iLogos' Lead Game Designer Sergei Belkov explained how Impostor Syndrome can affect Game Developers, discussed the reasons that might cause the syndrome to appear, and detailed some tips and tricks on how to avoid it.
In the competitive world of game design, where innovation and creativity are paramount, there is a hidden challenge that often goes unnoticed but can have a profound impact on the mental well-being of designers. This challenge is known as Impostor Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon that affects countless individuals across various industries, including game development.
To shed light on this pervasive issue and its specific implications for game designers, we had the opportunity to interview Sergei Belkov, a seasoned Game Designer from iLogos Game Studios with extensive experience in the industry.
What was your personal experience with impostor syndrome?
As I've been in the industry for more than a decade, there were several times when I’ve met this syndrome, even if I didn’t realize what it was. Impostor syndrome comes and goes, and could be triggered by certain life events, such as raising job responsibilities, new scopes of activity, or even daily stress or routine discomfort. Every success, promotion, and award could paradoxically cause it and devalue your achievements. Anxious thoughts come into your mind and you just can’t stop thinking this way. Every day they grow and spoil your life. Only recently I realized that my self-distrust has some grounding in biases that could be defined, measured, and went through.
What is impostor syndrome and how does it affect working life?
Impostor syndrome is not about a total lack of confidence, but rather a constant tension between confidence and doubts about one's abilities. If a person sincerely believes in their incompetence, then why strive to achieve anything? They will live comfortably at their own level and not aspire to anything great.
Many people have the illusion that if they were really smart, everything would come easily to them - in any field. This is due to a stereotypical belief that truly smart people do everything almost intuitively. The second common manifestation is not being able to show that I am proud of myself, that I am cool. The reason for this may be hidden in childhood when a child is forced into a behavior pattern: don't stand out, don't draw attention, don't show your success, sit quietly and hide.
The core of the impostor syndrome is formed by script beliefs and basic self-conceptions, as well as how others perceive us. Even if I have a large collection of external achievements, my persistent internal belief is no longer challenged. This is because script beliefs support our worldview, stabilize it, and shape our perception of reality.
From the scientific perspective, impostor syndrome could be described as a psychological phenomenon, when the person feels that he’s inadequate and could fail at any time, despite any evidence to the contrary. It is a sense of self-doubt related to work accomplishments, where individuals may feel like they are tricking their coworkers into thinking they are good at their job. These feelings could drastically affect working life and even cause serious mental problems:
- overwork and burnout;
- setting impossibly high standards for yourself;
- obsessing over minor mistakes or problems.
What is the Dunning-Kruger effect?
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a metacognitive bias among low-skilled individuals: they make erroneous conclusions and take unsuccessful decisions, but are unable to recognize these mistakes due to a lack of knowledge, skills, and abilities, leading to a false definition of their competence limits and an overestimation of their abilities, even in unfamiliar areas of knowledge and actions taken for the first time.
On the other hand, highly skilled individuals tend to underestimate their abilities and suffer from insufficient confidence in their skills, considering others to be more competent. Thus, less skilled individuals, in general, have a higher opinion of their abilities than is typical of competent people (who are also inclined to assume that others evaluate their abilities as low as they do).
The Dunning-Kruger effect is mentioned frequently along with the impostor syndrome, however, this is quite an opposite phenomenon when people overestimate their abilities or knowledge regardless and because of their lack of knowledge or experience in a particular area. Some researchers also include the opposite effect: when high performers have the tendency to underestimate their skills, which is aligned with the impostor syndrome in some ways. However, the Dunning-Kruger effect is said to manifest as overconfidence and arrogance and can lead to poor decision-making and negative consequences.
Where does impostor syndrome come from?
It’s important to understand that impostor syndrome is not a medical problem or diagnosis, but rather a pattern of negative thinking which could be based on multiple cognitive biases, traumas, or former negative experiences. It could come from different sources, but I believe the major ones are:
- Pervasive social pressure to succeed at all costs. In a hypercompetitive world that often equates success with self-worth, individuals may feel an overwhelming burden to constantly prove themselves. This external pressure to meet unrealistic expectations can create a breeding ground for self-doubt and the persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.
- Parental upbringing. When parents place excessive emphasis on achievements and goals, children may internalize the belief that their worth hinges solely on their accomplishments. This upbringing can set the stage for a perpetual need to prove oneself, which ultimately fuels impostor syndrome.
- Lack of positive feedback and constant self-comparison to idealized models. When individuals fail to receive adequate recognition or affirmations for their abilities, they may begin to doubt their competence. Coupled with comparing themselves unfavorably to others who appear more successful or accomplished, this can amplify feelings of inadequacy and reinforce the impostor narrative.
- The manner in which feedback is delivered. Experiencing a combination of overpraise and harsh criticism instead of genuine support can leave individuals feeling uncertain about their abilities. This mixed messaging can create a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud, perpetuating the impostor cycle.
- Traumatic experiences. Discrimination based on factors such as gender, race, or background can undermine an individual's confidence and make them question their legitimacy, even in the face of undeniable accomplishments. These traumatic events can further reinforce the belief that success is undeserved, exacerbating feelings of fraudulence.
So, how should you react to your mistakes without overthinking?
It’s hard to reframe your way of thinking: our brain tends to follow common patterns and the creation of new neural connections instead of old ones requires time and patience. There are several tips that could be a good start for doing so:
- Think of mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning. Keep in mind that the fact that everyone speaks and focuses on success doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes and don’t fail;
- Treat yourself with patience and kindness, and don’t set unreachable standards dictated by the social “be the best or die trying” model;
- Instead of dwelling on your mistakes, focus on your strengths and things that you do well. start to applaud yourself for reaching goals and targets;
- Ask for feedback from trusted colleagues or mentors to help you gain a better perspective on your performance. This can help you identify areas for improvement and build your confidence;
- Mindfulness and therapy could help to stay calm, and focused and treat yourself in a caring way, avoiding painful overthinking.
What can one do to feel pleasure from work?
This conception came from a wise friend of mine, a skilled game designer Eugene Sudak, and I like it a lot. The backbone is that the «pleasure from work» is regulated by neurotransmitters; there are four aspects related to them:
- Dopamine: stimulates the completion of important tasks that can be quickly finished, creating a sense of satisfaction from "nailing" the work. But dopamine production can also be increased by praising oneself, even for completing small tasks. It's like black magic, but it works.
- Endorphins: their production is stimulated by "dreams". Long-term goals, plans, strategy development, following it, and tracking progress - if work is not going well, plan a vacation, weekend picnic, or dinner with Netflix after work. Anything that works for the future allows us to feel anticipation.
- Serotonin: a hormone of happiness with a slowing effect. Its production is stimulated by tasks that are familiar and enjoyable. Take your time with them, enjoy the process, allow yourself to spend a little more time, and stretch the pleasure. Your grateful brain will slow down, allowing you to take a little break from the endless rush.
- Oxytocin: its production is stimulated by hugs lasting longer than 4 seconds, trust, and a sense of belonging. It is also stimulated by actions aimed at team cohesion, strengthening internal connections, and sincere care for subordinates.
- Conclusion: by categorizing tasks by type and satisfying at least three (ideally four) "hunger" from the list, you can make your work process tiring, but pleasant and overall good. If all tasks belong to two or one type, achieving pleasure and satisfaction from work can be very difficult.
You can use the suggested logic of dividing tasks and approaches in order to achieve the feeling of self-confidence, however, there is a general yet very important thing that you should remember: Get involved in projects that interest you and utilize your strengths and talents. This could be tricky or seem to be hard to find, but definitely will help you feel more fulfilled and satisfied with your work.
You can also use this effective exercise. Give an answer to this question:
Who do you compare yourself to? Who possesses a set of factors that are ideal for a similar position?
If it's a person — please don't dehumanize them: everyone is imperfect and makes mistakes.
If it's just a mental image — describe its qualities.
And remember: a professional differs from a novice in that they have made more mistakes than the novice has tried.