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, itÂ hits exactly after your first âbig breakâ -- whether itâs your first job in the industry or your first gameâs release.
You realise that you donât deserve to be here.
You do not belong. You see amazing, talented people with more experience and talent, and you know you arenât 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 havenât made it as far.
The good news is that game developers are generally cool people! In my experience, theyâre so friendly and nice (or self-absorbed), they donât even seem to notice. You can pass.Â 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 youâre feeling. Because most of us feel that way, too.
Impostorâs 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, âfake it till you make itâ, right? This is the other side of the coin -- once youâve made it, you remember youâve 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,Â 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 hadnât accomplished enough yet to admit to having impostorâs syndrome (ha). One developer wondered if they were secretly lazy, unknown even to themselves.
Newer devs feel it because we canât 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 didnât program for the PlayStation, we havenât shipped 10 games. We just got here. We havenât paid our dues, so we donât deserve to succeed.
Veteran devs feel it because we know weâve 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 weâre 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 canât âpassâ 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, weâre 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 weâre not immediately relevant to a 10-billion-dollar industry; we're not really part of the "industry" at all. Most "gamers" would say thatÂ what weÂ make is "not a game", so surely any of our success is undeserved.
Commercial developers feel it because weâre 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 arenât the kinds that get headlines and were probably just a stroke of luck anyway. Soon weâll 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 wonât be as good. Weâve peaked and everyone can see weâre on the decline.
Others feel it because weÂ aren't questionedÂ 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, yourÂ âsuccessâ 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 youâve earned, someone else really has worked just as hard and received less. Itâs a chaotic, mostly classist, English-advantaged world out there, folks. Itâs not a realÂ meritocracy, and it wonât be anytime soon.Â
If anyone knows the actual owner of this meme, please let me know so I can credit accordingly.
âStop whining,â some might say. âThis sounds like a rich person disease. Oh poor me, Iâm so successful, look at me, Iâm an impostor. Iâd kill to have enough success to sufferÂ impostorâs syndrome.â
And to some extent, theyâre right. It is not a medical condition. Some have criticised the use of the word âsyndromeâ 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,Â 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. Iâve often wondered if successful people without any actual self-doubt or critical thought could possibly be worked with at all. Iâll 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. Impostorâs 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:
Most of these should raise a red flag. If a game developer isnât open to collaboration and won't take criticism, their work will suffer. The more we give in to impostorâs 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, impostorâs syndrome looks to be the exclusive opposite of the Â 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 âFake it till you make itâ 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 weâve 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, itâs important to minimise its impact, like any other insecurity, for the health of your team and game.
Impostorâs syndrome canât be stopped forever. Theyâre weeds growing all along our thoughts. As long as we succeed, and as long as deserving others fail, weâre pretty much doomed. The good news is that thereâs gardening you can do to help stay on the up and up.
Note that Iâm not a psychologist, sociologist, or any other -ist. These tips arenât based in science. These are just the things Iâve experienced that have helped me and my team.
The best part is, even if you arenât 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. Iâm pretty sure none of them are dangerous, damaging, or risky. So get to work!
Yep. Actual scientists say the best guard against impostorâs syndrome is to remember that it exists. So, bookmark it.
Also, if you open upÂ to your colleagues, you'll probably realise everyone's feeling itÂ all the time. Fake it till you make it isn't exactly new technology.
Maybe you didnât 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 âcomfort zoneâ 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 impostorâs syndrome clock), and teach you something new about yourself, making you a better developer. Then the next time you succeed, youâll 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 ownÂ 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 inÂ the Peter PrincipleÂ or its market equivalent,Â you canât afford to clam up and close your eyes and pretend everythingâs fine. Keep improving before they catch on.
It's normal to think, "Oh man, look at this other person and theirÂ game. They definitely deserve success (more/less)Â than me andÂ my game."
But youâre not comparable to anyone else. Seriously.
Whoever or whatever it is? Has no reflection on you. As a person, you didnât win over anyone, and nobody won over you. Youâre different, with different virtues, flaws, and experiences. Even a twin sibling has their own fortunes and challenges.
Itâs the same with games. Each is different, born to a different situation. Sometimes weâre lucky, yes, and sometimes weâre unlucky.
Even if the comparison is positive, it starts you on a path to misery. If youâre a competitive person (like me), and have the constant urge to measure your progress, compare yourself toÂ yourself. Keep track of your own performance and min/max that way. Leave the rest of the world out of your craziness.
Competition and comparison can be especially tempting among birds of a feather that have flocked together. When everyoneâs similar in some way and youâre all making the same kinds of games, you just feel more âŚ 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.Â Appreciate others' successes that you never could have done. The more the merrier.
Donât scoff that this or that "isnât a real gameâ -- whether it's big-budget, violent, arty, commercial, text, whatever.Â I mean itâs obviously a jerk move anyway, but even as a purely self-motivated act, itâs not in your own best interests, because:Â
The more different kinds of games blossom and succeed, the happier youâll be developing your own game, with less eerily similar competition.
The diversity mentioned in the previous tip can take some time. While weâre getting there, donât emphasise when a dev is ânot like the othersâ, even as a joke. Stereotype threat is a real, measurable hindrance to cognitive tasks, not to mention emotional stability.
Similarly, if someone doesnât bring up their race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, whatever, donât bring it up for them. They know, probably painfully, that they stick out from the crowd, or donât match someoneâs mental image of what a game developer âusually isâ.
Talk to them about game development instead. Let them pass as a game developer. Itâs what they are.
In other words, donât encourage impostorâs syndrome in others.
Someone reading this tip is probably wondering whatâs 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.
If youâve 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 isnât ready to make games because theyâre not tough enough, not passionate enough, not _______ enough.
But usually itâs subtler than that. You might start thinking that if you canât _______, you donât deserve to make games. Whether itâs making your own engine, accepting nasty tweets, writing ârealâ code, enjoying Super Mario Brothers, whatever. Itâs all the same -- itâs a way to justify your own success as deserved more than others. Itâs a coping mechanism.
Unfortunately, gatekeeping does actually help youÂ in the short-term. At first, youâll feel better about yourself -- youâve found a reason, however spurious, thatÂ you deserve to succeed and others donât. In the long-term, however, Iâve 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. Youâre building a cliquish, insecure wall around yourself, and your work will suffocate.
The opposite is what I call sharing your crayons.
Share what youâve 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 donât have to be an expert. Youâre probably not. Youâre just another game dev. Thatâs okay! Nobody wants condescentionÂ anyway! Go ahead and explicitly warn the newbie that everything is just based in your own random experiences. Thatâs fine.
My favorite example of this is actually when Richard Hofmeier, the winner of the 2013 Independent Games Festival with his game Cart Life,Â chose to take the attention from his "big win" and divert it to Porpentine's Howling Dogs (available for free online).Â It was a courageous, generousÂ 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,Â and helping them will help you. Not because youâre 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.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but sufferers from impostor's syndrome really do want and need constructiveÂ criticism -- we know ourÂ work isn't perfect. Nobody's work ever is. In fact, like most problems,Â our lack of trust in those around us (secretly believing they wouldn't respect/employ us anymore if they inspectedÂ our work) is the core problem.Â
Feedback, helpful criticism, and deep collaboration must be regularly scheduled part of the process, and tyranicallyÂ forced on the unwilling. Ideally these enforced reviews (even if they start out more soft-ball and supportive)Â would mostly consist ofÂ similarly-expert colleagues not considered 'friends'.Â Consider using parts ofÂ the Clarion methodÂ to reduce opportunities for defensiveness.Â
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 youâre not particularly special; but this is the true, meaty center of impostorâs syndrome. You donât deserve success more than most other people.
Iâm 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.Â
And thatâs 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.