Women in Games: Leveling Up Self-Confidence
Many women game developers I’ve spoken to feel that they don’t deserve to be where they are, or feel that they don’t belong. I’ve experienced this for a long time. Feeling confident helps you grow in your career. I experienced little career growth for years and it was partially because of low self-confidence. I want to see more women become game designers, stay in the industry, and grow into higher positions. I think “feeling like an impostor” is one of the reasons for the low percentage of women game designers. In the last few years, I started to gain the self-confidence to no longer feel this way.
Great — so, how did I start to gain confidence? First, I thought about some of my negative traits. Unsurprisingly, that was easy. Here are four I found:
- I’m too self-critical
- I feel my success is because of luck
- I feel like I don’t belong
- I’m afraid to fail
After extensive research and an uncomfortable amount of self-evaluation, something unexpected happened. I began to think about those flaws in an opposite way: they can be positive traits! The problem is that I was looking at myself too negatively. I think if you have one or more of the traits above, you can alter the way you look at them. To dig into this idea more, I’ll start with talking about turning self-criticism into self-awareness.
Self-Critical —> Self-Aware
I am overly self-critical. It takes minimal effort to remind myself why I’m terrible: I have low self-confidence, I don’t belong here, I am not as smart as others, I’m afraid to fail… When I’m thinking these thoughts, I’m analyzing myself. The problem is that my analysis is too negative.
I believe if you are self critical, you are also self-aware. So I asked myself, why am I overly self-critical? The first thing I did was research. I read books and scientific studies that included:
- The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention by Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes
- The Confidence Code by Katty Kay & Claire Shipman
- Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
- Presence by Amy Cuddy
One of the major take-aways from my research was learning that human behaviour is often shaped in childhood and then reinforced throughout the years. My negative traits must have taken form when I was young. This got me thinking about some events in my life:
- When I was a child, my family rewarded me (and other girls in the family) for obeying rules, being quiet and well-liked. I didn’t learn how to take risks or to be assertive.
- I was known as highly intellectual among my family and peers. So if something did not come easily for me, I would take it extremely hard. If I was no longer “the smart one”, who was I? In some cases, I would hide my failures from friends and family. I didn’t learn how to fail.
- In school, and well into my career, I maintained interest in math, sciences and technology. I was always one of a few girls and had no strong female role-models. I didn’t truly believe that I belonged.
Once I understood my past, I could analyze the present. I became more self-aware. I started to slowly rationalize thoughts that were full of personal bias. For example, instead of “I don’t know the answer to the question that my boss is asking…, and that means I’m not smart.., and that means I’m going to be fired“, I would try thinking, “I don’t know the answer to the question my boss is asking…, and that means it is an interesting problem because the solution isn’t obvious…, and that means I can learn and grow! It is unrealistic to think everything should come easy to me.”
The past can help answer present behaviour. I could look at myself with a clearer picture. If you are overly self-critical, you can learn to become more self-aware.
I Feel My Success is Because of Luck —> I am a High Achiever
In Clance’s and Imes’ impostor phenomenon study, they say:
“The fear that ‘my stupidity will be discovered’ is constantly present; consequently the woman studies or works very hard to prevent the discovery.”
It’s common for people who feel like an impostor to work hard and attribute success to luck. But I believe if you work hard, you are a high achiever, not just lucky. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to think this way if you believe your success is not genuine. For many years, I attributed my successes to luck. Even as an accomplished game designer with multiple ‘Game of the Year’ awards under my belt, I thought I was highly replaceable.
At one point in my career, I didn’t advance past junior designer for over 6 years. I was doing work well beyond my title, comparable to other senior designers. My self-confidence was at the lowest it has ever been and I thought I should quit the industry all together because I was not a good designer. I thought the only reason I was still there was because my managers didn’t want the bad press of firing a woman game designer. Finally, I mustered up enough courage to ask for a promotion and out of pure frustration said that if I wasn’t going to get one, I would quit. My visually shocked manager ran out of the room, came back some minutes later and told me it would happen. I got my promotion but it felt so forced that it didn’t matter to me; I felt like I didn’t deserve it because I pulled the “I will quit” card.
To climb out of the deep hole I was in and feel like I was a real high achiever took a lot of time. I had to work with a new team and project to get a different perspective. I wanted an unbiased perspective to answer the question: have I reached the peak of my game design career or am I being undervalued? Turns out, it was the latter.
Here are ways that I gathered evidence to feel like a high-achiever. Additionally, these are good ways to understand your strengths and weaknesses (another step for self-awareness!). Give these a try:
- Write a list of all the awesome things you’ve done (updating your resume is a good way)
- Find a small group of people you can trust to give honest feedback (especially negative feedback)
- Move on to a new company or team where you know no-one to get a fresh perspective
- Mentor junior designers to share your knowledge (you will surprise yourself with how much you know)
I couldn’t have done this alone. I’ve met a few amazing colleagues within the last few years that helped me shape a more realistic perspective of my skill-sets. I can’t stress enough how important it is to find these mentors. They are a key component to understand what you are good at.
I Don’t Deserve to be Here —> I’m Challenging Myself
Sometimes you feel like you are over your head. It could be because you are invited to a meeting where you have the least amount of experience, or being asked to be a manager for the first time, or being assigned one of the most complicated levels to build, or even writing personal thoughts about self-confidence on the internet for the first time (eep!). For those with low confidence, new situations lead to feeling like you don’t deserve them. But if you are doing something new — you’re challenging yourself. That is awesome! When I feel like I shouldn’t be here, I remind myself that I did something that was not easy for me and the way to learn is to be challenged.
In university, I majored in computing science. In my 2nd year, things were not going great. I didn’t have many friends in class and the friends I did have didn’t need to study much to succeed. I didn’t study much either because I thought I’ve always been smart too. But — my grades were tanking. I got a letter from the Dean explaining I didn’t maintain a high enough GPA; I was being removed from the program. I took this hard. I never failed at anything before. I was supposed to be smart. Out of shame, I kept this secret from my friends and family. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be “the smart one” anymore.
I switched my major from computing science (CS) to mathematics. But a few months in, I knew what I really wanted to do was computer science. I took a semester to raise my GPA high enough to re-enter CS, eased off of World of Warcraft (but not entirely…I wasn’t too crazy) and met some new study friends. In my last year, I graduated with 2 full points higher GPA than I started.
I learned a lesson about self-worth. No one is perfect. Believing you don’t belong shouldn’t limit you; it should challenge you. Now, when I think I don’t belong where I am, I flip my thinking to “This is a challenge! Awesome!” Don’t get me wrong, it is healthy to have self-doubt; it means you are doing something new. My most helpful mentors have said sometimes they feel like they don’t belong (a trait of good leadership is humility). The key is to look at the unknown as a challenge.
Fear of Failure —> Fail fast!
You decided to take on a challenge — great! But what happens if you mess up? Failure feels terrible. For people with low confidence, failing feels like being “found out” that you are a fraud. I’ve been afraid to fail because “I want to do the right thing”. That sounds reasonable, right? The problem is that I would be so afraid to make a wrong decision, that I would take a long time deciding or I wouldn’t make a decision at all, resulting in someone else deciding instead.
At one point in my career, I was in my yearly personal review meeting with my manager and my manager’s manager. They read through what I wrote for my accomplishments and areas of where I wanted to improve. After they were done, they said I was doing great and that they agree with everything I wrote. I asked if there were any areas I could improve on and they said, “no, what you wrote looks fine”. I came out of the meeting with disappointment. First, they didn’t come prepared with guidance on how I could grow; they just read what I wrote. Secondly, because I was told I was doing great with no word on how to improve, I knew I could no longer learn and grow in that environment. If I don’t change something, I would be doing the same work that I’ve been doing for years and for me, that is more terrifying than failing at something new.
When I looked back at life, I realized I learned more from my failures than my successes. I wish I would have failed more! It’s hard, but if you are like me and fear failure, try to go outside your comfort zone and do something you haven’t done before — even something small like deciding where your group of co-workers will go for lunch, or signing up for an art class.
Failing isn’t fun, but learning from mistakes is better than avoiding taking risks. I’ve been afraid to fail for fear of making the wrong decision. One exercise that helped me was to secretly analyze my superiors on their decision making skills. If he/she made a decision that was wrong in the end (because we are all human), the world did not explode. It was okay. I noticed the best leaders would admit mistakes and learn from them. That’s how you create a culture where it is okay to fail. The faster you fail, the faster you learn and grow.
I’ve seen too many women not believe in their abilities; I understand because I’ve experienced it too. I don’t have any training in social psychology and I’m in no way a professional in this field. But I share my experiences and thoughts because I don’t think enough do. I want to give back to the game development community because I’ve been very fortunate in the industry. I want to see more women leaders in game development. Through analyzing yourself, embracing high achievement, challenging yourself and failing fast, you might be able to achieve goals you never thought possible.
(Feel free to get in touch through my website or twitter for any questions or feedback)