The Games that Guide Us – Impostor Syndrome

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You’ve just started a new job, and it seems like all your training and schooling that you may have gone through before didn’t quite prepare you for the specific expectations that you are faced with in this new environment. Perhaps you’ve been working somewhere for awhile and either a new project or a new set of responsibilities makes you think that you really don’t have it quite as together as others think that you do. Perhaps you’ve felt like each test or trial that you go through in your life is accomplished through good luck, like you’ve managed to roll a natural 20 every time that it’s mattered. Whichever of these sorts of situations applies to you, there is something in common: the feeling that at some point, someone is going to figure out that you are not the person you’ve advertised yourself to be and that you really aren’t qualified to be doing the thing that you’re doing.

It may surprise you to know that there is a term for this phenomenon, and that term is ‘Impostor Syndrome’. Alternately, it may not surprise you to know that this term exists even if you’ve never heard the term before, because it so accurately and concisely wraps up a lot of the feelings that go into this particular state of mind into one nicely descriptive set of words.

There is something I’m going to admit right up front: this was a very hard article for me to write. It isn’t for any sort of personal reason, either. I certainly don’t have any problems with talking about the things that affect me, and this is no different. The problem is that for all that video games as a medium rely on the player diving into someone else’s experience, there actually is a shortage of games that accurately simulate the experience of having impostor syndrome. I’ve actually been sitting on this topic for about half a year because I simply couldn’t find any actual video game experience that I could relate back to it.

Then it hit me. If I can’t find a game that simulates this, why can’t I use my experience to propose an idea for a game that would?

First, though, I feel like there needs to be a little more general awareness of what impostor syndrome actually is. The core of the syndrome comes from a feeling of inadequacy with a role or professional position taken to an extreme. In short, a person feels like they are only pretending to be good at something that others think they are genuinely good at, and that any success they have achieved is a combination of luck, accident, or deception. The term has gained a lot of traction in technical fields such as engineering and software development but has also become more widespread in writing. There may be a feeling that success is transitory, and while that may come from a somewhat valid concern initially (“I’ve published one book out of the several I’ve written. Maybe this success is only temporary?”), this sort of thinking can take root and permeate any success a person has (“I’ve published five books and have fans in several countries, but if I don’t write another bestseller it means I was never any good as a writer and just got lucky!”). This can extend to things like job offers, promotions, successful products, and so on.

When I was preparing for this article, I spoke to a few people in a few different fields about their experiences with this feeling. What I found was that on some level, everyone probably has at least one experience with it, it’s just that not many people know that it’s a thing they can put a name to. “I bet it’s deep in those fields because of the higher level of intelligence throughout tech. I’ve often said that it seems like a disordered self-awareness.“ says Ashleigh, a counselor who I spoke to about her perceptions of this syndrome. She continues, “I also think people are scared to discuss it because it would be seen as a weakness or draw attention to it. Like ‘Hey, I may not be as smart as you think I am.’”

Because this post is not very image-heavy, here’s an XKCD comic to break up the text a bit.

Given that this is becoming a much more recognized phenomenon, it has surprised me a lot that I could not come up with a game that accurately represented the experience. As I have mentioned above, there are many games that use mistaken identity as a plot point, but this is a storytelling device that the player does not have to actively interact with in any level deeper than the superficial. A plot point like this is usually used for tension or surprise, and while this is effective in creating a story for an outside viewer, it usually doesn’t impart the kinds of feelings to a player that I would be looking for to represent this topic.

So, I started to really think about this. If I were going to write an article about a game that accurately depicted the feeling of having impostor syndrome, what kind of game would I be looking for? If I wanted someone to make that game, what would it be like? My first idea took a turn for the comedic. Imagine if you will a game entitled On the Internet, No One Knows You’re a Cat. In this game, the player would use a mouse, keyboard, or (most hilariously) a motion controller to move a cat’s paws on a virtual keyboard and try to accurately pretend to be a human in an online conversation or multiplayer game. I immediately dismissed this idea for the purposes of the article, but if someone actually wants to make this game, I can assure that brave soul that there is the beginnings of a hit there.

For a more serious suggestion, I came up with something that has a bit more narrative intensity than just doing in a video game what my cats do in real life.

Imagine playing as a character who, for some reason that I have yet to narratively determine, has to go back through various past memories and determine their accuracy. This character would, at the beginning of the game, have this idea in their head about how people thought of them in various situations over the course of their life. In re-examining those memories as they actually happened, this character can either confirm or re-evaluate their perception of how events played out and what people really thought of them. The point of the game would be to realize that there is a distinct difference between self-perception and the perceptions of others.

Mechanically, how would this play out? Initially, I wasn’t really sure. In order for the game to be effective, it would need to both showcase the problem and also demonstrate potential coping mechanisms for dealing with it in everyday life.

Again, I turned to people I know in order to get a feel for what effective coping mechanisms would be. Jody, a friend of mine who is an artist, related her experiences and how she handles the lingering internal feelings of perceived inadequacy in her field. “My best coping has just been mantras.” she says. “I’m constantly repeating positive phrases in my head ‘til they drown out the negative. It sounds crazy, but it really has improved my life over the last five years.” When put in that perspective, it makes sense. If we can’t think good thoughts about ourselves internally, or to put it another way, if we do not have a good sense of our own value and do not have well-developed internal validation, then we start to rely more and more on external validation. Additionally, we, as human beings, place more weight on the negative than the positive, so we will often focus more on slight negatives than overwhelming positives when it comes to external reinforcement.

Another friend, Angella, who is a software developer, adds her own suggestions as well. “I think keeping a journal of your accomplishments is one of the best solutions,” she says. “Even the small ones, like, ‘I learned how to do X today’, even if ‘X’ is something relatively simple.” As someone in a very analytical field, she finds that setting up a routine of self-reflection is one of the most helpful things for her. “One thing I do when I am super depressed is to take 15-20 minutes at the end of a work day and go through what I did. At the end of the week, I will make a compiled version of it, and then at the end of the month I will compile it all again in one place. It’s a good time for reflection and meditation. You can even do it in pretty designs if that helps make you happier, like a level up chart!” This, she says, helps with goal-setting and staying on track. “I can set goals for what each ‘level’ is compared to where I am now, and as I reach each goal, I can say that I leveled up in that ‘stat’.”

The common theme among the suggestions I received was self-reflection. It helps at the end of the day to catalog thoughts and feelings, reflect on tangible accomplishments, and give yourself a few positive messages to try and fight back against the mind’s tendency to dwell on the negative. This also lends itself to a few ideas for some game mechanics when thinking about how this would filter into the player experience. In much the same way that a game like Devil Survivor has the player recap events that happened over the course of particular segments of the game, a game about impostor syndrome could have the player remember specific events and then focus on answering questions about what really happened. This can continue to happen over a few segments of game time, and in this manner, answers can either contradict or reinforce each other. The more a particular idea or feeling is reinforced, the more it would solidify into being the ‘real’ version of what happened.

If this game already exists, someone please tell me. If someone wants to make this game with  me, I’m open to collaboration.

Impostor Syndrome, while being a subset of anxiety mixed with self-doubt, has definitely taken on a life of its own. A major part of this is that people who experience it generally will not talk about it for fear of drawing more attention to their own perceived inadequacies. If a game existed that could replicate that experience, it could serve multiple purposes. First, for those who have had these feelings but have had no way to describe them or talk about them with others, a game can aid in the realization that, hey, nobody has to be alone with these feelings. Others feel them too, and that means that others have figured out ways to cope. Second, for those who have not, a game can be a window into the experience, giving someone a greater understanding of how others think, feel, and act. Finally, a game should offer examples of techniques or coping mechanisms to manage those thoughts and feelings that affect day to day activity or long-term health. The ability to do all of these things on a more personally interactive level is what makes them uniquely suitable to these kinds of explorations.

And seriously. If someone wants to do this game with me, let me know, because now I really want to.

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