Editor’s note: We only have one question this week, but it’s a doozy. I felt this one deserved a lot of attention.
If you have any questions you’d like us to answer, let us know in the comments. ????
There are so many fabulous game designers and artists out there. How do you keep from getting imposter syndrome when you look at their work?
Before I answer that question, I’m going to point out that I am not a certified counselor or psychiatrist. If anyone reading this is experiencing truly insurmountable fears, please seek expert advice.
Second, let’s take a quick look at what imposter syndrome is from a non-clinical perspective.
Many people experience fears of not being good enough, not being worthy of success, or being somehow inferior to all of their peers. Imposter syndrome, in short, is the fear of being called out as a fake.
When imposter syndrome rears its ugly head, or multiple heads in the case of hydra imposter syndrome, it often prevents us from feeling like our best work is sufficient. It might make us feel afraid to put ourselves out there—too nervous to share our work because we are concerned someone else won’t believe we could have achieved success on our own.
Imposter syndrome shares a lot of common concerns with a traditional fear of failure, but it reframes that fear in a way that may be completely irrational. It’s like being afraid that if you do put yourself out there, someone else is going to figure out that you’re a charlatan and suddenly you won’t belong in that space anymore.
I personally have had my share of battles with imposter syndrome in the past. I call it a hydra because it can have many forms, and it seems like every time you overcome one of them, it shows up in another way.
Okay, so how do we overcome it? Just like with a hydra, you have to cut off its head and burn the stump.
For my day job, I do a lot of research and writing about psychological safety. I feel like imposter syndrome and psychological safety go hand-in-hand. Let’s take a quick look at that and see if we can apply it toward overcoming imposter syndrome.
If we feel psychologically safe, it means we feel comfortable being ourselves in a given group. You can feel psychologically safe with one group and not with another. It’s relative to the group.
When we feel psychologically safe, we feel like we can share our whole selves without the fear of reprisal or ridicule. We aren’t afraid to share our ideas and opinions because we trust the group to keep us safe. That means the group isn’t going to judge us for who we are, what we think, or what we contribute.
Think of a place where you feel the most psychologically safe. Is it with friends? Family? Co-workers? A small Facebook group?
To help you overcome imposter syndrome, start by sharing your work with that group. Get positive feedback on what you do from people who care about you.
“But Jacob,” you might be thinking, “I’ve always heard the best way to get feedback about my games is to share it with people who aren’t good friends. That way I can get honest feedback from people who aren’t afraid of hurting my feelings.”
Yeah, it seems counter-intuitive. We’ll get to that point later. There’s still room to share your work outside your closest group, but that’s not where we’re going to start when we have this nasty hydra to defeat first.
After you have received positive feedback from a psychologically safe group, it’s time to reflect on it. That’s right. Don’t’ move on to the next stage before you really take in that feedback.
More important than the feedback you get from your closest friends is the feedback you need to give yourself. If you have anyone in your corner who tells you that your work is good, then it means at least one thing:
No, it doesn’t necessarily mean your work is good. It means that you have people who care about you. Feel that out for a bit.
Maybe your work is good. Maybe it stinks. It doesn’t matter. Knowing that you have people who care can be a huge weapon against that hydra.
Let that build your self-confidence a bit. Once you’re ready, share your work outside your closest group. Get a feel for what others have to say about it.
Some people may give you constructive criticism. They’ll point out where your work has flaws. That’s not so you can judge yourself and decide this isn’t all worth the effort. It’s so you can iterate and improve. Anyone who offers you constructive criticism is an ally. They’re a strong ally who is willing to put forth the effort to help you level up.
Reflect on that for a bit. Even if your work isn’t perfect from the get-go, that’s okay. Neither was literally anyone else’s. I use “:literally” literally. Not one single person in the history of Ever has been perfect without fail.
Even the people whose work you admire are not perfect. They have a team of editors, playtesters, and feedback-givers to help them improve. Now you do, too. Now you can cut off another one of those hydra heads.
If you’re feeling confident enough now, reach out to someone whose work you admire. In the Indie RPG scene, game designers are surprisingly approachable. You can DM me on Twitter @AccessibleGames or email me at email@example.com. You can also contact any of the other contributors to this zine. That’s a good place to start if you don’t have anyone else in mind.
Here’s a short aside. When I was first starting out, I truly admired Eloy Lasanta from Third Eye Games. He had, up to that point, produce amazing games such as Apocalypse Prevention, Inc., Wu Xing: the Ninja Crusade, and Part-Time Gods. He seemed ultra-famous to me and is someone I knew I wanted to aspire to be like someday.
Here I was though, a newbie with a single, yet-to-be-released game under his belt. I was nobody.
One day I was doing a project for a Business Administration class in college and my assignment was to interview someone who works in my chosen industry. I decided to reach out to Eloy and ask if he’d be open to me interviewing him about the nuts and bolts of game design. Even though he seemed way outside my league, I went for it.
You can watch that interview here: https://youtu.be/bH9-qXzQ94E
That’s right. He agreed to meet with me. We’ve been good friends ever since. I was even the Marketing Manager for Third Eye Games for a time and have written for several of his games.
The point here is that, like I said before, Indie RPG designers are surprisingly approachable. Don’t let you tell yourself that anyone is out of your league.
The worst thing that can happen is that you never get a response, because nobody will respond to you to tell you that you’re a worm who is unworthy of their attention. They’ll just ignore your email.
You may get a polite decline, but even that means you’ve gained some skill in outreach, so it wasn’t a complete loss.
After you hear back from another designer, try to build some rapport with them. Build a true connection and learn a thing or two about who they are and how they got their start in game design. The purpose of this exercise is to help you realize that virtually everyone else has humble beginnings just like you. It’s also great for building your professional network, so it’s win-win.
Seeing where other people get their start is surprisingly refreshing. When you have that imposter syndrome that tells you everyone else is better than you, you can point back to someone else’s story and tell that hydra it’s full of crap. Then cut off its head and burn the stump.
That is, don’t let your imposter syndrome trick you into believing anyone else is better than you. Other people may have more experience, but that’s not the same thing. In some situations, it’s not even an objectively better thing.
Perhaps you’ve just launched your first game, and you’ve been asked to speak on a panel about game design. You may feel unworthy because you don’t have as much experience as some of the others on the panel, but you have fresh experience.
Sometimes, a fresh perspective is just as helpful as a seasoned one. It means you can share stories that are timely, you can share about the mistakes you’ve made and the lessons you’ve learned, and you can show up to the conversation armed with knowledge that nobody else has.
The fact is, you belong on that panel. Your voice is an important voice in that conversation. You aren’t an imposter just because you’re sharing things you’ve learned not to do. You’re brave for showing up and putting that out there, and nobody whose opinion matters will tell you otherwise.
Hopefully, by now, you’ve learned to tell yourself that you are worthy. You’ve learned that you have friends and allies who think highly of you. You’ve learned that other people you admire have had similar struggles. Arm yourself with that knowledge, because it’s going to help you shush those people who actually are complete jerks.
One of the hardest steps is the one where you teach yourself to shush external voices that sound harmful. There are some people in this world who seem to thrive on tearing others down. Those peoples’ opinions of you don’t matter. They’re monsters. Hydras.
By now, you should have already proven to yourself that you are worthy to be where you are. Ignore or shush those naysayers. Cut off that hydra head.
If necessary, lean on your party for support. You don’t have to battle this alone.
After you’ve cut off a few of those heads, look back at how far you’ve come. Celebrate your small wins. Hydras are vicious, terrifying monsters, but you’ve deal this one a few serious blows.
You can finish it.