Earworm game

Roll For Anxiety

Ever since I can remember, gaming has been a part of my life. When my family moved and we were the only house for miles, I had gaming on my Super Nintendo. On long car rides to Maryland, I had (portable) gaming with my Gameboy. When I went off to college and didn’t know how to make friends, I kept my door open and invited people walking by to come in to play Last Night On Earth. During all those times, I remember being anxious. Ever since high school, anxiety has been a part of my life as well.

Everyone deals with anxiety in different ways. I like to imagine myself as a thief in D&D. I have certain skills and abilities that come in handy for different situations. It’s like I open up my cloak and the lining is filled with different potions and weapons that are used to specifically combat anxiety. Where a rogue might throw down a smoke bomb, I might put on a playlist of music that works to calm me down. This difference is important: While throwing a smoke bomb on the ground is cool, slamming your iPhone to the pavement is not.

But like an RPG character, it’s important to keep updating your skills and equipment as you grow and your circumstances evolve. When I decided to enter the world of game design, I had a panic attack.

I’d been on the outside looking in on games for so long that I never imagined I could contribute something to the medium. My anxiety was telling me to stop before I even started, and my old tricks didn't hold up under the new weight.

When I stumbled upon the concept for Earworm, I knew immediately that I was going to be fighting an uphill battle making it. Between my mounting anxiety and lack of experience, I knew it’d be a struggle, but a few key takeaways helped me overcome my panic attacks and create something I’m proud of.

1. Playtesting is your friend, and a shield against Imposter Syndrome.

Whenever I succeed with a creative art, I can’t help but think it’s a fluke and that I’m a fraud. Somehow I must have deceived my audience into believing something I created is better than it really is. This is peak Imposter Syndrome, and in the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to sense it as it reared its head in other parts of my life.

I was not ready for how it would affect me when it came to playtesting. Every time someone played the game and liked it, my mind would rage over how awful I was for tricking them. “How could they like something I made? I’m new at this! I have no worth or place here! Surely this person must be trying to save my feelings. Everyone must be doing that.”

Overcoming these thoughts in fields I’d worked in for over a decade was hard enough, but doing it in a field I had just begun to try out was awful. Then I learned some helpful advice from other creators, and that advice helped silence the stress enough for me to think clearly.

Playtesting your game concept is invaluable in many ways. Your playtesters will supply you with positive AND negative feedback. I found that asking for both positive and negative feedback is a good tactic to keep yourself balanced. In my experience it helped to quell he Imposter Syndrome thoughts enough to keep them from taking over. It was rare that any playtest we conducted would yield all positive feedback. When we got negative feedback, we viewed it as an opportunity to become better.

When you ask for and receive the good and the bad, you can see both sides of a situation. Knowing that I was getting considered, balanced feedback was useful against the whispers of Imposter Syndrome. For me, it helped me focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the game and ultimately helped me focus on the core more than I had in the past.

2. Make a timeline, but make it malleable.

I’m the kind of person that lives and dies by a Google calendar. Seeing a schedule gives me peace. Making "tentative" plans sends me into a tailspin. I need a plan! The one thing my D&D Thief doesn’t have is a Google calendar, but he does have a written notebook that he scribbles everything down in! But just imagine a thief keeping a tidy calendar. It’s hilarious – and wonderful?

Early on in the game-creation process, I realized it didn’t make sense to abide by concrete deadlines. That just about made me puke.

To give you an idea of what I mean, let me explain something: I already have my days off for GenCon 2019-2022. I have my other creative projects mapped out through the end of next year. I schedule myself time to relax in my calendar because it comforts me to see it there. Having a schedule with exact times, dates, and events puts me at peace. Knowing my schedule gives me the structure I need to get things done.

Early on in this project – when I realized I couldn’t set stringent deadlines for every ruleset, every piece of art, and every playtest – I panicked. One of the things that makes me most anxious is the idea that time is being wasted. One thing I’ve learned about game design is that your timeline needs to be built with RANGES, not deadlines. It’s very similar to writing: Sometimes an idea will come to you when you least expect it, but you can’t expect to sit down and pen a novel just because you told yourself you would on a specific Saturday you divined weeks ago.

Upgrading my scheduling skills wasn’t a straightforward, painless process – remember that this is not just about time management, but also about managing my anxiety – but scheduling at this new level allows me to better engage these higher-level encounters.

3. You are not a burden by asking for help.

This was a lesson I learned that benefited the campaign, but it also benefited me personally.

My anxiety keeps me away from asking for help. I don’t want to feel like dead weight and I *hate* the idea of requesting help from others because I don’t want to sap energy away from them.

During this campaign I realized I can’t do it all. I can’t be responsible for the multiple things a single game needs, like (but not limited to): playtesting multiple rulesets, surveying for new art, securing marketing partners and opportunities, A/B testing with new visuals, planning box art, requesting booth space at conventions, figuring out exclusive content for retail partners, etc.

It’s a lot. It can add up quick.

Early on in the process of developing Earworm, I felt like I needed to spin every single plate possible for the game in order to be successful. Once I took a step back and demanded less of myself, everything came together much more quickly and efficiently.

What I learned from working on Earworm is that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of intelligence. It’s a sign that you know what your limits are and how much you can throw at something. Nobody is an entire RPG party. You need a meat-shield, damage dealer, healer, etc. No one character can cover all the bases perfectly, and neither can you. Like a good team leader, learning to delegate jobs and take the stress off yourself will do wonders for your anxiety.

These lessons helped me to get over that hurdle and strive to make something I am proud of, and in that vein I succeeded. There’s plenty more to learn, and I’m excited to do so.

Earworm is on Kickstarter now, and you can see it by heading to www.EarwormGame.com, and I suggest that you do!


Great post. Imposter syndrome sucks. It's extremely prevalent in Medicine. I once asked a senior professor physician when the sense of being a fraud goes away. She looked me right in the eye and said "Never. It never goes away." And this was an extremely accomplished physician who was a role model for a ton of folks. My own way of dealing with a constant sense of Imposter Syndrome is to always be studying something new, so that I can always feel the affirmation that I'm growing as a clinician. I also try to use mindfulness techniques, especially deliberate humility, to remind myself that minor errors or gaps in my knowledge are opportunities for growth, not evidence that my medical school made a tragic error all those years ago when they admitted me.

Asking for help is also critical, and one of the hardest things I see with my anxiety and depression patients. I see a lot of (often deliberate) isolating behaviours, which then become the fulcrum of an anxiety/depression spiral.

Good luck with your game!

Anxiety can be crippling, so mad props for creating in spite of it.

Best of luck on the KS!

Coldstream wrote:

deliberate humility

Is this a term of art? I'd like to know more!

Great article - and fwiw I’m suffering badly from imposter syndrome right now as I try to get my fiction side hustle off the ground. I will definitely take a look at the Kickstarter!