CW: Trauma, Violence
In conjunction with my therapist, I am writing about some of the traumas I have suffered. This is an exercise for me, which I make public as part of the process, rather than in an effort to garner responses of any kind.
I’ll go back to fake words and weird game ideas later. You can safely skip this one.
I don’t remember many details of the worst beating I ever took.
Since it was also one of the most public, I someone feel like I should remember it well, but I don’t.
I was at a friends’ apartment, in the short gap after I was driving and staying out all night (at least on weekends and in summers) out of High School, before I got married. I’d guess 1987 or 1988, making it more than 30 years ago.
One of the friends who stayed at that apartment and I heard a woman yelling for help. We looked out a window and out the front door, but couldn’t see anything.
In case she needed immediate assistance, we ran toward the sound, along the 2nd-floor exposed walkway that linked the apartments, and down a set of stairs to a parking lot.
When we got to the edge of the parking lot, we saw a woman was in a car, on the driver’s side. Her window was cracked open by a very small amount, and she was yelling for help out the window. A very large man was holding on to the side-view mirror, screaming at her, and pounding on the glass.
I can not tell you anything about the woman, or the car. I have no memory at all of their appearance, or even impressions they gave me. They existed, and that’s all I know.
The man was large, muscular, and angry. I can’t tell you what he wore, what his ethnicity was,m what he hair looked like–nothing.
The woman was clearly safe, at that moment, but also clearly could not drive away without dragging the man along with her, which she seemed unwilling to do.
My friend and I decided that he, being faster,m would run back to the apartment and dial 911. I would remain here, in case the situation devolved and direct intervention became necessary. We did not wish to escalate things unless it was the only way to prevent bodily harm–a theme in many of my traumatic events which I have begun to question.
My friend ran off. The man kept screaming. The woman kept yelling for help. I observed.
At some point, something changed. I have no idea if I looked away and missed the change, or if I had the information beaten out of me, or I have just forgotten because it has been so long.
The next memory of the event I have is that the woman was driving away, dragging the man with her for a bit until he was knocked lose of the car. She drove off.
The man got up, yelled at the car, then looked around.
He saw me, and screamed “You think that’s funny?”
To be clear, I did not. i was not laughing, or even grinning. I was trying to decide if I should go check on him for injuries.
He shouted, and charged at me,
I was standing at the edge of the parking lot, next to a concrete sidewalk and a sandbox. I have a bright, clear memory of thinking that when he tackled me, it would be better to be knocked down into sand, rather than onto concrete, and taking on big step sideways so that was the angle he’d hit me at.
I do not remember speaking to him at all. I do not remember the impact.
I do remember the taste of sand and blood in my mouth, and being aware I was successfully using my arms to protect my head from his kicks.
He kicked me for what seemed like a truly prolonged period of time, but I have no objective idea how long it was. I remember being surprised that, given his size, he wasn’t doing more damage to me. I remember wondering if it was because he was drink. I don’t remember in any moment before that concluding he was drunk.
At some point in the time he was kicking me, I began to wonder if I was going to have to fight back. I had made no effort to strike him yet. I was curled up, protecting my head with my arms and my sizable gut with my legs, and he was kicking me. I feel like he must have been yelling, but that’s an impression on my part, not a clear memory.
I know I considered my options, as I was being beaten. His right leg was right on front of my feet. I saw I could easily lash out and slam into the front of his knee with both feet.
I was really afraid I would break his leg if I did that. Maybe cripple him. It felt like a disproportionate response to having him kick me for however long he had been.
It felt unreasonable.
I don’t remember if he ran off when I heard sirens, or a little before I heard sirens.
The recovery from being on the ground is also lost in my memory. One moment I was seeing him run off, the next I was sitting… I have no idea on what, talking to a policewoman.
I declined to go to the hospital. This worried her, because blood was pouring out of my mouth. I discovered my right cheek was bleeding profusely into my mouth, where a kick had torn it against my own teeth. I explained this to the policewoman.
There were a lot of people milling about. My friend had returned, at least one other friend from the apartment had shown up, and there were bystanders.
And the manager of the apartment complex, who was pressuring me to file a report at the police station. Apparently the man was someone she had trouble with.
I asked the policewoman if I should do that. She asked me if I knew the man, or would recognize him, or could describe him. I told her all I could say was he was taller than me, and powerfully built,. She affirmed I could go file a report if I wanted to, but she didn’t see how that description could lead to anything.
I did not go file a report. I was told later the manager was very upset with me for that.
Eventually I ended up at home. My parents care was there, so I must have driven myself, but I have no memory of that.
My arms and legs hurt for weeks, and I had some really spectacular bruises. I was on my parent’s health insurance, and I didn’t want them deciding I could not visit that apartment complex anymore, so I didn’t have a doctor check me out.
In the weeks that followed, several of my friends asked if I had talked to the woman in the car. A few suggested I should ask her out on a date. That seemed… vile to me. In any case, I quite honestly told them, I had no idea who she was, and given she has driven off without me doing anything to help, I doubt she had any idea who I was, or that she would care if she knew.
And that’s all I recall of this event.
This addresses and describes trauma I have suffered, and if you don’t have interest in knowing about that, or if it’s not in your mental health best interests to read about cruelty, assault, or being immobilized, don’t read this.
It’s okay. I’ll get back to imaginary creatures and game spells later. At my therapist’s recommendation, and with their support, I am both making a list of the potentially traumatic events in my life, and trying to nail down details about them I have forgotten.
It is exhausting, frightening, shocking work.
having been diagnosed with civilian PTSD, I also think it is important work for my own well-being.
This is a frank discussion and description of some of that trauma. If you’d rather not be exposed to that, it’s perfectly all right to skip this. I’ll go back to pastiche supervillains ideas and my take on politics and gaming later.
This content is mostly about alcoholism.
My father was an alcoholic. He and my mother tried to control his alcoholism with rationality and intelligence, because they were rational, intelligent people.
It did not work.
My father was never violent. In fact, I have never witnessed any violence against any member of my family except myself, and I have never witnessed any member of my family be violent except myself.
I have assumed, for my entire life, that since my father was never violent, there was no trauma to me associated with his alcoholism.
When drunk, my father made promises that not only would he not keep, he would not remember.
All the alcohol in the house I grew up in was kept in a cabinet that, after he had consumed the two drinks a night my parents thought was reasonable, my mother would lock.
Then, when he felt he needed more alcohol, my father either had to try to force the doors of that cabinet open just enough to pry a bottle loose with a bent coathanger, or go out.
He never drove to get alcohol, and never drove after having even one drink.
He did, however, call a taxi… of just take a walk. We lived 3 houses down from a bar and restaurant (The Mont, in Norman, OK), and late a convenience store was even closer,
As early as 5 or 6, if I woke up late at night and my father was going out, he might take me to the Mont as 10 or 11pm, after everyone else was asleep. I could sit in the restaurant section, and he’d sit right next to me, on the other side of the railing that demarcated the bar.
I learned to play chess with him, and later the game go, at that bar.
As I grew older, he was more likely to walk to the store, buy a bottle, and come back and we’d play games at home. My earliest game experiences–chess, go, checkers, pitch, and a civil war wargame/boardgame I don’t know the name of, were with my father, but only when he was drunk. We almost never got to finish those games, because he’d become too drunk to keep playing. Usually he’d fall asleep, or begin to cry about international politics he’d slurringly try to explain to me.
This was all I knew. To me, this was normal.
I did that less once I had friends, and could play games with them. No because I was avoiding my father, but because the window during which he could play got shorter and shorter, as he drank more, faster.
After my sister went to college, it began to be normal to come into the living room in the morning to discover my father had passed out after unlocking the door to come into the house, and we had, for an unknown period of time, been asleep with our front door held open by his body being slumped across our doorway.
My mother told my father to stop getting drunk at home, so he would take a taxi to a motel, and get drunk there, often paying people to spend time with him because he disliked drinking alone.
In my mid-to-late teens, I met some of the people he paid to spend time with him. They suggested I could pay them to spend time with me. They also suggested I could get the money to do so from my father and he wouldn’t even notice.
I am sure I could have.
My father was a sweet man who loved me, and was doing the best he could.
He and my mother were going to take my wife and I out to dinner on our first wedding anniversary–but he got too drunk and couldn’t do it. My mother had to call me, and confess he had moved out a few weeks before, and they hadn’t told me because they didn’t want to ruin my anniversary dinner.
My mother took us out without him.
About a year before he died, in an effort to get him to go back into rehab, I told him he was drinking himself to death.
He told me he knew, and that was what he wanted. He wanted to drink himself to death.
This addresses and describes trauma I have suffered, and if you don’t have interest in knowing about that, or if it’s not in your mental health best interests to read about cruelty, assault, or being immobilized, don’t read this.
It’s okay. I’ll get back to imaginary creatures and game spells later.
While I have been to therapy for years, I had never before had a therapist ask me to catalog all the major traumas in my life.
There are things I mention when asked probing question I have never thought of as major trauma… but I see why my therapist is dubious.
I know that, at a major national camping event, when I was in my early-to-mid teens, a young woman asked me to follow her from the campground into the woods, whereupon she brought me to a group of mostly older kids who jumped me, hit me, and forced me into a large hole they had dug in the dirt. At least one of them jumped down on me and kept me pinned there.
I remember being confused as to why she wanted me to come with her. I knew who she was (the only woman I recall in a camp full of boys and men), but I did not know her at all. I had a sense that I was headed into a situation where I did not understand the socially acceptable behavior or appropriate expectations.
Anytime I feel that now, I get very upset. I can have a panic attack walking into a new restaurant if I don’t know if I am supposed to sit, wait for a server, or walk up to the counter. That’s not my most common response, but it has happened.
I very clearly remember being very upset that no matter how hard I tried, I could not get up, or get my face out of the dirt.
I remember everyone was laughing, in what sounded like true amusement.
I don’t remember how I got out of the hole. I don’t remember what anyone said, afterwards. I do remember being entirely sure I could not tell the people running the camp. That doing so would make things worse.
I don’t remember why, though the young woman was the daughter of one of those people, which may have impacted my thinking. I remember I liked her. I don’t remember her name. Or even her face, at this point.
I don’t remember any of their faces.
I know that for months after that I thought about it, but noted to myself that I hadn’t been *injured*. No broken bones. No blood.
“Not a big deal.”
I never told my family.
Eventually, I dropped out of that camping group, though not for at least a year after this.
“Not a big deal.”
Maybe I was wrong, about that.
Thankfully, my therapist knows this is impacting me. I have coping mechanisms. I have support. And if this IS something I needed to accept had a lasting impact on me, at least I can work on it now.
But it’s weird to have to face this thing again, which I so successfully buried, so long ago.
It’s upsetting, and I don’t like them still having the power to upset me.
Which, or course, is part of the point of delving into it.
My father was an alcoholic. He went to rehab, once, in the 1990s and toward the end of that process we had ‘family week,’ where the whole family came in for group therapy and counseling. So the other members of my family and I went, and spent a week there. It was a bit like summer camp, but the activities were figuring out how badly screwed up you were and crying instead of archery and canoeing.
While there for family week, I met a young woman who had been badly abused. I did not get, and if I am honest did not at the time want, any details of what she had been through. She was there for her own addiction. I either never knew what she was addicted to, or I have long since forgotten. She wasn’t in any of the group or therapy sessions I was in with my father and family.
She saw some of my RPG books I had brought with me, and was fascinated by them. She understood the concept immediately but, faced with multiple books of hundreds of pages each for just a few games (I know I had Rolemaster with me, I may have also had some D&D and Champions), she claimed that she “wasn’t smart enough” to play RPGs.
I assured her she was. I promised I could show her how the concept worked and we could play a game, with just a few of sentences of explanation, and three sentences of rules. She agreed.
“Tell me about your character.”
She loved rabbits. She wanted to know if she could be a rabbit, I told her she could be anything she wanted. She decided she was an anthropomorphic rabbit scavenger in a post-apocalyptic world who hunted (and killed) carnivores, and defended herbivores.
I gave her a 3×5 index card.
“Write down one thing you are good at.”
She wrote down she was good at creeping.
“Write down one thing you’re bad at.”
She wrote she was bad at keeping calm.
“Write down one important thing you have.”
I had meant one object she possessed. She wrote she had ‘limitless determination.’ This game was for her. I was not about to tell her she’d done it wrong. Limitless determination it was.
“Write down one thing you want to accomplish.”
She wanted to find a safe place to bring orphan bunnies.
I gave her a penny.
“I’ll describe situations, and you tell me what you want your character to do. For anything you try you flip a coin – your action succeeds on heads and fails on tails. If you try something you are good at or have an important thing for you get to flip twice and succeed if either is heads, while if it’s the thing you are bad at you have to flip twice and get heads for both to succeed. That’s it.”
She asked if, since she was a rabbit, she could succeed on tails, and fail on heads. That seemed super-obvious, and I agreed.
And so the “Hares & Holocausts” game was born. Getting to flip twice and winning if either was tails was a bonus. Having to flip twice and winning only if both were tails was a trial.
We played 3-4 times over that week, mostly at lunch and once one morning after breakfast. I borrowed heavily from Gamma World, Rock & Rule, Watership Down, and Seven Samurai. Her character never got a name, and she didn’t seem to care. I thought of her as “The Rabbit Without a Name,” who wore a poncho, and assumed the setting used an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.
Each scene was clearly defined as casual or dangerous. Casual scenes had no consequences. In a dangerous scene, there were normally 3 chances for her to take an action. Actions weren’t blow-by blow things like “I stab a scorpion bandit,” but more like “I attack the bandits, trying to drive them back out of the mine shaft.” One successful action out of the three was a draw–she ended up neither better off nor worse at the end of the scene. Two successes was a win. Three was a BIG win, and she got some kind of permanent improvement.
Zero successes was a failure.
If she failed at a scene, she took a wound which meant she had to either give up one of her bonuses until she healed, or write down a new trial (which she got to pick) as a scar she kept until she succeeded at a task using that trial. I remember she choose a scar at least once, getting a cut through her left eye so she got the trial “Bad at seeing things to my left.”
She picked up a katana, with a BIG win, which she got as a bonus she could use once per combat, because I wanted to introduce the idea of equipment. She also gained a psychic mind-stare with a BIG win, which let her try to take out a foe before a scene began, with no penalty if she failed.
She crossed The Waste, and found a mine shaft, which had evil scorpion bandits in it. Driving them away, the mine shaft lead her to a valley with a ruined town which had some bunny orphans in it. She saved them from a spider sweat-shop owner (who forced the bunny orphans to weave designer webs for uptown spiders), then went to find them a safe home. That took her to an old observatory on top of a nearby mountain, where she had to convince the ancient security AI (that controlled a robotic sphinx guard) to allow the orphan bunnies to live there. She hunted down and imprisoned a skunk airship pirate who made clouds the observatory couldn’t see through, and promised shed talk the orphan bunnies into become astronomers, and the AI agreed to let them stay and protect them.
Then she took the stench-airship, and flew off. She wanted to find, and defeat, the Uptown Spiders who received the designer webs. End of campaign.
I did not realize for weeks that she never killed anyone. Drove off, defeated, jailed, convinced to change sides, yes. Never death.
She really seemed into it, and told me she would introduce that game to friends of hers. She still didn’t think she could play a “real” RPG. I tried to convince her there were lots of games, like there were lots of books and lots of movies, and all she needed was one that was a good fit for her. I was not convinced “Hares & Holocausts” could be played seriously, thought I didn’t tell her that.
I’m skipping over a lot of the weird, awkward, difficult parts of this experience. I was making it up as I went along, and it was not as polished as this short write-up makes it sound, especially for the first game or two. There were moments I was uncomfortable. There was at least one time she burst into tears. I used some Rolemaster critical hit tables for narrative inspiration once, and that was a big mistake on numerous levels. The councilors insisted all games take place in one of the public areas, and only between 7am and 6pm. No one else played with us.
At the end of my week, I gave her my contact info. She was going to be there for at least a few weeks longer. I did not ask for, and she did not offer, her contact information. I never heard from her.
I think that’s the only complete, totally original RPG I have ever designed by myself.
My father stayed sober for 90 days, because one of the councilors at rehab told him he couldn’t — that it would be impossible. Through sheer iron will, my father took not a single sip of alcohol for three months. They were a good time to know him. Then, convinced this meant he wasn’t an alcoholic, he drank himself to death over the next few years.
I have a Patreon. It allows me to take the time to make posts that are freely available, like this one. Your support is welcome and appreciated.
This post is heavy, not gaming-related (at least mostly), personal, and from my perspective. I’m not claiming this is a scientific or universal explanation. Just my experience.
When you experience trauma, everyone seems to understand why it affects you immediately. You witnessed blood spraying from your mother’s face as a child. You got beating bloody by a random drunk you had never met before. You saw a naked woman clinging to the railing of a motel, screaming for help while a man tried to drag her inside. You were lured into the woods by someone you thought was a friend, so a group could jump you, force you into a ditch, and threaten to bury you alive. You were in a car wreck. An earthquake. A wild fire.
In the hours and days after that, everyone gets it. It was traumatic. You were rattled. It sucked.
Years later, if something sets off those memories so you begin shaking, crying, screaming, some people don’t understand why you haven’t “gotten over it.” Why is it throttling back your productivity, or driving you to seek self-medication, or suddenly making you have nightmares. After all you were fine yesterday, right?
Well first, most likely not. But, second, life is a building, and it’s always growing. Every year is a new floor, every event and responsibility a new tenant you have to keep happy.
The foundation is SUPPOSED to be strong and reinforced enough to handle every floor you build. But some of us built our foundations under poor circumstances. The concrete was smashed, or the ground was swampy. When we put the first few floors on it, we are okay, but every floor is new weight. More and more strain on that foundation.
And not every floor gets built strong, or even correctly. Trauma is a fire on the 5th floor. A wrecking ball coming in through a corner office. Flooding in the basement.
So, we do what we can to shore it up. Self medication is trying to fix the problems of all that structural damage… but it’s not always good as a long-term fix. You’re not doing the work to code, because your problems are ones that sticking to code won’t fix. The tenants are complaining about the heat, because you never got the HVAC fixed after basement flooded. So you set about renovations in their apartments and offices. More windows, more doors, spruce the place up. Sure, you are cutting holes in retaining walls on the 27th floor to do it, but the building is only 28 floors tall, so who cares?
But then you build the 29th floor. The 30th. Ten more on top of that. The external braces you bolted on to make up for the weak walls can’t handle that strain. The cracks in the foundation split their patches under years of use and tons of weight.
You seem fine… but there are problems.
Then one day, winds are just a tiny bit stronger than usual. The buildings around you are fine. They can take it. But you? Your trauma-ridden structure, patches and braces and ad-hoc fixes can’t take it. Your whole frame bends. Windows pop out. Girders on the 5th floor buckle.
People look at you wand wonder what the big deal is. The fire that weakened those girders was 40 years ago. Why are you making a big deal about them now?
We can’t tear ourselves down and start over. And while major renovations sometimes can help bring us up to code, it can be extremely difficult to use a building while it’s being renovated. Do I kick out functions like going to work, paying the bills, helping people out, so I can get the work of replacing major columns done? Especially since the workmen can’t promise the columns will ever hold the same weight, and don’t know what they’ll find in the walls when we start tearing into things?
Or do I throw up some more supports, just give up on ever using the 5th floor for anything, promise we’ll add high-speed wifi to the whole building, and hope I don’t drill through a sewage pipe as I install the fiberoptic?
Trauma doesn’t go away. It leaves scars, and you often don’t know where they are, what they look like, or what will set them off.
I spent way too long trying to decide if I even wanted to link to my Patreon in this post. It seemed cheap, somehow, to talk about my pain and then ask for money.
But I know some very brave, smart, struggling people who do it, and I never look down at them for doing so. So maybe we normalize that emotional work is work, and it’s okay to suggest people be paid for it.
If you want to contribute to my writing and videos, check out my Patreon.
EDIT: A post-script.
Since people have asked, yes, all the traumas I list in the second paragraph are specific examples from my life. I left out the sexual abuse as a child, mockery for fat shaming, bullying as a nerd, and probably dozens of others that felt less relatable to the general public.
That’s not the point of this piece but yeah, for those of whom it seems to matter, those ARE all examples of trauma in one person’s life. Mine.
So, real talk.
The game industry does not run on motivation. It runs on hard work. The people I see who don’t grasp that, or who can’t accommodate it, don’t last.
It’s pretty easy to write when you’re motivated. That seems self-evident (it’s pretty close to the definition of ‘motivation’), and it’s one reason a great deal of writing advice talks about how to GET motivated, and STAY motivated. When that works for you, that’s great–I’ll take a motivated day of writing over an unmotivated day any time I can. Inspirations, muses, focusing techniques–these are all things that make game design and development much easier to actually do. They may or may not impact the quality of the end product, but they absolutely make it easier to get the work done.
But they are not the end-all, be-all of making it as a successful full-time professional.
I see people struggle all the time with making the leap from side-gig or hobbyist freelancer to growing professional, and a lot of that has to do with being able to operate without motivation. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with writing as a hobbyist or side-gig, I did it for years in the 1990s before I finally became a true full-time professional. Not everyone even wants to depend on the game industry for their full-time career, and I don’t blame them.
But if you DO want to make that leap, you are going to have to learn how to get work done, at a high quality, when you are not motivated to do so. When it’s just as hard as any other job.
I used to be asked fairly often how I got over writer’s block, and I’d glibly say I looked at my mortgage (nowadays it would be looking at my rent due). While that was clearly an effort to be funny, it’s also more true than I realized at the time. If I didn’t feel words coming to me easily, then I worked to get the words that were hard to produce. Because motivation was inconsistent, and as a game designer looking to make this my primary source of income, I couldn’t be inconsistent.
And in time, that became a skill like any other.
That’s not to say there aren’t tricks to use to get you through periods low on inspiration and enjoying the writing or developing process. Sometimes you can take a break from a project, and discover some other kind of game work is more fulfilling. Sometime you can subvert expectations or analyze what about a project you find lacking and, by addressing that, both become motivated and make the project better. Sometimes you can shuffle the order of things and do boring scut work–whatever that is for you, be it tables, paginations, formatting, outlining, finishing touches, whatever–when you’re not feeling creative to save the “creative” work for when your muse is working.
But sometimes, you just have to tackle the grind and get the job done.
I’ve discussed things related to this topic fairly often. I’ve talked about making sure the whole world isn’t your job, coping mechanisms for impostor syndrome, watching for signs of burnout, and even balancing the needs of burnout and the rent. I’ve also talked about working sick, which is closer to the kind of doing-the-job-when-you-don’t-care skill I’m talking about here, and what I see as the basics of game industry professionalism. And I’ve made lots of posts about coping mechanisms.
But I don’t think I’ve every just come out and said this:
“To be a successful, full-time professional in this industry, you have to do the work even when you are in no mood to do the work.”
And its corollary: “If you want people to trust you to be able to get the work of a full-time professional done, they have to have confidence in your ability to work when unmotivated.”
You don’t have to start there. But you do have to GET there, eventually, or you’ll hit a ceiling of success.
I have coping mechanisms for this, too, of course. I have no idea how universal they are, because this is a topic no one ever seems to want to talk about, until we’re huddled around drinks after-hours at a convention telling horror stories. So none of this may be useful to anyone but me. I offer them up regardless.
These may not help you do the work when you couldn’t care less, but you have to find SOMETHING that can.
So what do I use?
I talk to a trusted source, and see if they can spark some excitement. To be honest, this ENTIRE blog post comes from me not being motivated to write anything for the professional end of my blog this week, and talking to a trusted collaborator who suggested that itself was a topic I should tackle. And in this case, writing about lack of motivation was a perfect task for when I’m not motivated.
I try to change the conditions of my environment. Different-than-usual music, different diet drinks, different things on my desk–anything to alter the physiognomy of my work space. Even if I can’t spark motivation, I can alter the feel of the drudgery so it’s less wearying than the same thing over and over and over.
I work in bursts. Often I am better off writing for 20 minutes, no matter how bad or annoying or 5-degrees-off-true the words are, and then taking a short break. This works especially well if I am having trouble writing, but am still okay to develop existing words. By the next day, the work is existing text, and I can make improvements to the less-than-stellar work of the previous day.
That last one hurts. It means that, at the time I am doing the work, it feels like it’s not work worthy of me, or my employer, or the project.
But for a professional, sometimes what you have to focus on is that at the end of the day, it needs to get done. Every professional I have ever discussed this with agrees that sometimes, you just have to grit it out, so there adventure is finished, the book is published, the project can move forward…
The blog has content.
This is one reason editors and project managers and publishers talk about the value of a freelancer who hits their deadlines and stays in communication before they talk about awesome ideas and inspired writing. Obviously “great” is better than “adequate,” but adequate is better than greatness so late the company has gone bankrupt.
Without people who can do the job even when the muse is silent, inspiration doesn’t strike, and motivation is lacking, you can’t have a game industry. Once careers and house payments and full-time jobs and health insurance is involved, the product must get done, even if it’s not the most inspired entry in the field. And I don’t think we do anyone any favors to hide that fact. Sometimes this career is fulfilling and awesome.
Sometimes it’s what we have to do to fulfill our obligations.
Did you find this content useful?
Back my Patreon to support the creation of more of it!
I do not accept the logic that says I must keep my political, personal, and professional online presences separate.
This is not to say I think the people who do make those distinction, at whatever level of firewalling they choose, are making a bad or wrong choice. Indeed, I suspect for quality of life, it’s often a smarter decision. I have enough stress trying to navigate the often zealous opinions the online community has on game design and the business of games before I add my political and personal opinions to the mix. And that’s allowing for the pretty high level of insulation I enjoy from people’s ability to actually harm me online. I’m not bulletproof by any means, but I am in a more stable and secure place in my career than many people.
I’ve seen the replies some of my colleagues get from posting political and personal thoughts online. I don’t blame any of them if they conclude the risk, or the emotional toll, is too great.
And there are consequences to deciding to talk about politics, and mental health, and ethics in public using the same channels and methods I use to discuss game design and funny geeky memes. People who are fans of my game industry work often engage with me in a very different way than they engage with people who are primarily being political advocates or primarily doing slice of life posts. That difference can be a good thing, but it can also result in a feeling of betrayal or anger if someone finds my game-related thoughts strike them differently than my other thoughts, or if they dislike all my work and see it overlapping arenas where they feel I should not be heard.
Angry and hateful messages directed at my privately are the most common response I see. Sometimes someone speaks ill of me in public forums (often that I’m not in, though I attribute that more to how big the internet is, rather than any effort to avoid me when discussing me), which may begin a multiple-party conversation about me. Less often (but with increasing regularity recently), someone sends complaints about me to an employer or associate of mine and tries to get me censured, fired, or blackballed.
Despite all that, I am still firmly convinced that discussing all these topics, as I find I have thoughts worth sharing about them, is the right thing for me. First, no one is forced to find or read my online thoughts. I don’t use official game company venues for anything not game related (not even the tiny game company I run). Reading through my blogs, twitter, and Facebook posts, or watching my YouTube videos, is an entirely voluntary activity. If anyone doesn’t like what I have to say, or how I say it, or how I moderate the online spaces under my control, they are free to go elsewhere.
I also don’t feel that someone who spends money on products that I benefit from financially has bought anything beyond my work within that book. Even backers of my Patreon are paying to encourage my content and make suggestions, not to own any right to censor me. I do not owe any public group more of my time or headspace just because they buy the things that pay for my career.
Even if what they dislike is how my politics or personal experiences influence what or why or when I write, their right to have an opinion does not equal their right to try to dictate mine. As long as I own the impact of my writing, I feel entirely free to write what I feel is most important, or most fun, or most helpful, as I am moved to do so. As I rule, I welcome public feedback. When that feedback shows me a segment of the public is using my online space to do harm, or arguing in bad faith, or even just pissing me off, I also reserve the right to stop taking that feedback.
Not every opinion is equally valid or valuable. The right of people to speak in their own space, or even to do so free of government censorship, is not the same as a right to force me to listen. As I note, people are free to tune me out. And, online, I am free to mute them.
While I do not believe my writing has any major impact on the world, where it does have an impact I believe it has on the balance been more good than evil. Not the least of that good is that when I get something badly wrong, expressing my thoughts gives people a chance to offer how I am mistaken, and allows me to examine such claims. I have changed my mind about a lot of things over my life, from the crucial to the trivial, and expect to change my mind about many more before I go silent.
I hope some people gain comfort from my writing now and then. I hope some find inspiration. I hope some are amused. I hope some are edified.
I hope some snort, roll their eyes, and wonder why they still talk to me.
But on every topic where I have something I am ready to say, I plan to say it. And accept the (generally very minor) consequences of doing so.
It’s fairly common for people to tell me they think I have gone too far.
Certainly once or twice, I have.
That makes me wiser and gives me a broader experience base to draw from when deciding what I am ready to say in the future.
It does not convince me to stop saying all these things.
Speaking of my writing, if you DO find any of these helpful, entertaining, or in some way worth your time, please consider backing my Patron. Just a few bucks a month is the most direct (and one of the cheapest) ways to support my words and videos.
After I got to play a game last night, I ended up spending some great time talking to one of the players about career planning, the game industry, and burnout. (More time than I should have on a school night, but hey).
That left me with thoughts about burnout I wanted to share, so rather than sleep I typed them up and set them to post today. (Well, today if I set up this post-at-Xam thing correctly).
I’ve talked about burnout before, and given how large it looms in my life, I have to guess I’ll talk about it again. There’s a thin line between maximizing your writing/designing potential, and doing too much to be sustainable. Crunch time is a common threat in all levels of the game industry, and while bearing down and doing more than you’re happy with for occasional, short bursts is reasonable, sustained higher-than-healthy output is a different matter entirely.
Of course that’s easy to say, in the abstract, and harder to apply to your life in any way. I genuinely can’t tell you how to avoid burnout—that’s going to depend on your situation and temperament to a degree that makes any advice I’d give even less useful than normal. On the other hand, I do find that watching for signs of potential burnout—clues in my own behavior and thoughts that indicate I may be on an unsustainable path—useful tools. Seeing there’s a problem coming doesn’t solve that problem by itself, but it does arm me with the knowledge that I need to be looking for solutions.
So, this is a list of things I consider subtle signs of impending burnout. I need to note here that not only am I not a mental health professional, I don’t even consider myself a well-educated layman. These are entirely subjective, and based only on what I have experienced and witnessed. If you have a lot of these symptoms, and they don’t feel burnout-related, I recommend at most you engage in some introspection on whether you are in denial. But seriously, trust your gut over my generic list. Also keep in mind that I have a host of other mental health issues, from clinical depression to social anxiety to childhood trauma, that may cause me to view and react to my own conditions very differently than you (or anyone else).
But if with all that waffling on potential usefulness you still want to hear my thoughts, here are some things I have come to identify as subtle signs of growing burnout in myself.
- More reliance on caffeine.
If you find your coffee/tea/cola consumption is higher than normal, especially if it’s higher than you’re happy with, and it has been for some time, look at why. If you need the energy emotionally even more than you need it physically, that’s a strong indicator of impending burnout.
- Increased fatigue.
I’m dealing with various medically-induced fatigue at this point in my life, so this one is tricky for me. But that also means I’ve been charting my energy levels on a daily basis, and that’s lead me to conclude that when I am in early-stage burnout, I have even less energy than normal. It’s harder to get up, it’s harder to be energized, and it’s harder to feel enthusiasm for ativity, even activities I normally enjoy.
- Reduced enthusiasm.
Subtle signs can be subtly different. Increased fatigue is relevant when it’s time to actually do something, and I can’t find the energy. Reduced enthusiasm means I’m not even looking forward to things in advance. Now this can also be a sign of a depressive episode, so I have to be careful how I rate and respond to my own lack of enthusiasm, but I have certainly mistaken generic imbalances in my brain with those with external causal links before, and I now try to examine the why as much as the what, when I realize that issue is growing.
- Increased mental health symptoms.
Whether it’s more depressive episodes, more social anxiety, more nightmares, or more sudden rage, when I am beginning to burn out, all my other mental health issues get exacerbated when I am also beginning to go down burnout road.
- Decreased self-care.
Yeah, this is probably one of the causes of #4, but it’s worth looking for on its own as well.
- Setting aside recreational projects.
In my case, in addition to writing as a job, I often write for fun. That’s a very different process for me, and normally feeling like I have done all the “work” I care to in a day (or a week) doesn’t prevent me from having the urge to do recreational writing. Similarly, modeling, painting miniatures, doing holiday-based crafts or cooking, and playing games are all recreational activities that require some effort on my part, and if I find I don’t want to put in that effort over any sustained period, it’s a strong sign of burnout.
- Reduced creativity.
Being creative takes effort. If I have been pushing the part of my mind I depend on for good ideas, clever wording, interesting twists, or even just basic good writing, one of the first things I seem to run out of is general creativity. Normally, I am flooded with ideas—more than I can use for any one project—and many leap out of the dream-soup in my brain unbidden and without pre-planning. Since that ebbs and flows it can be hard to see early stages of reduced creativity, but when it becomes hard to come up with ANY ideas, that’s a nearly sure-sign of burnout.
A lot of things frustrate me, from personal failings to world events, but normally I can compartmentalize those to have a greatly reduced impact when I am writing. If my frustrations outside of a project begin to make it difficult to focus on that project, that’s a huge warning sign. If that frustration is turning into disproportional anger towards people or events, it may be time for immediate, drastic measures.
- Lack of focus.
If I can’t keep my attention on the things it’s most important I get done, that is a subtle but dangerous sign of burnout. Earlier in my career, I often found I could get more total writing done if I could hop between three or four different kinds of projects. Being tired of doing world descriptions didn’t necessarily mean I was tired of doing monster design, or GM advice, or creating spells. So if I feel an urge to move to a new project for a bit, I often just see that as taking a break while getting something different done. But if my muses are constantly talking me away from important, especially on-deadline, work it means they are likely suffering psychic burn damage.
So I need to watch for when I spend too much time writing outlines for projects not on the schedule, or character histories for characters I’m neither playing or publishing, or imaginary histories of worlds I have no plans for.
Or blog posts.
- Warnings from other people.
One of the interesting things about being very public about my thoughts, moods, hobbies, mental health issues, and faults, is that close friends and astute colleagues sometimes see shifts in my behavior before I do. The first time a friend told me it sounded like I was getting bummed over the direction of my work, more than a decade ago, I dismissed it. After all, how would she know what was going on in my head better than I did?
I forgot that many people in my circle of trust are much smarter than me. Ignoring warnings and burning out reminded me.
Now I DO often know things my friends and mentors don’t. If I have changed medications, or a someone close to me died, or I pulled a 100-hour week and finished something so I don’t have to do that again, a lot of things may come out that look like burnout but are just dealing with the fact life is often imperfect.
But I don’t ignore comments like that anymore. I consider them, contextualize them, and add them to the evidence of my condition that I take seriously.
Speaking of My Career
I have a Patreon. It’s how I justify taking the time to write a lot of this material on my blog. I’d love your support.
As soon as any part of your career involves having your name attached to the things that make you money, you need to begin to consider who you are, and who do you speak for.
It genuinely doesn’t matter if that’s as a creator, or facilitator, or because your job comes with a nametag. Once your name is linked to your career product in some way, that should be assumed to follow you wherever you go, especially online. Of course with privacy, surveillance, and social media where they are today it CAN follow you whether your name is directly linked to your work product or not, but it’s far easier if that first step—publicly linking your name to your job—is handed out for free.
I’m not saying that’s universally a bad thing. Having my name be displayed on products I have had a part in and companies I have worked for has been a tremendous boon to me in building a career. (I am my own brand.) But it also creates a level of exposure. My anonymity is reduced. If someone doesn’t like something I say, they can easily link who I am to who I work for, and decide to take action based on that knowledge.
I try to make it very clear what hat I am wearing whenever I communicate in anything but the most private venue, and even for a lot of private communication. If I am working a Paizo event, I am speaking as an employee of Paizo. If I am writing a blog for the Green Ronin website, I am clearly communicating as a Ronin. And if I speak on my own social media, be that Facebook, blog, or Twitter, I am speaking as an individual.
But I can’t pretend that individual isn’t also linked to Paizo, GR, Rite, and Rogue Genius Games. Even if I feel my private thoughts should be judged exclusively on their own merits, rather than through the lens of who pays me, it’s been pretty solidly proven that may not be the case.
Now let me note that I am pretty experienced with this, and in general I have received a great deal of trust and support from all my employers, be that those that give me a regular paycheck or the ones who hire me for freelance writing and consulting. But that’s not to say over my 20-year career I’ve never had to defend myself for things I said in public, or that I am immune to blowback if I am seen as unprofessional or a liability. Mostly, the people I work with have my back. But when I speak, I need to remember that those words aren’t separated from my career by some invisible barrier. Even on my own time, even in unofficial venues, there can be consequences.
That isn’t all nefarious, either. If I make statements that make some perspective or current employer decide I’m an asshole, it’s perfectly reasonable for them to not want to work with me. That persona, of who I am online or who I am in business, is a fair consideration for people to judge me by. Indeed, I often boldly state that there are statements I make that if those cost me work, then I didn’t want to work with those people anyway.
But, being human, I also sometimes frak up and say things I regret. It’s worth remembering that more and more, I can’t depend on those things to go away because I erase them. And, just because I haven’t yet suffered from being targeted unfairly by bad actors for things I have said doesn’t mean I could never have that happen.
Of course as a cis white hetero male with an established career, I have a fair amount of built-in slack about these issues. Many people have the same privileges. I can’t really advise anyone on the “right” way to decide to handle these realities. I just acknowledge them, and decide what that means for me.
Because who I speak for means more than one thing. Yes, sometimes I speak for employers, and coworkers, and friends, and colleagues, and what I say or do can reflect on them. But I also have a pulpit, however small, and who I am is also defined in part by who I speak in defense of. When I am willing to take a risk. How I support my claim to be an ally.
I sadly fall short of where I think I should be on those points, but I do not forget them. A shortage of spoons, a risk-averse nature, a dislike of interpersonal confrontation, and even a concern that I am not the right voice to be raised on a topic often keep me silent. More often than they should, in fact, though I accept there are times where I am my best self by listening and learning, rather than opining and asserting.
I don’t expect I’ll ever be satisfied I have the answers on any of these issues. But I know know I need to keep asking the questions.
Who am I? Who do I speak for?
If you wish to, you can support this blog, and therefore my voice, at my patreon.
I once heard one of the most talented people I know say, unironically and in all seriousness, “I don’t think I’m qualified to be on a panel abut impostor syndrome.”
Let that sink in for a minute.
Some of the smartest, most talented, hardest-working people I know often express to me (usually in private, so no one knows) how doubtful they are that they are really good at what they do. I’d say this is mind-boggling… except that I totally get it. My mental issues aren’t a secret, but they absolutely include being afraid that everyone who is impressed with me or my work has just been fooled, and at some point the “truth” is going to come out and I’ll never be able to sell game material or my writing ever again.
When I had just a few magazine articles to my credit, maybe that made sense. But now, after 20 years of this being my career? It just doesn’t jive with the facts in evidence. But even knowing that, I struggle with it on a regular basis.
That struggle has forced me to build coping mechanisms, many based on my pop-psych opinions on why impostor syndrome is an issue for me, and maybe why it is for other folks as well. In case any of that is useful to someone else (and, you know, why would it be given that I clearly have no idea what I am talking about), this article outlines some of those mechanisms.
Fake It Even After You Make It
A little humility can help you be likable and relatable. Too much humility gets you less work, less money, and less respect.
So, even when you have your own doubts, you may need to move forward on the premise that you actually can do the work, well, and are worth being paid for it. And paid well.
Sadly, no one else is likely to come along and be a great advocate for you. If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else is going to do it for you. So when someone asks you your rate, or your qualifications, or your value, you tell them what you think an actual expert with all your achievements and credits would say, rather than equivocate and undercut yourself.
In my case, I often lean on the idea that I owe it to *other* people to have a good career, and to be compensated for the work I do. I can think about the impact of my being underpaid on my family, friends, and even society as a whole more easily than I can think in terms of what I am worth.
Luckily as a roleplayer, I can often think about how someone is confident in their value might act, even when I completely lack that confidence.
Trust the Mentors in Your Life
As I mentioned, I know a lot of amazingly smart, fantastically talented people. Some of them are mentors to me, varying from those who are better and more experienced in everything I do to those who are willing to give me guidance in one specific area where I’m lacking. While those people are often underwhelmed with their own accomplishments, they generally reinforce the public perception of my skills.
Even when I tell them all the reasons that perception is an illusion.
So, if I know these people are smart and wise and great, and they are telling me I’m not an impostor… there’s a logical conclusion there. Now, often my brain tells me the conclusion is “I have them all fooled, and when they figure it out they’ll never talk to me again.” But, since these really ARE people smarter than me, that just doesn’t make sense.
No, if I value their opinions, and I do, that has to include their opinions of me. Intellectually at least, even if I still reject the idea emotionally.
Good mentors can also be a great resource when trying to decide if you are terrified to take on something slightly different because you are your own worst critic, or if it’s a legitimate concern about something that needs skills and/or experience you lack.
Be A Mentor to Others
Obviously mentoring others is a good act for the industry as a whole, and if you have mentors, it’s only fair to pay it forward by providing the same service for other.
And that’s the best reason to become a mentor. But it’s not why this is a good coping mechanism for impostor syndrome.
Nothing proves to your subconscious that you actually have value like helping others find their own value. You may well end up convinced the people you are mentoring are smarter, more talented, and better-liked than you are (that often happens to me), but being part of that process is still helpful to fighting off feelings you are somehow getting by with less skill than people think you have.
Analyze Failure Fairly
This one is particularly tough, and I’m bad at it. But it’s also crucial, so I feel I have to mention it, at least as something to work on.
When you fail, and everyone fails sometimes, you have to analyze that failure in a fair, even, and balanced manner. Otherwise, it just becomes one more reason to not trust or believe in yourself.
For me personally, that means waiting a bit from point of failure to analysis, because until I get some space from the frustration, anger, and embarrassment of failing, I can’t possibly do a balanced analysis. This doesn’t have to mean letting yourself off the hook if you made bad decisions, but it does mean giving yourself some benefit of the doubt on how circumstances played into things going wrong. Since I am bad at giving myself the benefit of the doubt, I try to focus on identifying what I want to do differently in the future to prevent a similar failure, and what signs I should look out for to try to identify potential failures before they happen. By framing my mental efforts in ways that seem useful in the future, I am more likely to be fair to myself.
That DOES mean that when I am done analyzing a failure if the answer I come up with is “I was stupid, this was entirely my fault,” it stings. But that pain can also help me prevent being stupid in the same way ever again, and that knowledge—that I have learned from the experience—can help fight feelings of total incompetence.
Don’t Compare Your Secret Apples to Other People’s Public Oranges
I am personally convinced one major cause of impostor syndrome is the tendency to take all the things you know about yourself—your struggles, your doubts, your dissatisfaction with what you produce—and compare it to only the public, successful face of other people. After all, if you know you could have done better on a project, and no one else ever talks about how they could have done better on any of their efforts, that means you’re worse than them, right?
But it doesn’t.
Especially as social media has become ubiquitous and especially in creative endeavors where having a reputation as a smart, well-liked, talented, successful creator can mean better opportunity and more pay, most people you are comparing yourself to have no incentive to air their doubts, problems, or failings. So if you take the sum whole of all the problems you know you have, and compare that only to the public face of other people, you’re not making a fair comparison.
Everyone has problems now and then. Most people have doubts, and the ones who don’t are honestly often assholes and/or people suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect. But since such things are often taken as weakness, not a lot of people discuss their problems in depth. And even those who do often frame their doubts and struggles in a positive way, or hold back the truly painful or embarrassing things they’d rather not be well-known.
That means that when you look around at your peers, you are certain to see their achievements much more clearly than their letdowns. If you try to compare that to everything you know about yourself, including all the things that aren’t obvious from the outside, you’re grading on a negative curve. Of course all of your reality doesn’t compare to the curated public appearance of other people. Especially since you are most likely to [ick people with the highest visibility to compare yourself to, and those are the people who do the best job making themselves look good.
This is another place where having a mentor, or even just a trusted peer, can be extremely helpful in maintaining perspective.
Celebrate Every Achievement
Ultimately, I think impostor syndrome is more about fear and gut feelings than rationality and logic, and as a result all the well-reasoned efforts to talk yourself out of it in the world can only go so far. For the emotional component, you also have to make sure you celebrate your own achievements.
Every publication. Every interview. Every review—even bad reviews mean you impacted someone enough for them to take time to write about it. Abso-damn-lutely every award or honor, even the ones you think are dumb or should have gone to someone more deserving. You celebrate all of it.
I recommend celebrating it publicly, because private celebrations often seem less impactful, but you do you. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but you DESERVE to be proud of everything you make. The very voice telling you right now that no one wants to hear about your new book, or the blog post you wrote, or your review of an obscure fantasy movie from 1973, is the same one that tells you that you aren’t a “real” creative, and that you don’t measure up to other people.
The fight to take the credit you have earned IS the fight against impostor syndrome.
Don’t Sell Yourself Short
Yes, or course, that’s the entire point of rejecting impostor syndrome. But here I literally mean don’t assume you aren’t monetarily worth the best rate you can get. I have seen people actually undercut the price agreed upon for a project before anyone else mentions money.
Don’t do that.
On very, very rare occasions offering to do a job for less might be appropriate. If it doesn’t meet some aspect of a contract and it’s entirely your fault is the main one… and even then it’s rarely something you should bring up without the other party at least suggesting things need to be adjusted.
Instead, as for raises. See if your per-word rate can be increased. Suggest you deserve perks, like more free copies, bigger credit, more advertising for the project, or opportunities to cherry-pick assignments.
I can’t tell you if you need to fight impostor syndrome. There are people who are legitimately trying to punch above their weight, and for those people this advice could do more harm than good.
But if a lot of your fans, or a few of your peers, or even one of your mentors keeps telling you that you’re more awesome than you can possibly accept?
Then you probably are.
If you found this useful or entertaining, and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, check out my Patreon!