Onset can take a few months, years, or it can be instant, as soon as you sit down at your computer to start making a game.
Sometimes it happens at a party, or a conference, or just browsing the internet. But the more you learn, the more likely you start feeling unsteady. Generally, it hits exactly after your first ‘big break’ -- whether it’s your first job in the industry or your first game’s release.
You realise that you don’t deserve to be here.
You do not belong. You see amazing, talented people with more experience and talent, and you know you aren’t qualified to work in their industry. You know it as deeply as you know the color of your eyes, without even thinking about it. Your lack of credibility is suddenly a part of you, undeniable and ever-present.
Worse, you see people who work as hard as you do, who haven’t made it as far.
The good news is that game developers are generally cool people! In my experience, they’re so friendly and nice (or self-absorbed), they don’t even seem to notice. You can pass. But it feels so obvious to you that it's only a matter of time before they realise you've slid under the radar.
I know what you’re feeling. Because most of us feel that way, too.
Impostor’s syndrome is the feeling that your accomplishments (whatever they are, regardless of source) are undeserved and invalid, or in some way not earned.
After all, “fake it till you make it”, right? This is the other side of the coin -- once you’ve made it, you remember you’ve been faking it. This can create a deep sense of unbelonging, as everything you have earned feels undeserved.
Recently, I asked my Twitter followers whether they ever felt like frauds. I received an outpouring of fears and anxieties that had roughly no correlation to experience, age, or apparent success.
One talented programmer, on condition of anonymity, confessed they secretly never passed a programming test, and are terrified someone will find out. Another said they still had no idea if they can actually program or not, since nobody has told them, presumably because they are too scared to ask. A third said they felt they hadn’t accomplished enough yet to admit to having impostor’s syndrome (ha). One developer wondered if they were secretly lazy, unknown even to themselves.
Newer devs feel it because we can’t talk about our years of crunching on Classic Title X or share a bro-fist over memories of the Atari (or NES or, soon enough, PS4). We didn’t program for the PlayStation, we haven’t shipped 10 games. We just got here. We haven’t paid our dues, so we don’t deserve to succeed.
Veteran devs feel it because we know we’ve wasted precious years being inefficient and the new brilliant developers are always younger than the last crop. If the churn rate for the industry is 5 years what does that say about us? If we’re succeeding, is it just due to blind luck and networking rather than real talent?
Women, people of color, and queer folk feel it because we can’t “pass” for the default image of a game dev, or we feel guilty when we can. Our credentials are questioned, our politics scrutinised, our abilities tested. In press and conferences, we’re sometimes lucky enough to be invited as special interest guests to represent our minority and sometimes we're hired as tokens to meet a quota, so surely our success is undeserved.
Experimental developers feel it because we’re not immediately relevant to a 10-billion-dollar industry; we're not really part of the "industry" at all. Most "gamers" would say that what we make is "not a game", so surely any of our success is undeserved.
Commercial developers feel it because we’re just soulless machines earning a paycheck in a capitalist system, creating products to meet or exceed customer expectations generated by marketing hype. We could be replaced by an algorithm at any time, so surely any of our success is undeserved.
Struggling developers feel it because our minor triumphs are really just consolation prizes, comforting ourselves with the smallest progress. These successes aren’t the kinds that get headlines and were probably just a stroke of luck anyway. Soon we’ll be found out for the frauds we are.
Successful developers feel it because our games were overrated, and certainly nowhere near as (profitable/acclaimed/polished/cool) as it could have been, if we had worked harder or been more talented. Even worse, we already know our next one won’t be as good. We’ve peaked and everyone can see we’re on the decline.
Others feel it because we aren't questioned enough -- we always get the benefit of a doubt. Everyone looks at us and assumes we know what we're talking about because we fit the standard mental image of a developer, fitting the right age/race/gender/orientation/ability. As soon as we open our mouths, surely they'll see how we took advantage of our situation, so clearly we don't deserve our success.
No matter who you are or what you've done, your ‘success’ can be explained away as belonging to someone else.
Everyone can feel it. In a way, everyone who does is spot-on, because chances are that for every success you’ve earned, someone else really has worked just as hard and received less. It’s a chaotic, mostly classist, English-advantaged world out there, folks. It’s not a real meritocracy, and it won’t be anytime soon.
If anyone knows the actual owner of this meme, please let me know so I can credit accordingly.
Why Do We Care?
“Stop whining,” some might say. “This sounds like a rich person disease. Oh poor me, I’m so successful, look at me, I’m an impostor. I’d kill to have enough success to suffer impostor’s syndrome.”
And to some extent, they’re right. It is not a medical condition. Some have criticised the use of the word ‘syndrome’ as it makes it sound like it should be in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - which it definitely should not. As a rule, if feelings of fraudulence are interfering with your actual quality of life (sleeping, eating, intimacy, etc), it is probably a different, very real problem interfering, chronic depression being a more likely candidate, and you should see a professional.
Besides, maybe feeling like an impostor is healthy, or at least worth it. I’ve often wondered if successful people without any actual self-doubt or critical thought could possibly be worked with at all. I’ll let you know if I meet any.
However, even if your quality of life is steady, the quality of your work can be another matter. Impostor’s syndrome can be creatively paralysing and cause problematic behaviour, if left unaddressed.
Deep fear of being outed as a fraud can surface as fear of admitting ignorance and anti-social behaviour. If left unchecked, it can lead to:
- Working alone, avoiding all but superficial collaboration
- Avoiding opportunities to receive feedback
- 'Working through' a problem that could be solved quickly if communicated
- Defensiveness, inability to accept critique OR praise, which leads to
- Heightened, perhaps impossible standards/expectations, which leads to
- Self-destructive levels of perfectionism, which leads to
- Working hard, unnecessary overtime (which could also lead to a martyr complex)
Most of these should raise a red flag. If a game developer isn’t open to collaboration and won't take criticism, their work will suffer. The more we give in to impostor’s syndrome, the worse we become at our jobs -- thus, cruelly, the more we deserve to be called impostors.
As a bit of a side note, impostor’s syndrome looks to be the exclusive opposite of the Fundamental Attribution Error (in which most humans tend to attribute successes to themselves, and failures to outside factors). I believe, but have no proof, that “Fake it till you make it” is intuitively linked to the fundamental attribution error, in that we get so caught up with trying to have a positive attitude, we willfully ignore rationality for our own mental well-being and productivity, claiming any and all success as our own. If and when we realised we’ve done this, we begin to err on the other side, to be safe. Just a thought.
Anyhow, given all of these possible setbacks, if you or people you work with are suffering from feelings of acute inadequacy, it’s important to minimise its impact, like any other insecurity, for the health of your team and game.
Healing Impostor’s Syndrome
Impostor’s syndrome can’t be stopped forever. They’re weeds growing all along our thoughts. As long as we succeed, and as long as deserving others fail, we’re pretty much doomed. The good news is that there’s gardening you can do to help stay on the up and up.
Note that I’m not a psychologist, sociologist, or any other -ist. These tips aren’t based in science. These are just the things I’ve experienced that have helped me and my team.
The best part is, even if you aren’t an impostor and you do deserve to be where you are (which I suspect is most of you), most of the tips can help you be a better developer and a better member of the dev community anyway. I’m pretty sure none of them are dangerous, damaging, or risky. So get to work!
Healing Tip 1: Re-Read the Wikipedia Article
Yep. Actual scientists say the best guard against impostor’s syndrome is to remember that it exists. So, bookmark it.
Also, if you open up to your colleagues, you'll probably realise everyone's feeling it all the time. Fake it till you make it isn't exactly new technology.
Healing Tip 2: Keep Learning
Maybe you didn’t deserve that stroke of luck, but you can channel your energy to make up for it! Work hard so you can earn it retroactively!
Take classes. Try new things. Ask questions. Willfully solve your ignorance. Your ‘comfort zone’ is clearly becoming uncomfortable, so get the heck out of it and take a creative risk. The project will probably fail according to most commercial/critical measures (which will help re-set your impostor’s syndrome clock), and teach you something new about yourself, making you a better developer. Then the next time you succeed, you’ll feel a bit more deserving.
Some would even go so far as to say that playing in fields you have no expertise in, or official business with, is a great way to own uncertainty and put our amateurness to good use. Being in over your head can be the perfect way to find new inspiration.
Yes, you'll make mistakes. That means you have a chance to learn -- the mistake wasn't asking questions and being visible. The mistake, if any, was thinking you were infallible in the first place. Part of learning is being ready to change.
If/when you find yourself out of your league, as in the Peter Principle or its market equivalent, you can’t afford to clam up and close your eyes and pretend everything’s fine. Keep improving before they catch on.
Healing Tip 3: Don’t Compare Yourself or Your Games
It's normal to think, "Oh man, look at this other person and their game. They definitely deserve success (more/less) than me and my game."
But you’re not comparable to anyone else. Seriously.
Whoever or whatever it is? Has no reflection on you. As a person, you didn’t win over anyone, and nobody won over you. You’re different, with different virtues, flaws, and experiences. Even a twin sibling has their own fortunes and challenges.
It’s the same with games. Each is different, born to a different situation. Sometimes we’re lucky, yes, and sometimes we’re unlucky.
Even if the comparison is positive, it starts you on a path to misery. If you’re a competitive person (like me), and have the constant urge to measure your progress, compare yourself to yourself. Keep track of your own performance and min/max that way. Leave the rest of the world out of your craziness.
Healing Tip 4: Welcome Diversity
Competition and comparison can be especially tempting among birds of a feather that have flocked together. When everyone’s similar in some way and you’re all making the same kinds of games, you just feel more … comparable.
So, for your own mental health, invite more kinds of people to be in your bubble of game development, and encourage more kinds of game-making. If you're part of a clique, widen the circle. Appreciate others' successes that you never could have done. The more the merrier.
Don’t scoff that this or that "isn’t a real game” -- whether it's big-budget, violent, arty, commercial, text, whatever. I mean it’s obviously a jerk move anyway, but even as a purely self-motivated act, it’s not in your own best interests, because:
The more different kinds of games blossom and succeed, the happier you’ll be developing your own game, with less eerily similar competition.
Healing Tip 5: Let Them Pass; Assume Everyone at an Event is a Dev
The diversity mentioned in the previous tip can take some time. While we’re getting there, don’t emphasise when a dev is “not like the others”, even as a joke. Stereotype threat is a real, measurable hindrance to cognitive tasks, not to mention emotional stability.
Similarly, if someone doesn’t bring up their race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, whatever, don’t bring it up for them. They know, probably painfully, that they stick out from the crowd, or don’t match someone’s mental image of what a game developer “usually is”.
Talk to them about game development instead. Let them pass as a game developer. It’s what they are.
In other words, don’t encourage impostor’s syndrome in others.
Someone reading this tip is probably wondering what’s in it for them. I could go on about the spirit of friendly competition with equals and the joys of collaboration and how good karma helps long-term networking. But you know, if you really need a self-serving reason to not make someone else feel vulnerable and exposed? Fuck you. You have my permission to stop making games and go ruin a different industry. Cheers.
Healing Tip 6: Leave the Gates Open
If you’ve had trouble accepting your successes for long enough, you might become the worst kind of impostor: the gatekeeper.
Gatekeepers exclude people from their garden of knowledge, believing that, or even telling, a frenemy/sibling/stranger isn’t ready to make games because they’re not tough enough, not passionate enough, not _______ enough.
But usually it’s subtler than that. You might start thinking that if you can’t _______, you don’t deserve to make games. Whether it’s making your own engine, accepting nasty tweets, writing “real” code, enjoying Super Mario Brothers, whatever. It’s all the same -- it’s a way to justify your own success as deserved more than others. It’s a coping mechanism.
Unfortunately, gatekeeping does actually help you in the short-term. At first, you’ll feel better about yourself -- you’ve found a reason, however spurious, that you deserve to succeed and others don’t. In the long-term, however, I’ve seen more than a few developers shoot themselves in the foot with this kind of bitter, sour attitude, driving away potential collaborators, feedback, and networks. You’re building a cliquish, insecure wall around yourself, and your work will suffocate.
The opposite is what I call sharing your crayons.
Healing Tip 6.5: Share Your Crayons
Share what you’ve learned. Go out of your way to help someone else become better. Show them your tools. Help them succeed. There are thousands of would-be developers trying to make their first game right now, and most of them are asking for advice and seeking encouragement, either at a local school or on a forum somewhere.
You don’t have to be an expert. You’re probably not. You’re just another game dev. That’s okay! Nobody wants condescention anyway! Go ahead and explicitly warn the newbie that everything is just based in your own random experiences. That’s fine.
My favorite example of this is actually when Richard Hofmeier, the winner of the 2013 Independent Games Festival with his game Cart Life, chose to take the attention from his "big win" and divert it to Porpentine's Howling Dogs (available for free online). It was a courageous, generous sharing of the spotlight with a lesser-known creator of merit:
Photo courtesy of Joystiq
Somewhere, someone is asking a question, or needs a leg up, and helping them will help you. Not because you’re better than them! But because by giving back and helping someone else have just a little bit of good luck, you can start to feel just a little bit more deserving of the breaks when they come your way.
Healing Bonus Round for Managers: Cultivate Criticism
It might seem counter-intuitive, but sufferers from impostor's syndrome really do want and need constructive criticism -- we know our work isn't perfect. Nobody's work ever is. In fact, like most problems, our lack of trust in those around us (secretly believing they wouldn't respect/employ us anymore if they inspected our work) is the core problem.
Feedback, helpful criticism, and deep collaboration must be regularly scheduled part of the process, and tyranically forced on the unwilling. Ideally these enforced reviews (even if they start out more soft-ball and supportive) would mostly consist of similarly-expert colleagues not considered 'friends'. Consider using parts of the Clarion method to reduce opportunities for defensiveness.
The key is that reviews shouldn't be linked to quality -- when reviews are part of the process, criticism isn't indicative of failure or success.
It can be terrifying to realise that you’re not particularly special; but this is the true, meaty center of impostor’s syndrome. You don’t deserve success more than most other people.
I’m sure you (like many others) are very intelligent, flexible, and worked hard to get where you are. But you (like many others) also had some good fortune in there.
And that’s okay. Really, it is. Just use your newfound powers for good. Keep learning.
Be the success you want to see in the world.
Have you suffered impostor's syndrome, or still aren't sure what the fuss is all about? I look forward to reading your comments. For a real dialogue, though, Twitter is probably the better avenue.