists and type properly, I almost never experience RSI pain unless I was also playing videogames the same day, or doing a particularly intensive repetitive task like level design (involving lots of repeated or held keystrokes etc).
In total, my equipment runs about $1500. That is a lot of money, but it feels reasonable to me as an investment into my future health in terms of concrete results. I plan to use this equipment to create games for years, so I want to make sure to buy stuff that will last. In any case, keep in mind that most of that cost is my choice of desk/keyboard/chair.
Well that’s about it! If you have questions leave them here or reach out to me on Twitter. https://twitter.com/han_tani
Recently I’ve made two new purchases which have immensely improved my setup:
Articulated Arm Rests ($80-$200/piece)
Armrests on office chairs are notoriously bad and barely fit anyone properly. I recently purchased two of these and removed my armrests from my Baron chair and it’s been great! Articulated arm rests move with your arm and accommodate movement instead of making your shoulders carry the weight of your arms. Reaching for far keys or a mouse takes a lot less strain. They’re also adjustable.
I’ve seen friends use Ergorest, but I think cheaper options exist. I’m in Japan and bought two AERO CA-600s for a little under $200.
Ergodriven’s Topo ($100): A fairly firm mat for standing desk usage and shoes. It’s harder than most ‘squishy’ fatigue mats, but I think with shoes this is actually a good thing – the varied height of the mat lets you change your feet posture to different angles, which is actually healthier than just standing.
I’ve bought a few things since last year!
- My computer monitor now has an arm. This lets me move around the monitor if I need to, and clears room below the monitor (in my case I place a music keyboard beneath it.). In particular I use the Ergotron arm:
- I also have my laptop on a laptop stand! This elevates it to the same height for use as a 2nd monitor, and frees up space beneath it. I use this: