Managing To Be A Gamer

I sit at my desk in my ordinary office, surrounded by pictures of my wife and children. A clock, ticking away the first few minutes of the morning, hangs above my dual monitors. The lights hum to life above my office-standard Cisco phone. Emails begin to charge into my inbox: a random assortment of morning urgencies from those bizarre populations who choose to rise from their beds while the sun is still down. Hurriedly scrawled messages from the ghosts of meetings past haunt my whiteboard. Deliberate notes about communication initiatives and production durations beg for my attention.

Beyond my open door is Cubeland: long avenues of people working between shoulder-high partitions. Keyboards clack between snippets of conversations, some eager and others entirely casual, otherwise punctuated only by the busy footsteps of people walking past to and from meetings. At the far end, a window runs the length of the building, looking out only to the alley between us and the larger building of our parent company. Sunlight struggles into the gap.

Here, I am middle-manager-Sean, overseeing several teams with a dozen-plus members per group. I will coach, which is a nice way of saying boss-around, the people who directly report to me. I will woefully bastardize completely innocent words like ‘silo’ and ‘vertical’ to my own nefarious, nonsensical uses. I will have important sounding phone calls. And all the while, invisible and secret, I will think about the next level of Dishonored or XCOM that I am eagerly waiting to play when I am home and can be Gamer-Sean again.

But he is unwelcome here — this room, this place, this office. Gamer-Sean is not welcome, and, were he to suddenly appear, I fear he would quickly wither and die.

That sounds incredibly dour, I realize, and in truth I really like my job, my office and my co-workers. I take an unreasonable pride in having my meager office, a room that seats four comfortably, that has a door I can close and plenty of room for me to spread out my things. For years I lived in Cubeland as the Cubelandians do, a pleasant enough denizen of what feels much more like a communal space, but from my very first day I coveted the far fewer and more precious offices. It was four years and three steps through the ranks to earn myself one, and I cherish it unreasonably while already turning my ambitious eye to the next rank and the designated parking space it promises.

But I’m still a very different person when I’m here. It’s a second set of clothes, an internal identity that I can switch in and out of on a dime, but one that feels no less real or authentic to me. Manager-Me is real in every sense of the word. Not a mask, but a compartmentalized identity pulled from the handful of identities that only in aggregate make up me.

What strikes me, though, is how challenging it is to be the other parts of myself in this room, in this space, in this context. And when one of the frontline workers that reports two levels below me is sitting in my office for a conversation, and he brings up his interest in video games when I ask him about his hobbies, there is a small panic that flicks briefly in my mind. He starts talking about E3, and upcoming games he saw, and I must make the choice to engage him or play the part he’s already cast me in, which is that of the boss who is placating and politely listening to a thing that he has no interest in.

I see the way this person, who reports to me indirectly across a tiny chasm of other supervisors, sees me. I am a person to whom he has to be nice, but around whom he also has to be delicate. It bothers me, because I am figuratively begging to hear what people really think. I used to be one of them, and I know the difference between what you think and what you say to the manager can sometimes be as wide and dangerous as a toxic gulf. Some of the people who sit in my office do bring an unfiltered truth, which I hold dear and close, because that truth might allow me to actually figure out where the disconnects are between what I want and what really happens.

But most frontline employees go into meetings with me just wanting to navigate safely to the other side, and I can hardly blame them. I have enough direct peers who want only the filtered responses and mirrors of their own egos hung across from them in meetings. But unless I take a risk, why should my employees?

Now he is talking about a game he’s interested in that he saw during some E3 coverage, but he’s close to wrapping up and moving away from a topic he’s probably afraid makes him look childish.

“Oh, you’re talking about Beyond: Two Souls, the one with Ellen Page,” I say. He looks somewhat astonished. “Yeah, Quantic Dreams is making that. I’m hoping they pull it off, wasn’t a huge fan of Heavy Rain, but they made a great game a few years before called Fahrenheit. It was for the PC only, I think. You ever play that one?”

“No,” he says flatly, almost like he’s scoping out for the trap or the thing that will make this conversation fit the shape it had originally taken in his head.

“Yeah, Beyond could be good. I’ll definitely play it, but I thought The Last of Us blew everything else away at E3,” Gamer-Me says eagerly while Manager-Me sits back, wary of this gambit being played.

It pays off almost instantly.

His eyes brighten, almost astonished, as he nods an eager agreement. Just like that, we are having the first real conversation he and I have ever had. A genuine and enthusiastic discussion all about E3 and games of the fall and what genres we like and don’t. It takes up twenty minutes of our half-hour meeting, and we only talk briefly toward the end about some of the other things that are important to the business and the team. But there will be time for those conversations later, and I have a confidence I didn’t have before that when we do have those discussions, they will be much more honest and real.

I can’t help but wonder why I see leaders who almost seem afraid to connect back with the people who work for them, who are every bit as hesitant and wary as the people who come in their office just hoping to get back the other side unscathed. I believe when people trust who they work for, believe in the people they report to, they will do better. Work harder. Stay longer.

As our conversation ends, and I’m left alone again with my pictures, ticking clock and whiteboard, I realize — not for the first time — that these different versions of me that I seem to segment out artificially are really a part of a shared same, and that perhaps I am strongest when I put them together instead of keep them apart.

Comments

Oh man, do I ever know that feeling. Great piece.

I believe when people trust who they work for, believe in the people they report to, they will do better. Work harder. Stay longer.

This sentence cannot be more true. Thanks for writing from the perspective of the "other side" of the desk.

I agree with you Sean. I went through a meeting that was booked to be held in the Third Circle of Hell yesterday, and my boss had my back for it. It paid off for the company in the form of a signed contract, and it gave us both a big leg up on the next challenge. Then we had coffee and talked about his screenwriting and stuff.

I'm not sure it's feasible to be a friend as well as boss all the time, but when it is, it can make up for a lot of workplace anguish.

I am currently in cubeland but while I was in college, and subsequently in retail land, I very much would work harder for the people who engaged me as a person. I would stick around late for those that let me know what they really thought and didn't just spew the corporate line.

I likewise when put on charge of training people tried to connect with them and let them know i would do the crap work right next to them instead of goofing off.

Unfortunately I dont work directly with any gamers in my current business. Entry level in my area of cubeland is slim in these economic times, all the gamers are in testing, and I don't get to see them much anymore.

I often think that this is why so many people discuss sports.

At least, that's my theory. Sports bore me to tears.

Great article Sean. I've been in the work force for 4 years now (I can't believe it's been that long) and in the various companies I've worked for I've found that the "real" people are better than the "work" people I have surface conversations with. When I connect with co-workers or work contacts about gaming it changes the entire dynamic of our "work relationship".

Sean,
I understand what you mean. I am a regional director for a local franchisor, and sell franchises, then making sure my staff of 9 is taking care in supporting them (Managing Sales, Operations, and Administrators) . However, I never made it hidden on what I enjoy. The first thing people notice is the gigantic framed Halo 3 Poster on my wall. I say it's my motivating poster where my team is red, and the opposing businesses in our industry are blue! we blow them up with Spartan Lasers and Warthog gunfire!

Bottom line is this, Our office's production numbers are strong. We have positive Net Growth every year (I've been doing this for 7.5 years,) and I gladly flaunt my love of video games all over my office. I have no shame in telling my staff that I'm taking a Tuesday or Wednesday off because of a particular pre-order that is to be released that day or prior day. My team and my franchisees appreciate in how I support them, and recognize them for their talents.

I'm a big believer that when it comes to a job, it should work for the individual (they like their job.) Not one where the individual feels that they work for a job (the dislike their job.)

Love it, and agree. I also sit on the managerial side of the desk, and strive to remain approachable to both my directs and indirects in the way some have already mentioned.

We ask a lot of our staff (Operations) so having non-work topics come up in conversation goes a long way towards keeping us all engaged. Being approachable (for me) is akin to being human... Once I become that pointy haired boss and don't get the full truth, all is lost.

IMAGE(http://www.guyswithtowels.com/images/articles/lumberg.jpg)

Hmm. Interesting.

This piece really hit home for me. I manage a department of about 20 people and I find life is becoming easier if I try to put a bit more distance between us. Not that I want to be cold or uncaring, but I have had to make enough hard decisions in my first few years as the boss that I feel it is only fair to them that I maintain a certain decorum, lest things get cloudy.

That said, it often sucks - hard - when you want to just be yourself and your position urges you not to.

Really enjoyed this piece...

A great piece, Sean. I think the current age-group of "mid career" workers is dotted with those of us who do play video games, but that this number will significantly increase as the next generation filters through. I'd anticipate that this type of conversation would be common in the workplace in 5-10 years' time.

I believe when people trust who they work for, believe in the people they report to, they will do better. Work harder. Stay longer.

Epic truth. I had a boss who was one of the most trustworthy and decent people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I would move heaven and earth for that woman. I still would. And I consider her to be one of the greatest role models I've ever had for leadership, integrity, and basic humanity. I miss working for her.

Timespike wrote:
I believe when people trust who they work for, believe in the people they report to, they will do better. Work harder. Stay longer.

Epic truth. I had a boss who was one of the most trustworthy and decent people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I would move heaven and earth for that woman. I still would. And I consider her to be one of the greatest role models I've ever had for leadership, integrity, and basic humanity. I miss working for her.

Hrm. She must be my boss at my new job. Been working there seven months and it's the best job I've ever had, not the least because my boss is completely awesome. She blends the many personalities that Ely talks about in this article very well, and in being a little vulnerable with her employees, shows us that she's genuine with us.

We bust our asses for her every day.

As a new manager, I can totally relate to this. It is weird having to deal with the manager/subordinate wall, but having gaming in common is a nice way to see through the barriers.

I have a similar issue with any aspect of my personal live, not just games.

Yeah, I also think this can generalize beyond gaming: being a real person while remaining professional is tough but ultimately rewarding, both personally and as far as productivity. I've felt that from both sides of the desk. And I really like how you wrote about it!

Great article Sean!, hope to find a good job soon in any part of the desk, after losing mine 6 weeks ago, but I know it was for the better.

Another great article, Sean. As a manager of 4, I know exactly how you feel.

I find it an interesting challenge to try to find out what my co-workers and other people I meet are really interested in. I like many aspects of my work and real life obligations, but my passions lie elsewhere. I assume this is true for most people. But most (including me) are wary of showing any side of themselves that could cast them in a socially or professionally disadvantageous light.

I am beginning to wonder whether many people really do have a hidden "geeky" side, though. I very rarely admit to being a gamer, but I do try to engage co-workers on somewhat geeky topics, even if it is simply to talk about a science fiction movie or an article I read about this year's Nobel prizes. These attempts fail quite frequently. It is not so much that others are unfamiliar with these things, it is just that they are not passionate enough about them to form an opinion or make conversation about them.

Of course, it is entirely possible that my co-workers are actually as boring as they appear to be...

Great article Sean. I work in the tech field, so naturally, a lot of my managers and co-workers have gamed at some point. Some game a lot. Some ran and took part in large raiding guilds, and were as heavily invested in games as I am.

In the office, you hear whispers in the wind of a tough raid boss, or a hot new game. Quiet meetings by the water cooler, talking about specs, builds, and other strategies. If a non-gamer happens to walk in - the topics quickly shift to other specs, builds and strategies, although they involve work and not gaming.

Yet, you have to maintain that managerial image - games are still seen as childish, so I can see a conflict in "letting your guard down" to everyone, when you are in a position of authority. However, when you can't resist anymore, and you start trembling with excitement when you hear a co-worker talking about the next big thing, I think it's OK to slip up every now and then. Just remember, pace yourself!

You will forever have a sly smile and a nod from your co-workers or employees, because you are now in a special club. And, as a manager, you will know why they seem awfully ill on release dates. Just sayin'.

I think there's an idea out there that if you're friendly with those "beneath" you then they'll slack off more and won't work as hard because, hey, you're a cool guy, you understand, right?

I don't know, though. The bosses that I've always enjoyed working for I always got to know personally, be it in retail or the office. The business all the time guy actually frightens me, and I tend to worry that the smallest mistake will mean I'll get fired. My current bosses are quick to call out my errors, so I know they're paying attention, but I also know it doesn't mean they're tying the noose while informing me of my screw-ups.

It helps that my one boss figure took a week off when Diablo 3 came out, and then a week off when Mists of Panderia released, so I know that taking a weekend off for PAX East or Escapist Expo won't seem silly.

This piece really hit home for me. I manage a department of about 20 people and I find life is becoming easier if I try to put a bit more distance between us. Not that I want to be cold or uncaring, but I have had to make enough hard decisions in my first few years as the boss that I feel it is only fair to them that I maintain a certain decorum, lest things get cloudy.

This is a really interesting point, particularly around how tough decisions and conversations would change this dynamic. I have the luxury of working in a healthy business with double-digit growth. These relationships would probably have a very different tenor to them were we in a struggling company.

ccesarano wrote:
I think there's an idea out there that if you're friendly with those "beneath" you then they'll slack off more and won't work as hard because, hey, you're a cool guy, you understand, right?

That's very much the Old Guard mentality, the same one that values TimeInChair over accomplishing tasks. I think both of these have been disproven pretty conclusively; the former, especially, is exactly backwards. People work with and for people, not companies. I don't care about the numbers for this quarter, but if my boss is good to me, I'll bust my ass to make sure he's happy. And I'll do it with a smile. For a boss that's just someone who gives me marching orders? Not so much. Pretty standard human response.

Awesome article. People who are passionate are often passionate about a lot of things. You have to let them know it's good to open that up and share it.

Of course one of my supervisors, when I told her about GenCon, said to me "oh, you're one of those people." Later, I got support from my teammates who thought that was ignorant. Make sure you keep an open mind in all things or you look like a narrow minded person.

Great article. I have always felt the same way.

Elysium wrote:
This piece really hit home for me. I manage a department of about 20 people and I find life is becoming easier if I try to put a bit more distance between us. Not that I want to be cold or uncaring, but I have had to make enough hard decisions in my first few years as the boss that I feel it is only fair to them that I maintain a certain decorum, lest things get cloudy.

This is a really interesting point, particularly around how tough decisions and conversations would change this dynamic. I have the luxury of working in a healthy business with double-digit growth. These relationships would probably have a very different tenor to them were we in a struggling company.

I work in higher education, and in our case we're an organization undergoing some pretty big shifts in terms of our overall mission and the resources we need to accomplish it. As a result there are times when priorities directly challenge existing values & culture, and those conversations can be complicated by personal and professional baggage. So as much as I want to engage on that personal level, I find it is useful to be cautious.

Thankfully, my company, and my office in particular, is very pro-gamer. In our new office setup, we have an alcove with a smart TV with a (donated) 360 hooked up to it, beanbags, and nerf guns. My director is the reigning king of Call of Duty in the office, but I can hold off the wolves in any of the racing games, and am sneaky enough to pull even in Halo. Any given day, after we freak out for 6 or 7 hours about stuff we can't really control, we fire up the 360 and beat on each other for a while to unwind.

My team in particular, plays together. We have people playing Dota, CS:GO, Mass Effect, Tribes, Borderlands, etc. Our lunch conversations typically involve some kind of gaming.

When I interviewed, we were in our old offices, and from the conference table where I had my interview I saw the coffee machine, the liquor (mostly unused, but gives a nice bit of ambiance), and a PS2.

We also have a very casual dress code. (For example, shorts and a tank top aren't frowned on during the summer. Even the Big Boss wears flip-flops) A networking guy was being interviewed one day, and I had my Aperture polo on. He saw it when he was being shown around the office and told me after he started that he called his girlfriend after the interview, told her it went well, and he thought he'd fit in well, citing my shirt as reference.

(Edited for clarity)

Oh man. If I had you for a boss, I'd probably 1) enjoy my job more and 2) get less work done.
So maybe it's not a bad thing that my boss isn't interested in video games, but at the same time, it means we have little to connect on (not that gaming is my whole life, but still). And as I am her direct assistant, it really bothers me that there is this gap between her and me. It's not just a wall, it's a wall-chasm-wall and it makes me anxious, because I never feel like I'm an effective assistant when I can't get in her head.

My point, of all that, is don't begrudge the chance to connect to your employees. It makes a world of difference between an employee who is willing to stay at a company and an employee who is loyal to the company. That personal, human interaction creates bonds, and those bonds help smooth over the rough and the tough parts of life in cubeville.

But I think you knew that, already.

Chumpy_McChump wrote:
ccesarano wrote:
I think there's an idea out there that if you're friendly with those "beneath" you then they'll slack off more and won't work as hard because, hey, you're a cool guy, you understand, right?

That's very much the Old Guard mentality, the same one that values TimeInChair over accomplishing tasks. I think both of these have been disproven pretty conclusively; the former, especially, is exactly backwards. People work with and for people, not companies. I don't care about the numbers for this quarter, but if my boss is good to me, I'll bust my ass to make sure he's happy. And I'll do it with a smile. For a boss that's just someone who gives me marching orders? Not so much. Pretty standard human response.

That's exactly my feeling too.

Reading through the comments, I find it interesting that there are plenty of people on both sides. Some arguing for that connection, some cautioning to keep aback.

I wonder what events transpired to put people on those sides. For myself, I value the connection because I don't have it, and I can tell my loyalty is slipping. Have people been burned by trying to make that connection?

As I reading it, Taharka, being friendly with those you supervise is a luxury for those who don't need to do unpleasant things (like firing or asking for overtime) to those they supervise.