I AM A Game Designer: The Attack of Impostor Syndrome

imposter

“Hi, my name’s Shoshana Kessock. I’m the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions, an indie gaming company out of Brooklyn. I’m also an NYU Game Design student at the Game Center. I’m also a nerd blogger and fiction writer.”

That was sort of my introduction at my recent panel at PaxPrime during the You Game Like A Girl panel. I was nervous. Nay, I was very nervous. There were lights in my eyes. The audience was full of people. There was even a podium for Anja Keister to stand behind. I was having a little bit of a panic moment – and then I let my introduction go. It was a mouthful. It was a textbook example of a problem I found I’ve run into over and over again since I joined the game design community: I keep reciting my resume to people.

In the airport on the way back from Pax, I asked a friend of mine what he thought of my panel. He sort of froze for a second, then said, (and this is paraphrasing): “Do you want some criticism? You said too much in your introduction. You don’t need to justify why you’re up there. You could say ‘I’m a game designer’ – BAM, that’s it. But you’re always trying to prove why you deserve to be there.”

Ouch. Hard to hear. But he was one hundred percent correct.

Hi, I’m Shoshana Kessock and I have a wicked case of impostor syndrome.

Impostor Syndrome, for those that don’t know, is “a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.” (Thank you Wikipedia for a great description). Call it fraud complex or impostor phenomenon, I’ve got a whopping case of it and I don’t mind admitting it.

Example: Sunday morning I was interviewed after the successful panel the night before to be part of a documentary on Polaris, a YouTube channel. The gentleman doing the interview was wonderful and started out asking me my name and what I do. I tossed out the same long-ass line of introduction. And then he asked me to talk a little bit more about what I’ve done in game design. And I positively froze. Why was he asking? my brain asked. After hearing that, does he not believe I belong on camera? Maybe he’s not interested in what I have to say? Maybe he’s figured out I don’t belong here. Maybe-

It goes from there, folks. The internal monologue of self-doubt and concern. And the end question: maybe I haven’t earned calling myself a game designer after all?

What the heck does that even MEAN?

imposter-434It’s only recently that I’ve started talking about these feelings in a public forum. A lot of people believe that talking about your issues and your psychological states while working is weak, or embarrassing, or simply something one doesn’t do at all. Why that is? Society’s got a history of trying to cover up perceived weaknesses in what I can only imagine is some kind of sociological throwback to caveman days, where we believed showing weakness would get us automatically predated upon. This can be reenforced by those ass-hats out there who DO act like haters, who do treat creative industries like some kind of Wall Street, greed-is-good hunting ground where there is only so much awesomeness to go around, who sling their jealousy and their own self-doubt at others to perpetuate the battle for success. (To which I say: hey guys, this isn’t Highlander, there doesn’t need to be only one! Put the claymores and backbiting away!)

As much as this world can be a rat-race, with everyone battling for their piece of the pie, I’ve embraced the notion in my life that our post-caveman world can be a place of honesty rather than obfuscation, compassion versus pure competition, and community versus blatant adversarialism. So I started to talk about my feelings, my issues, and my wicked case of the ‘I don’t belong heres’. And you know what I discovered?

I’m not alone.

There are so many other people who feel this way. So many other creators who have found success who are steeped in this demoralizing idea that they were ‘just lucky’ for having what they have. Mired among feelings of self-doubt, self-consciousness, and lack of self-confidence, this impostor syndrome tries to tell folks who have worked hard and have talent that we don’t belong where we’ve gotten. We look around at other people who are successful in our field, sometimes people who we have put up on a pedestal to admire, and we say ‘I can’t walk with these guys, I’m not in that pantheon.’ So we disbelieve success or our own self-worth. We don’t believe we’re good enough to succeed.

I have this issue in spades. I have been able to recognize how fortunate I am for the chances that I have been given, for the opportunities that have come my way to get where I am. I thank the folks who have helped me find the path I’m on and trusted me with collaborating on projects or partnering with me for events. Yet often when I consider the things I’ve done, I see them as happy luck and forget one thing: I did work to get there too and part of that accomplishment is mine. So when someone asks me about what I do, I still feel the urge to look around furtively, as if someone is going to show up, point to me in a dramatic fashion like that monkey from Family Guy and declare: “She doesn’t deserve that accolade! She’s only lucky she got here! Look, a fraud!”

My brain is also a terribly dramatic place full of B-movie dialogue. But you get the idea.

Where the hell does this idea come from? How does it get in your head? I track the idea back to the notion that has been perpetuated by a lot of society that if you’re successful in creative fields, it’s because of luck. It’s difficult to be a creative person, says the world, and there’s a million of you out there who want to be successful writers/artists/dancers/ect. You have to sweat and work your way up, pay your dues, and then if you’re lucky (there’s that word again), you’ll get the breaks and you’ll ‘make it’. As if making it comes with some kind of ribbon that tells you that you’ve arrived. As if all the hard work nights are just some kind of quick montage sequence that you go through in thirty seconds, only for the important part of your life narrative to be gifted to you in some kind of lucky happenstance. It’s all very Disney-movie, the uplifting inspiring story of the artist who struggled but finally made their break because of a gift from a patron that just fell into their lap. That’s the repeated story we see presented to us: the artist is recognized because some magical godmother/godfather comes down and recognizes talent, christens us ‘worthy’, and suddenly fame and fortune follow.

Worse than this bizarre made-for-tv-movie mentality however is the piece of sage advice handed down by lots of people when aspiring creators ask them how to become a ‘professional’ creative. The answer almost always begins with these damning words: being a ____________ is really hard and it’s really difficult to work your way in. That discouragement comes with an almost implied subtext that I believe works its way into our view of being a creative professional:

Being creative is hard, the world says, and there’s a million like you. So what makes you special?

And of course, the also implied: what makes you worthy?

tumblr_l996sh1Qvy1qc3besThe answer to all these questions can be a little difficult to hear at first, but here goes: you’re not special.

You’re not special, or lucky, or a unique snowflake. There are a lot of people out there who are working hard to become creatives, and they’re not special either. They’re all however capable of awesome things, just like you, and you are part of a community of talented folks who are striving to bring their talent out into the world. You are distinct in your vision and your use of your talent and the vision you bring to your creative drive. You are distinct in the hard work you put into your work and the way in which you recognize and seize opportunities to put forward your efforts. You aren’t special in some ephemeral, capricious way that is gifted by some nebulous authority. You’re worthy because of the way you strive to make your vision a reality. You’re worthy because we’re all worthy and the only thing that sets us apart is how much hard work you put in to hone your craft. You’re worthy then because you have the skill to back up your talent, born of your drive to succeed.

That’s my antidote to this impostor syndrome problem. Have I yet achieved a state of zen with the problem? Nope. I still get flustered and confused when people come up to me and say, “Hey, I really liked that thing you did” or “thanks for that game!” I can’t seem to get my brain to accept one basic premise: you worked hard, now accept the praise. 

It’s a work in progress. Until the day when the notion of that finger-pointing dramatic authority appearing out of nowhere finally disappears out of my head, I’ll just spend my time reminding myself that I am worthy and I work hard. And I will keep thanking the folks who like my stuff because hey, there’s still appreciation. But I’m also going to work on not reciting my resume everywhere and instead just saying:

“Hi, I’m Shoshana Kessock. I’m a writer and game designer. Thanks for listening.”

7 Comments

  1. I also think there’s a big gender component in this. Women are used to having to do more, be more, to attain the same status as men easily claim for themselves, so credentialing becomes a big part of how we claim our space. I’m definitely with you on the Impostor Syndrome: I’ve technically been working in the game industry in one capacity or another since 2000, and gaming since the ’80s, but coming from academia as I do, if you can’t recite your bona fides, you’re just an armchair commentator.

    Not an excuse, but a (partial) explanation.

  2. I think there’s a big gender component to this, too. Women are used to having to do more, be more, to claim the same space that men just designate for themselves, and credentialing is how we show that our place is just as valid. I’ve got a raging case of Impostor Syndrome too, despite working in the game industry since 2000 and gaming since the early ’80s, but my academic work and my fear of getting called out as worthless because I haven’t fully “created” something of my own drives me to list my bona fides as justification for taking up space in what I still perceive as a man’s world.

  3. (not sure if this is going to repeat)
    A great article, thank you. Thanks for labeling what I think many creative people feel, myself included. The opposite of that is thinking you’re da bomb, and really, you aren’t all that. Socially speaking, that’s often worse.

    In your particular case, however, it could be that someone just doesn’t know you and wants to get your bio. Or, for Polaris, the interviewer might know what you did but wants you to state it for the audience that doesn’t. If you just said to me “I’m a writer and a game designer,” the journalist in me wants to know: what games? video games? board games? RPGs? Larps? Any that I have heard of? I want to know what you created, because if I like what you say on the panel, I want to acquire (buy) your stuff.

    Since I have impostor syndrome as well, this is how I reconcile it:
    Yes, there are many folks with far more talent and experience than I.
    There’s no reason I should be here (panel, job, whatever) instead of them.
    But…
    I am here now, and I do know a little bit about (whatever).

    In other words, my approach is “I’m the best you got right here, right now.”
    For many things in life, that works.

    One thing that cheers me up is seeing and hearing Jimi Hendrix’s reaction when Dick Cavett suggests he’s one of the greatest guitar players ever: http://youtu.be/6gwLQAuHJv8

    I also recall having to prop up Chris Metzen (creator of Warcraft/WoW) before he was on a panel with Harlan Ellison and J. Michael Strazcynski at a convention I was helping run; even he (mistakenly) thought he was an impostor on a panel about “Story Worlds”.

    I try to ignore what other people think of me (difficult), and my bona fides or lack thereof, and just do my best to keep making what I can, as I best I can.

  4. Yeah, I have this.

    When people ask me to sign a book with my name on it, I’m always like, “Really?” with a heavily implied subtext of “Well, okay, I guess — but I want it to be clear that in no way should any enthusiasm you may feel about this thing that purports to be my work be transferred to me personally.” Related: I discovered this weekend at a convention that I apologize too much (which immediately drew an apology from me, of course).

    I’m not likely to stop feeling this way, but, I dunno, it’s good to know it has a name.

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