The Impostor Syndrome in Video Games

This is my sixth monthly Patch Wednesday post where I discuss a question about video games that I think is unanswered, unexplored, or not posed yet. I will propose my own tentative ideas and invite comments. 

The series is called Patch Wednesday to mark the sometimes ragtag and improvised character of video game studies.

You pick up a video game, and everything about it is just right, the fiction, the subtle variations on existing game designs, the controls. The game is a perfect match to what you think of as your very own and somewhat sophisticated taste. But something refuses to click. You are not feeling it.

This happens to me at regular intervals. For example, I think I value tight, replayable, logical, small playfield and spatial games, but I do not enjoy Threes at all. Something must be wrong with the game.

In 2010, Jason Mittell wrote a thoughtful essay on disliking Mad Men. He describes how everything seems to be stacked in favor of the show being able to win over Jason:

Mad Men is lodged squarely within my habitus: along with other cable series from channels like HBO, Showtime and FX, it’s part of the wave of “quality television” serial dramas that has raised the medium’s cultural value in the 2000s (as Lynne Joyrich discusses in this volume), and served as the object of much of my own scholarly research and personal fandom over the decade (see Mittell 2006). The show is steeped in cultural references that resonate with my own background as a media scholar, flattering my otherwise esoteric knowledge of U.S. advertising and media history. Nearly every television scholar and critic with whom I interact loves the show.

He then analyzes particular traits of the show that he finds off-putting such as the unpleasantly sexist male characters, low emphasis on empathy.

Elsewhere, Oliver Sacks and Vilayanur S. Ramachandran talk about the Capgras Delusion, where a patient is convinced that all their relatives and loved ones, even dogs, have been replaced by impostors who, the patient admits, look and act like the relative, but at the same time certainly is not that person.

Capgras syndrome is often related to brain injury, and a common interpretation is that while the patient was able to recognize faces as usual, they were unable to experience the emotional arousal that we usually experience in relation to familiar faces. Hence the experience that a person is an impostor – he or she looks like the real relative, but does not feel like the relative. The patient is not feeling it, and the relative appears alien for that very reason.

The impostor syndrome in video games

Video games: and this provides a different description of the impostor syndrome in video games (and television). We often approach a video game or some other work that ticks off all the boxes on our personal lists. We may even be invested in the aesthetic criteria on our personal list. And yet, we do not feel what we think we should be feeling. We rationally recognize the game, but our emotions fail to follow suit.

We may then send ourselves hunting for explanations, showing that the game we are playing will in some way fail to satisfy our criteria for what a good game is. This is not to discount Mittell’s discussion of Mad Men, but to point out that we often want our articulated tastes to be able to capture what we subjectively and emotionally enjoy. Whenever we feel that a particular work is an impostor, this is an incentive to find flaws in the work (the flaws may actually be there but the impetus comes from a mismatch between articulated taste and emotional response).

There are then two impostor syndromes here:

  1. When we think of a game (or other work) as an impostor that only on the surface pretends to be a genuinely important work.
  2. That we may feel like impostors ourselves. In this case, we are closer to the common meaning of “impostor syndrome” in that we may think that we are only pretending to understand what makes a game, TV show, or art work truly valuable. Yet we failed to have the genuine emotional response what we are supposed to have as true connoisseurs. We may feel that we are frauds, hoping not to be found out.

For Threes, I have been arguing for myself that I dislike Threes because I dislike the introduction of new tiles in the playfield, but is that really it? It is likely that we can never fully account for even our own tastes. We will continue to experience impostors.

7 thoughts on “The Impostor Syndrome in Video Games”

  1. i see what you’re trying to say about games, but i don’t understand how your point connects to the Imposter Syndrome? Imposter Syndrome is when you can’t own your successes, and you’re worried that at any moment someone will reveal you to be a fraud who didn’t come by those successes honestly.

    What you’re talking about here is disliking certain bits of popular culture. Not the same thing at all.

  2. @Ryan Ah, I mean impostor in a double sense here. Both a) that a game (or other work) is perceived as an impostor, and b) that it is possible to feel like an impostor in the situation I discuss. The latter can certainly include a fear of being found out as well. I have clarified this in the post.

  3. I’ve been thinking about imposter syndrome in game criticism, and I think there is a subcategory of your second type – where you haven’t played a game, and perhaps may not be able to, and then wonder “does that make me uneducated?”. For me, that’s Earthbound. I’ve never played it. If I ever do, it’ll be in an emulator, not on a console. It’s clearly so so important to so many critics and developers – but it’ll never really be important to me.

    This might go double for games, compared to films and books and music, because of the ongoing un-availability of game platforms, so new ones get released. In books, the book hasn’t changed. In music, recordings and writings persist. In film, some technology is lost (the ‘Tingler’, that electrocuted the audience to enhance fear), but not the technology of watching the really influential ones, because you can still get stuff like Gone With the Wind, Battleship Potemkin, 2001, Citizen Kane, Godzilla, whatever, on DVD, BluRay, iTunes, etc etc etc.. I could get a SNES, and probably an Earthbound cartridge, and even a TV to use them on, but it would require a level of work above and beyond that of film/books/music.

  4. @Joseph Yes, there are many games, and I agree there is a fear of not having played the right ones, and thereby being an incomplete critic.

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