Impostor Syndrome, now in the form of a videogame!

“Impostor Syndrome” is a short interactive story I wrote in which you play a woman of colour speaking at a tech conference. It wasn’t hard to program and design, but it’s one of the most difficult things I have ever written. And I’m so proud that I wrote it.

You can play it here, and after you’ve done so, read on for some author’s notes.

The story came to me in the spring of 2013, shortly after GDC and shortly before I publicly released Dominique Pamplemousse. I’d been profoundly affected by progressive things I’d seen at GDC — the #1reasonwhy panel, the Lost Levels unconference, Anna Anthropy’s powerful reading of “Romero’s Wives”. I was struck by a sense of awe that I wasn’t alone in being an outspoken feminist in the videogame industry.

I’d felt alone for quite some time, gaining a reputation in my pale male-dominated career for not just being neither pale nor male, but also not shutting up about it. Especially since I knew comparatively few people in my local community who really cared about both videogames and social justice. I mostly turned to internet communities to find solidarity. Somehow, seeing my people encroach upon GDC was powerful for me. Like I’d been waiting, and they’d finally arrived.

I was also volunteering to present trophies at the IGF awards, which meant I was there for the dress rehearsal. I caught one of the hosts making an inappropriate joke in one of his speeches. I asked him about it; he said the joke had been approved by the highers-up. I felt dejected for speaking up. Later that night, he told me he’d decided to cut the joke after all, and he did. It was still on the teleprompters, though, and people sitting in the front saw it and angrily tweeted about it. My feelings were, understandably, mixed. Like I’d tried, but somehow, it wasn’t enough.

At the same time, I spoke to many people at GDC outside my social circle who had no idea about the revolutionary progressive things I’d seen this year. They were there for the latest shiny thing on the latest shiny console. I started to think that maybe we weren’t as relevant as we thought we were. And I got to worrying. What if we’re here for nothing? What if another backlash sweeps away our hard work? What if technology continues to march bravely forward but women, minorities, and queers stay left behind?

So, I wrote a dystopian story set some years into the future where we’re still dealing with the same issues as we are today, except everyone’s wearing Google Glass-like devices. I call it dystopian because it frightens me that, with all our talk of progress, maybe we aren’t really progressing at all. And I wrote in the self-doubting voice I hear in my own head that tells me, over and over again, that what I’m doing is not enough, that I’m a no-talent hack and a fraud, and that the little recognition I have received in my career is undeserved. It’s a voice that frightens me, too, because maybe one day, I’ll give in completely to believing it.

I wrote in Twine, because, although I usually prefer somewhat more code/script-based tools for most of the kinds of work I do, I was looking for an excuse to learn Twine so I could, in future, teach other people — the sorts of people who aren’t programmers like me but whom I’d like to see make games — to write in it too. I also felt like I owed a debt of sorts to the burgeoning Twine community for expanding the field of personal games written by those of us who have historically been outsiders.

I started writing in April. I didn’t finish until months later. Part of it was because of things going on in my life, like getting ready to move to Santa Cruz and start grad school, but part of it was because it was hard to write. But it was also cathartic. Yes, I’m well aware that therapy does not make for writing that’s necessarily appropriate to show to other people, but I felt that this story in particular was still worth sharing.

The annual Interactive Fiction competition was coming up, in which I entered “The Play” two years ago and won third place. I was impressed with the quality of reviews and critique I’d received then, so I threw my hat into the ring with “Impostor Syndrome”. I ended up at a not-nearly-as-impressive 18th place and receiving a lot of reviews that, well, didn’t really seem to get it.

I have a hypothesis as to why this is the case. People in the IF community like games where the player has a lot of agency and a lot of interesting things to do. “The Play” had this in spades. “Impostor Syndrome” gives you neither. There’s a lot to explore, but very little to affect. The whole game hinges on one choice: do you speak up or stay silent? Speaking up is harder but doesn’t necessarily give you a better ending. I knew this wouldn’t fly with a lot of people, but it was the most honest design choice for me to make, and I stand by it.

Thing is, not everyone enters the IFComp to win. For many people, it’s an excuse to have a deadline, and to make sure their work gets seen by an audience. In my case, I had this challenging story in my head, and I wanted people to read it. I also wanted people to read it not knowing it was me who wrote it, at least not at first. I feel like, as someone who’s gained recognition in the IF community and some parts of the greater “indie scene”, certain reviewers might be predisposed to responding more favourably to a piece if they knew I wrote it. I don’t know that for sure. Maybe I’m wrong. But I didn’t want to put myself in a place where I was constantly worrying about it.

So here’s the question. If I wasn’t playing to win, then what was I doing it for? Was it to raise awareness? Was it a call to action? I bristle at the notion that I was supposed to be writing some kind of PSA; I wasn’t. I would have taken a completely different approach if I was. Likely one that involved me getting paid, rather than, well, entering a competition.

Was it to generate empathy, so the more privileged of us in society can know how it feels? If so, I feel like I failed. Many reviewers found Georgiana’s internal monologue distancing, to the point that they made the fundamental attribution error that hey, if she’s really so down on herself, then it must be her own personal failing as a person. If you’ve been privileged enough not to have had to go through life with these feelings of inferiority yourself, then it must stand to reason that there’s something wrong with all those other people. It’s their own fault. If they can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop whining, then everything will be fine, right?

Or, slightly more charitably, people thought it might be a fault of brain chemistry. Which, well, it could be. But the thing about our brains is that they respond to our environment, and if your environment is hostile to people like you, as the tech industry is to people who aren’t straight cisgender upper middle class able-bodied white men, you learn to internalise the messages that you don’t belong. Even if people aren’t outright hostile to you specifically, if you’re part of at least one minority group and no one else around you is, you eventually wonder why you’re the odd one out. And what that says about you.

Some people even thought my portrayal of Georgiana was regressive and sexist. Which… I don’t know what to say. Have we become so used to the cliché of Strong Female Characters that a woman who shows self-doubt and vulnerability is suddenly responsible for setting the feminist movement back several decades? Would we be saying the same thing if it were Woody Allen, or Rameses Alexander Moran? Oh, right; they’re actual people, not representative tokens trying to prove they’re people.

Georgiana isn’t me — we share some of the same traits, but there are privileges she has that I don’t and vice versa. (For starters, she’s more normatively female-presenting and I happen to love public speaking and performing more than the average human.) Because she isn’t me, I feel comfortable saying the following: I happen to think she’s a really awesome person. I mean, she not only programs and designs games for augmented reality devices, but also co-founded a startup! That’s more than most of us can ever hope to accomplish in our professional lifetimes! If Catherine Stinson were the protagonist of this game, you’d better believe she’d have an internal monologue raving about how, holy crap, she can’t believe she even got someone as prolific as Georgiana to speak at her pathetic little conference that’s on its last legs since they went way over budget this year and there might not be another one and and and. But I digress.

All this is to say, the thing about impostor syndrome is, it doesn’t go away when you become better known and successful in your field. It doesn’t go away when your game gets accepted into IndieCade, or when you get asked to speak at conferences, or when you get into the MFA program of your dreams. If anything, it gets worse, because the higher you climb, the harder you fall when they inevitably all discover that you’re a fraud, that you actually aren’t smart or talented enough to be where you are.

But I don’t know how to get people to believe that if they haven’t experienced it themselves. I wish I could. At the same time, I know it’s not my responsibility to help people understand if they aren’t already receptive. Understanding is something for which we all have to take personal responsibility, and it takes a hell of a lot of work.

There were people who played this game and did in fact understand, and who thanked me for it. I feel like the answer is, I wrote the game for them. So, maybe this is not a game for generating empathy, but for expressing solidarity. The one saving grace in this game, after all, is that you aren’t alone. And I think I was effective at getting that message across. I hope I was, anyway. It’s a message of which I still needed to be reminded, too.

And, well, I’m here. I’m not going away. I may be plagued with neurotic self doubt in my darkest moments, but I’ll keep on keeping on as best as I know how. Maybe one day, things will get so bad that I’ll be pushed out for good. But that day isn’t today. Thank goodness for that.

Recommended reading: Mattie Brice on “Death of the Player”

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15 Responses to Impostor Syndrome, now in the form of a videogame!

  1. That was very good. I felt like I was reading something very powerful and affecting. There were points where I might have wished for a little more agency, but the fact is, that would have been wrong for this piece. Powerlessness in the face of unchanging prejudice and priviledge required that your protagonist felt the oppression of a culture not ready to grow up.

    So, good work. And thank you. I especially liked the title.

  2. Squinky says:

    Thanks, Lee. That’s kind of been my refrain for people clamouring for more agency: yeah, I wish I had more agency too, but this isn’t a game about wish fulfillment.

  3. Lynnea Glasser says:

    I just wanted to say that I really felt that Impostor Syndrome spoke to me as a female in the tech. industry. I expected a lot of backlash — from people who don’t get it, don’t care about it, don’t want to think about it. But I appreciate that you wrote it. I think one of the important things you accomplished by writing it was to reach out to other women-in-tech., let them know that they’re not alone, and to offer that validation of you’re-not-crazy-it’s-not-just-you. I loved how it also acknowledged that doing the “right” thing often is hard and punishing and that you can get screwed for it.

    Fighting sexism in the tech industry is a long, hard fight, and creating empathy is hard. I think this pushed forward one of those important first steps of, “We can talk about this, we are going to talk about this, and eventually you will have to listen or find yourself unemployable.” Thank you so much!! You are awesome.

  4. Squinky says:

    Aw, thank you, Lynnea! Your kind words of support mean a lot to me. And again, congrats on winning the comp this year!

  5. Hi.

    I am the guy whose game was compared to your at times. Honestly, I found your game much more engrossing and a much better product than mine. I would have loved it if you had placed above me. I was honestly expecting it.
    As far as spreading a message goes, yours did it well. Well done. And thank you for being a part of the comp.

  6. Squinky says:

    Ali, thanks for your kind words and for entering Autumn’s Daughter in the Comp. As a person of Middle Eastern descent myself, it hit close to home for me; I think you wrote an important game, and I’m glad it did well.

  7. PaulS says:

    I have the uncomfortable feeling that I might be one of those who didn’t get it, though I have to say that in my own internal monologue I felt not-that-far-away from where you suggest you wanted me to be. (Except I think I do feel less warm towards Georgiana than you do — more “distanced” — which perhaps isn’t surprising for a host of reasons.)

    Fighting sexism in any industry is hard; and it’s depressing how it seems to stay hard even as the decades pass. Anyone who sticks her head above the parapet to participate in the IF Comp is already pretty exposed, and you have been willing to go that step further in handling a controversial subject in a forthright way, and now to go further with this moving explanation. It contributed to a set of works this year that I thought were outstanding for the skilful way in which they tackled serious subjects. Given the “neurotic self doubt” we all have, it takes more courage than I would have to do that. Thank you for being willing to do it.

  8. Seg says:

    When it comes to taking in a work of art — especially one that is narrative — the more I’m able to understand characters that I don’t indentify as directly, the better I feel about the work I experienced.

    With this piece, you accomlished this task, using the interactivity of text to not only communicate the surface of the story, but the mindset of the featured character.

    In other words: You done good! *hugs*

  9. Squinky says:

    I’m glad it came across well to you, Seg!

  10. Ava Avane Dawn says:

    Will play the game and check out Autumns Daughter later! Just want to chime in and say that both Ramses and de Baron won awards iirc in the IF community (or are high ranked at least) and both have very little agency to speak of. Photopia, the biggest game in all of the genre perhaps, has barely any too. So I think the IF community is more open to those kind of restrictions than the video game community in general.

  11. Quinn says:

    I thought this was great, and I think it’s worth mentioning that five or six years ago I probably would have found Georgina’s self-doubt “distancing” as well. But I’ve read a lot more, and heard a lot more, from women in the video game sphere since then – and I (hopefully) have a much better understanding of all the struggles that women in tech have to face, struggles that my own privilege has long shielded me from. Now her internal monologue sounds very familiar. I can sympathize with her, even if I’ve never had to experience this kind of thing myself. And this future you’ve presented – in which reality itself effectively has a live comment section – sounds horrifying, and worryingly plausible.

    As scary as that thought is, though, it doesn’t feel inevitable. And that’s largely due to outspoken women like you who, as you put it, refused to shut up. It’s certainly helped give me perspective over the years, and I’m sure it’s done the same for others and will continue to do so. Even if progress feels frustratingly slow a lot of the time. So keep it up – I really believe that you’re improving things with your games and your words.

  12. Streever says:

    I enjoyed your game very much, but the blurb made me pause and worried me. Reading, “were you just selected to fill a diversity quota”, I felt worried that it could be the type of sexist that believes that filling diversity quotas means that we get inept people.

    As a player, you nailed the frustrating aspect (the lack of agency), but even as a player I realized how important that was. I don’t want to say I enjoyed it–but I appreciated the way it communicated the frustrations and difficulties of a woman in the tech field. It communicated self-doubt in a way that felt real and meaningful. I was frustrated by the protagonist–my POV–in the same way that I’m sure the protagonist would be frustrated by herself in these situations.

    The only real criticism I have is that, at the end, with the large group of words to select from, I didn’t realize that one of them would mean speaking up finally. I felt dejected and downbeat with the quiet ending. I felt like the whole game–the inner monologue and the self-doubt–were all building up to something, some expression, so for the character to just glumly take the criticisms and keep going was a frustrating experience.

    I enjoyed your piece and thought it was one of the better puzzle-less/linear games in the comp. I suspect that people who speculated the character is crazy simply aren’t used to feeling the type of self-doubt you documented here. It seems crazy, but there are people who walk around without ever seemingly feeling that, who don’t even watch their audience for non-verbal cues, and who don’t hear the emotions in the people around them.

    Narratively, I think you also created a real sense of a place and time. The setting and scenario were very well written.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and reflections.

  13. Streever says:

    (Clarification: in my first paragraph, I meant to say that after reading the blurb, I was worried that the pseudonymous author might be a man writing a sexist screed. I was very pleased that it was not.)

  14. streever says:

    (Another follow-up: I thought of your game when NPR was talking about the Focus 100 conference yesterday!)

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