I recently attended Feral Vector – an independent games festival in Hebden Bridge in the UK. It’s a fantastic event if you’ve never been, I recommend it. This year I wanted to get involved with it, so I did short talk on Imposter Syndrome which focused on mental illness and creativity. It was an honour to get up on that stage and for a hall full of people to listen to words that I said.
Afterwards I received a lot of positive comments on the talk from a lot of wonderful people. They mostly seemed to like the slides that I produced, but the content of the talk resonated with quite a few people. I thought it would be a good idea to write up the talk in a nice article and share it here. I didn’t use notes or a script, so I’ve tried to stick with roughly what I said, but with a few bits of extra information added in.
My name is Stuart Lilford and I guess I would describe myself as a game designer. I worked for studios for 3 years in QA/Design roles before making games independently and lecturing in game design in a Yorkshire-based college. Most recently I made The Temple of ADVENTURE for the Adventure Jam and I’m currently working on Splodey Vaders for Android and iOS.
But enough about me. Let’s find out something about you. I want to begin this article by asking you a question: “Did you have an imaginary friend as a child?” Have a think and put your hand up if you did. I asked this to the audience at Feral Vector and there was a steady stream of hands raise around the room, so a number of people have had imaginary friends when they were younger.
So I *did* have an imaginary friend, but he appeared in my life when I was a bit older (around the age of 14) and is still around now. However, he was less of an imaginary friend and more of an imaginary asshole. His name is Jason.
Jason is an asshole because he’s one of those people that are always putting you down. Whenever I decide to try and make something creatively, Jason pops up to question why I’m even bothering. Whenever I put something I’ve created online, be it a game or some artwork, Jason will arrive to suggest that I shouldn’t have done it and that I look like an idiot. Whenever I receive some praise or recognition for something I’ve done, he’ll be there to tell me that I’m a fraud, I don’t deserve the recognition. I’m not as good as other people doing the same thing as me. The person praising me has made a mistake.
Jason appears all the time, but there are a number of occasions when he’s had a really negative impact on my mental state. Here are some of the main examples of when Jason has appeared in my life:
This is me when I was just about the start my first job as a Game Designer. I would be working at an independent studio working on games published by Sony. I was incredibly excited. Ever since I was a child and the first time I played Super Mario All Stars I wanted to be a game designer. I was well-aware of how difficult it was to get a job as a designer when you’re inexperienced as I’d read many an article on the subject. I felt extremely lucky to be offered the role. I’d been to University to study it and now I’d be doing it as an actual job! This was my dream and I couldn’t wait.
But then, Jason turned up
“What do you think you’re doing? You’ve got no experience designing games and now you’re going to go into a job doing it? You’re University wasn’t even that good. It was run by a graphic designer who didn’t even play games and you only got a 2:1. You’re going to screw up. You’ve no business having that job”.
Despite Jason’s whispers I did the job for around a year, but the contract was a 3-month temporary role that they topped up at the end of each 3 months. One month came when I was told that the contract wouldn’t get rolled over and I found myself no longer employed in the industry. I took this as an affirmation of Jason’s whispers and I told myself that he was right, rather than it simply being a business decision. I had no place in that role, I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t belong in that industry.
I decided not to apply for roles in the industry again and I stopped making games full stop for a while. I turned my back on it and instead went into working in the exciting world of business-to-business sales. I sold non-ferrous metals at a stainless steel and aluminium stockholders to fabricators and engineers. Sales wasn’t for me and I hated my time working thee. It wasn’t long though before the itch to create came back to me and I started making games again.
I made Time Stone, a short point and click adventure game made with Adventure Game Studio. Desperate for a change in career from sales, I used this as an example of my game making skills when applying for a job to teach game design to 16-18 year old students at a local college. At first this was just on a zero-hours contract, but within half a year I was employed as Curriculum Leader for Game Design.
I was excited for the role. It was a permanent, full-time job and I was enjoying teaching game design to students. The role offered me the security that was missing from my roles in the games industry and I would be working with a subject I loved (as opposed to sales which I hated). But I wasn’t that experienced with teaching and it wasn’t long before Jason showed up again.
“You got a job as Curriculum Leader where you’re overseeing an entire course? You’ve not even been teaching for half a year and you’ll be overseeing people with more experience than you! This must be some sort of administrative error.”
I felt like a huge fraud when I got that job, but I stuck with it and I’m still there 3 years later. I love the job and feel like my input has improved the provision in a number of ways which I’m proud of. I’m glad that I got the job, but it took me a while to feel like I deserved it.
More recently, I was looking to attend Feral Vector. It’s an event I’ve been to before and I wanted to do more than just attend. I was interesting in doing a talk or helping out running a workshop or something.
I sent an email to the event organiser proposing a few ideas for talks and just generally wanting to get involved. But no sooner had I clicked send on the email that Jason appeared on my monitor whispering at me through my speakers.
“I can’t believe you just sent that email. Why would they want *you* to do a talk. Nobody even knows who you are? There are going to be much more qualified people giving talks there and then you’ll get up and everyone will think ‘who’s this bozo’ and switch off. You’ll break under pressure and they’ll soon realise that you have no idea what you’re talking about.“
I panicked and was up late worrying about this until I read an article called ‘Living with Imposter Syndrome’ by a chap called Danny Moore. He’s a game writer and discussed his experiences with Imposter Syndrome and the article and it really struck a chord with me. I started reading more and more about it and found myself nodding and agreeing and thinking to myself “that’s me!”
So, just what is Imposter Syndrome? It’s essentially the feeling that you’re a fraud and that you’re not a successful, competent or smart person – you’re only imposing as one, despite any evidence to the contrary. You’re constantly worried about being ‘found out’ for not being smart, talented or hard-working even though you’re probably all of these things. The games industry is made up of a lot of smart, talented, hard-working, creative people and so naturally we can assume that many individuals within it have had these feelings. Though there’s little definitive information on imposter syndrome, there are some recurring themes when it comes to symptoms. These are a few common ones:
Periods of avoiding creative work
Feeling like an impostor can make you feel as though you shouldn’t bother and it can lead to long periods of avoiding creative work. In Danny’s case he was asked by a colleague if he had dyslexia when receiving feedback on some of his writing, this really knocked his confidence and he took some time out of writing. With me, when my contract wasn’t renewed when I worked as a designer, I took this as confirmation of my imposter feelings and didn’t create anything for months.
Not putting yourself out there
When an opportunity presents itself to you, such as applying for a job, submitting your game to an event or sharing something you’ve created. Imposter Syndrome can also lead to you feeling that the thing you’ve created isn’t worth sharing, your game isn’t good enough, you are not good enough. The feelings will naturally cause you to not put yourself out there or take risks.
Stress & Anxiety
It can cause a lot of anxiety as you’re convincing yourself that at any moment you will be ‘found out’ and over the long term this can lead to depression.
Understating your experiences
In the very first lines of this article I said “I guess I would describe myself as a game designer” using words and phrases like “I guess” and “I would describe myself as” already sets yourself up as an imposter, even though you aren’t. Sufferers of Impostor Syndrome will struggle to accept that any praise they receive is genuine and will downplay any of their personal accomplishments.
Attributing your successes to luck
Another symptom is that you can attribute much of your success to pure luck rather than hard work. I hated the majority of the time I worked in sales, but there was something that my manager once said that stuck with me. She is a successful woman, with a high status job and a good salary and she told me that her brother often acted envious of her. He would comment on her nice house and expensive car and say “you are so lucky”. Her response was “It’s funny isn’t it, the harder I work, the luckier I seem to get.” This is something that I try to remember whenever I attempt to attribute any of my own success to luck.
Being nervous about meeting apparently successful people in your field.
After Thimbleweed Park recently released, I saw a lot of people sharing this screenshot from the game. It features a character from the game who is a game designer too afraid to talk to seemingly successful game designer at an expo.
People shared this image usually with a comment about how they could relate to it. A lot of the people that shared this are likely creatives themselves and are comparing their own success to the perceived success of others and feeling fraudulent about their own talents. This would be enough for anyone to think there was no point in talking to this other individual, that they were probably not worth their time.
What can we do about it
There are a number of ways that folks can combat Impostor Syndrome. I’ve narrowed them down to my top 5.
Imposter Syndrome happens when your invisible Assholes like Jason tell you that your work is no good, so one way to combat this is for a whole bunch of people to tell you that your work *is* good. If we admire someone’s work, we should get into the habit of telling them. I understand that sometimes it can be awkward in social situations to tell someone you like their stuff, but even something as simple as favouriting, retweeting or preferably commenting on someone’s animated GIF of a game they are working on that you think looks neat, you are helping to drown out the voices of the Jason’s in the world.
This comes back to attributing your success to your own hard work and rather than focusing on the negative aspects of a project, look at the positives.
Take a recent example of mine – a game I made for the Adventure Jam 2017 called The Temple of Adventure. So this is a game I made in 2 weeks with some artist friends of mine so that I could learn to use Unreal Engine 4. The game is buggy, unpolished and unfinished. It wasn’t selected for the top 12 nominated games and some of the comments on the game stated that it was too similar to an existing game.
But actually if look at the positives and focus on the achievements of the game – it was featured on PC Gamer’s best free games of the week, it was featured in a list of 25 best games from the jam (number 24, but it still counts!), there are a number of let’s plays – 2 of which have over 10K views, it placed 19th overall in the Jams final votes (out of 122 games), but is the 7th highest rate game with the AdvJam2017 tag on gamejolt and it received 3rd place in the dialog category. When I consider that we only worked on the game for 2 weeks around work and other commitments, plus I was using an engine I had little experience with, that’s not bad going, in fact it’s pretty good.
You need to consider your own acheivements this way, possibly keep a list. All those things I just mentioned could be written up into my own ‘achievement list’ which I can refer to. Whenever you feel like a fraud you can look back at this list and it will help you to continue doing what you love and putting it out there.
Imposter syndrome can make you feel like you shouldn’t bother when presented with an opportunity. I’m not really qualified to apply for that job or my game isn’t good enough to submit that competition/expo, etc. Everyone suffers from self-doubt, but allowing that self-doubt to grow and take control over your decision-making is lose-lose. If you don’t apply for that job you are potentially losing out on a great job and the employer is potentially losing out on a great hardworking, creative employee. The worst thing that can happen is that it doesn’t happen. If you don’t grab opportunities when they present themselves to you, then you could be robbing the world of a great game or a great member of a team.
When you are stood in a room with a 20-year veteran with multiple awards under their belt and is just a terrific person in general, then sure you are going to feel like a fraud in comparison, but this doesn’t mean that you have nothing to offer. This is where that list of achievements I mentioned earlier comes in handy, if you’ve done this already then you will have actual proof that you provide something of value to someone.
If you compare yourself to leaders and veterans in your field then you are going to feel that you are not good enough, but these are apples and oranges. You are most likely comparing your inner self, with the outer self of others. You are comparing your insecurities, your doubts, your impostor feelings with the successes, the confidence and the experience of that other person. Ultimately you don’t know how that other person is feeling on the inside. If anything success can amplify the impostor feelings and they may feel that they are an even bigger fraud than you do. Compare apples with apples and stop comparing your inner self with other people’s outsides.
I’m really grateful towards Danny for writing his article on imposter syndrome. It really helped me at a time when I was filled with self-doubt. At this stage of my talk I asked the room how many people had had feelings like the symptoms of imposter syndrome I had described and the majority of the room put their hands up. Some studies suggest that around 70% of people have felt this way. That’s why I wanted to do a talk on it, that’s why I wanted to write this article. We need to share these feelings more, so that when people have them they can realise that when they have these thoughts that they should question them. Are you really a fraud or did you work goddam hard to achieve all that you’ve done? Find people that you can say “I feel like an impostor” to and how likely is it that they will agree with you?
When I read Danny’s article it helped me to do this, it made me think and question all of the murmurs that Jason had been whispering in my ear and I looked at Jason and I thought “hang on a second”. I looked at Jason differently and I decided that I had had enough. I removed Jason’s hat and his Groucho Marx glasses and his overcoat to reveal the ugliness underneath…
Jason was nothing more than a weird slug monster thing that had been posing as my own thoughts. He had been wearing a disguise this whole time.
So when you have these thoughts that tell you you’re not good enough or that you shouldn’t be here or that all of your successes are down to luck, question whether that’s true or whether you may be experiencing Imposter Syndrome and just remember who the real imposters are, it’s Jason and imaginary asshole’s just like him.
Thanks for reading!
Apologies to anyone called Jason.