For many people, there's nothing more terrifying than the prospect of public speaking. No matter how much you labor over the topic, or how long you spend honing your speech in a mirror, in the shower, or in front of loved ones, nothing prepares you for that moment of ascension to the stage. You hold tight to your carefully curated notes but their paper edges curl in your sweaty hands. Their contents suddenly feel contrived, weak, and embarrassing. You stare into the maw of an unfathomable number of attentive eyes and think: my God, I am going to mess this up.
Aside from a short stint in elementary school as an aspiring thespian, I spent my formative years staring up at the stage from the darkness of the theater, chastising myself for having never achieved my short-lived dream of performing, while also feeling grateful I wasn't. I was too newly embittered with the cloying self-doubt of my teenage years, wholly uninterested in doing anything that might garner attention. The shadows were where I figured I might as well live the rest of my life at that point. Why risk taking the stage when I'm in danger of being perceived as lacking? As having failed? Or, god forbid, of having been at all wrong?
For a long time, I would log in to Final Fantasy XIV, pop into Duty Finder--a roulette that rewards you for the daily completion of dungeons, raids, and trials with other players--and a strange but familiar fog of dread would start to enshroud me. Oh no, I'd think. I'll have to actually play this game with other people.
One might argue that the entire point of MMORPGs is to engage with other people, but Final Fantasy XIV prides itself on straddling that line between being a single-player experience and a social one. I have always gravitated towards the former. I used to self-diagnose it as being a symptom of imposter syndrome, that feeling of vast inferiority when we measure ourselves against others. That internal little voice that says "you are nowhere near as good as everyone else."
Online spaces are supposed to be where we can detach ourselves from our day-to-day lives, dropping the veneer of our public mask and donning another that might align more with who we wish to be--stronger, tougher, smarter, braver, kinder. In these spaces, we make our real or imagined selves manifest.
The anonymity and role-play potential in these spaces mean no one needs to be aware of who you are in life, where you come from, and what it is that you do. An office worker? A delivery person? The CEO of a bank? A chef? All of these people might find themselves in a party together, re-imagined in this online space as a cat-girl, an elf, a jaded ex-mercenary, a man in a chicken suit--anything. Each potentially with a distinct character backstory, expressing themselves how they see fit. No one knows who you are when you hear that tell-tale click of "Duty Commenced" and pour through the gates with your team in pursuit of the same goal.
This should be a freeing concept, given the very nature of anonymity, but each time I used to have to face down a boss and showcase my skills as a player I would be trembling with fear. I was so certain that each of these players would fix a spotlight on my character, which was a representation of me, judging my lack of mastery over my skill rotation each time I made a mistake or died to a very avoidable attack.
In games like Final Fantasy XIV, combat offers three roles: tank, healer, and DPS. Each time I played through new content in the game I did it as a DPS, or damage dealer, the safest space to occupy as they're the most numerous in a party. This made it easier to hide any imperfections. To shrug when confronted with new and odd attacks. To be thankful that I didn't have to lead the team as a tank, or be its backbone as a healer. I didn't have to shoulder much responsibility; I just had to hit things.
But healing was ultimately where I wanted to be. And I couldn't bring myself to heal for nearly four years because I was terrified of failing not only myself but my other likely far more talented teammates.
In Endwalker, the game's newest expansion, all of this changed. I decided, with no small amount of hemming and hawing, that I would go in and complete the expansion as a healer. No more hiding, no more fearing my unimpressive track record, no more doubting myself.
In preparation for the release, I leveled through early dungeons as a White Mage with AI teammates to ensure I could make mistakes without player discourse, and built confidence by clearing harder content with friends. Eventually, I joined public parties in the dreaded Duty Finder, shaking the entire time, but found out slowly that fearing making a mistake was far worse than actually making one.
When I began my journey as a healer in Endwalker I was so absorbed by the story that any ounce of trepidation began to dissipate. I didn't feel like I needed to preemptively apologize for my healing as I blasted through dungeons and trials with reckless abandon. I played the expansion at launch and felt like I was at the head of the pack when it came to its completion, but it wasn't until I had gotten to the final trial of the expansion that I realized what an enormous amount of fun I was having. How exciting and amazing it was to go in blind to these occasions, sharing in the highs and lows of the story with so many other people, wiping on attempts and yet trying again with an eagerness that was very nearly manic.
We encouraged each other, filled the chat with shouts of surprise and joy, and for once I finally understood the appeal of being dependable, playing well, and having confidence that I could do this.
I was no longer cowering under the belief that I wasn't good enough. I was straight-backed and cheering, often on my feet for the duration of whole fights as I button-mashed as if my life depended on it (which, technically, is true). Finishing Endwalker as a White Mage allowed me to see past what it meant to be good at gaming and understand that improvement in anything is not without its trials and errors. I was good regardless, and what mattered more was that I was having fun with it too.
Newly minted as a finisher of the expansion, I realized that my in-game confidence was translating to a solid foundation in my real life. I had beat the game as a healer, at a high level, and that was something I never imagined I'd ever do. There were many things in my personal life too that were risks and challenges and things I should be proud of having done, and they all clicked together as a means to rediscover my potential.
Nowadays I mainly heal, which is a long way from being terrified of even touching the role, and I do it with earned confidence. There is still the occasional prick of performance fear when I pop into the Duty Finder, as there have been the expected bad runs and rude players. I have certainly made my fair share of mistakes, but these experiences are drowned out by the amount of lovely, kind, and supportive people I've met, and the numerous quick-thinking decisions I've made that have saved our runs from being wipes.
The self-same acceptance of failure in which I live my personal life is now present in-game as well, bringing my confidence full circle and allowing me to let go of the perfectionist belief that I would never be good enough at the things I wanted to do. It helped me both online and off to have a little more faith in myself and to have the courage to try for things that I want but find terrifying or uncomfortable. Because really, technically, I've already saved the world.
What's stopping me from saving it again?
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