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An Impostor Among Us: Shipping my First Game
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An Impostor Among Us: Shipping my First Game
by Kimberly Voll on 12/09/13 02:08:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

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(Reprised by request from my personal blog: zanytomato.tumblr.com)

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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Comments


Simon Prefontaine
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Great article! I know exactly what you mean, especially when it comes to discounting your own successes: "This one doesn't count because ___".

But don't tell yourself that impostor syndrome is incurable, or necessary. It's not a mandatory byproduct of gender or society, and curing it won't rob you of your drive or motivation. It's just a bad habit.

Kristen C Stewart
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Congrats on shipping!

It sounds like you're already on the path to overcoming impostor syndrome, just by recognizing that external validation isn't the be-all and end-all. There was a question on Quora recently asking female engineers how they had overcome impostor syndrome, and one of the answers was to recognize that lots of other people deal with the same issue (i.e. it's curable, and there are lots of strategies for minimizing it!). Another answer was to recognize that no one knows 100% of the answers - even if they act like they do.

I had some impostor syndrome when I first started as a game dev, but it slowly faded as I worked/talked with other devs and realized that we all deal with similar problems and are learning on the job. Similarly, reading a lot of post-mortems written by devs whose games had failed helped me a lot. Your article reads like you're still putting game developers on a pedestal, which confuses me because you ARE a game developer AND you teach game development. It seems like you'd be ideally placed to recognize that there's nothing inherently special or magical about game development or the people who practice it.

Laura Bularca
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This is an intense, thought provoking, great read, and I thank you for sharing it, Kimberly! I am sure it must have been quite a struggle to write it down!

However, you are anything but an impostor, and while I really sympathise with your line of thought (I battle with similar stuff myself), I hope you will consider one of the Internet wisdoms which is: worry is a misuse of imagination :) Instead of investing the time to have such depressing thoughts, better make more games! I wish I had a teacher like you. And congratulations for shipping a game - this puts YOU on a pedestal in the minds of those who did not ship a game yet, and it is an act that I imagine will serve as a motivator for your students.

Hussain Patel
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As a student I can say it's easy to spot a teacher that is not confident or is acting it on our behalf, but not to worry because we also notice those teachers who have that passion that keeps them going. And that passion keeps us all going.

Now that I think about it you teachers probably can notice the less passionate students in a similar way :P

Thank you for sharing this, I feel all inspired like :D

Amanda Fitch
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Oh my gosh, I know how you feel! Especially the part where you release a game and the "impostor syndrome" increases, not decreases. I've released several games over the years and I always feel extremely down for a week or two after a game launches. Maybe it is worse for designers? I have many designer/developer friends who also have this problem we share.

Ian Morrison
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Ah, imposter syndrome. As my own game comes closer and closer to completion I've noticed that it's gotten worse, not better. Glad to know I'm not alone in that.

Tim Borquez
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Doesn't feeling inadequate help you improve though, maybe it isn't healthy but I think I have probably gotten better at making games from feeling like a fraud, I guess it does totally take away from the satisfaction of finishing things though . . . I don't know

Maxim Zogheib
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There's an easy way of telling if you don't belong - when people start throwing stones and setting your back yard on fire =)

In all other cases - as long as you strongly feel that you're in the right place, then you're in the right place. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise, especially the little voice in the back of your head that insists on painting you as the world's biggest loser.

Christopher Totten
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*Stands up clapping*

I feel like with every new project I have the same set of feelings. While I spend a lot of their time making small or research games as well as writing about games, there's always that feeling of "who wants to listen to what I have to say?" or "who wants to play what I make?" and so on. In my experience, I've dealt with this by reminding myself that even though I'm not one of the "legendary people" of the industry, or even someone making large-scale games, I am the person who is sitting down and completing the projects I set out to make, and that makes one qualified I suppose :-)

Alexander Jhin
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Have you talked to a therapist? Maybe an expert in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? Therapy, especially cognitive therapy, is kind of like debugging your mind's processes.

While I haven't had any personal experience with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I have found Writing Therapy very helpful and something you can do yourself or with a therapist. Perhaps simply writing a post mortem of your game, where you identify the big problems and how you solved them and what you would want done better (a standard post mortem, really) will help anchor your thoughts and achievements. (Publish it or don't: The simple act of writing and editing will bring your thoughts together and coalesce them.)

Good luck.

Alexander Jhin
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Here's a how to guide about writing therapy: http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/HomePage/Faculty/Pennebaker/Home20
00/WritingandHealth.html

Anton Temba
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At first I wanted to simply reply, but my comment grew into a big blog post instead. You can read my take on the Impostor Syndrome related to this article here:

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AntonTemba/20131214/207043/Imposto
r_syndrome_a_closer_look.php


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