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An Impostor Among Us: Shipping my First Game

Reflections on shipping my first game and exactly how it didn't feel--a case study on impostor syndrome.


(Reprised by request from my personal blog:

I’ve been planning a blog entry for some time since shipping my first* game, Sprout Up!, on iOS last month. I anticipated a wealth of feelings would pour out of me, conveniently fashioning themselves into something inspiring, or at least entertaining. Instead I’ve found myself time and time again staring at a blank screen, struggling to write something.

I expected so much more from releasing a game, while at the same time expecting nothing. I worked on the game with a wonderful team made up of two former students: the genesis of the game, design, and the amazing art came from Chris Lee, while the programming never would have been completed if not for the brilliance of Byron Henze. Working with them both was nothing short of terrific. (I straddled both programming and design.)

Being terribly selfish, though, I had aspirations of talking about what it felt like for me. Making games is not new to me. I’ve made countless prototypes, proofs-of-concept, and small games. I’ve made text-adventure games and AI simulators (admittedly often with more AI to them than game). I’ve made small game engines for my students and “research games” for fellow professors. But never have I followed my life-long aspiration of publishing a game.

Until now.

I thought I would have lots to say. But moreover I expected to feel something more.

Feel what exactly? Happy? Sad? Valid? Respected? Or simply less of a fraud? And in the eyes of whom?

I’m well familiar with the impostor syndrome and the ugly tendrils of doubt it can insidiously weave into your life. Coupled with my intense respect, admiration, and love for game developers (particularly indies), in my mind there was clearly only one question: Who the hell am I to make games? Answer: no one— certainly not on par with these individuals.

Yet, if so, I sat amidst a contradiction: I teach game development. I consult. I do my best to help people every day bring their games into the world. I try very hard to inspire and encourage folks to follow their dreams. I’ve been making (and playing) games a long time. Surely, in fact, I am somewhat well positioned to ship a game? (The lack of time that often weighs heavily on my efforts aside.)

And so it seemed that the only cure to this impostor syndrome was to start publishing my games and finally give myself permission to be a “true” contributing member of this community.

Easy, right?

Along my life’s path I’ve been told I’m “only an academic”, “only a woman” and other ridiculous instantiations of these claims. As much as they hurt, and as much as I sometimes forget, I know they are not true. There is no “only” in either of those statements.

Furthermore, I could handle the world hating a game that I made (so I told myself).

But what I didn’t think I could handle and therefore my greatest fear: my friends, my students, my community confirming that, in fact, I was an impostor. As a game developer (and as a human) I craved acceptance and a high five, which I was terrified wouldn’t be waiting for me on the other side of publishing.

Still, I’ve always believed very strongly that to be the best teacher I can, I need to get my hands dirty. I need to soldier forward in the face of my fears, my limitations, and my misunderstandings, and never stop learning and doing, working hard to bring real meaning to my classroom. Everything for my students. Superficially, I wanted to ship a game so that I could truly appreciate the process. But most importantly I needed to ship a game because I needed to step forward in the face of my fears. How else could I help someone else do the same?

So I set myself a goal and I committed to publishing a game in 2013. This time my excuses went in the ice box, and I let a lingering hurt from a previous project go as best I could.

The result was joining the team on Sprout Up!, a bullet-hell/endless-runner style game in which you play as a hungry daisy, collecting alternating drops of rain and sun while attempting to grow as tall as possible. The game is fun, and I find myself playing it regularly even now that it’s shipped. I am proud of the game, and even more proud of our team.

Yet the celebratory elation I expected to feel on shipping Sprout Up! was surprisingly mild. Deep down I was waiting for my feelings of inadequacy to diminish. I was waiting for the certificate of authenticity to magically land on my desk and blow away the last lingering vestiges of impostor syndrome.  But it hasn’t come, and some days the impostor syndrome seems stronger than ever before.

With certain things in life there exists a surreal moment when you step from the side of “things other amazing people do” to “things I’ve done”. Things go from the seeming impossible to the achieved and mundane. For me it often takes one of two forms, regardless of the accomplishment: “well, if someone like me could do it, then I guess it’s not so special”, or, “my version must be somehow flawed because I couldn’t possibly be at the level of my peers”.

I do this every time, yet somehow I never see it coming. Shipping a game was no different. I wanted to feel reassured in my friends’ respect. I wanted to feel like a legitimate member of the community. I wanted to belong. Instead nothing changed internally.

I suppose I always knew that the acceptance I was seeking wasn’t on the other side of shipping a game. Maybe, I wondered, I belonged all along. Maybe, I wondered, I would never belong. Either way it got me thinking.

The elusive cure for the impostor syndrome isn’t externally available. In fact, I’m not sure that it is even curable. Instead it seems to arise as a natural side effect at the intersection between our perception of our place in a complex and changing world and how others see us. We are understandably biased in our assertions, and the consequences of not belonging are bred into us through evolution.

The amazing things that others do are magic precisely because they aren’t things that we do, the path to achieving these things seemingly unattainable in our current lives. Your brain sees the magic and sets you to believing, perhaps subconsciously, that if you accomplish this goal you will walk among the "magical elite".  You will belong.  The reality, however, is on accomplishing such a goal, you degrade and justify your accomplishments as somehow lesser to protect the status of those you admire. You are, after all, the impostor.

So what’s an “impostor” to do?

Perhaps the best we can strive for is simply to accept the natural ups and downs that come with being human, and challenge ourselves to celebrate our accomplishments as true accomplishments, not watered down trivialities. Sitting and waiting for external validation while holding ourselves up to others’ measuring sticks always disappoints. Given how different each of us truly are, it seems ridiculous that we should abide by such nonsensical metrics. You can’t measure the distance to the moon in pixels. You can’t win a race if you’ve traveled more kilograms. It just doesn’t make sense.

I think what Sprout Up! has taught me so far is a greater awareness of just how much I seek external validation, and that perhaps it is time I cast an eye inward with a bit more perspective. 

And as I sit and reflect on the last month, even as sales wane, I am ultimately happy.

(*In truth I shipped two games. The first was Burger Dare!, a satire of free-to-play games poking fun at in-app purchases (and asserting my ability to only ship games with exclamation marks in the title). Made alongside Andy Moore over a weekend game jam I was running for my students, it was a different sort of offering for me as I did the art instead of programming. Since this game was made in jest, as opposed to the year of development on Sprout Up! I reasoned it didn’t count for the purposes of this article.)

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