Future FWD

How Fallout 4 Changed How I Think About My Career

December 4, 2015
Digital Surgeons

First things first, I want to admit that I’m not a huge gamer — at least not anymore. Sure, I play the occasional first person shooter but when it comes to RPGs or open world games, it’s been a while.

That being said, I love Fallout 4.

Sometime shortly after the player-controlled protagonist emerged from an underground bunker 210 years after a nuclear war, I became consumed with exploring the post-apocalyptic world. The late night hour or two I can steal away from work is now spent scavenging for resources, battling adversaries, and building weapons and settlements to allow for myself and the people of Massachusetts to survive in the harsh, dystopian landscape.  

While any gamer reading this is already on board, some of you may be rolling your eyes. A fascination with a virtual gaming experience conjures thoughts of childish fantasy or avoidance of day-to-day realities. For these non-believers, I urge you to look into the work of Jane McGonigal and her TED talk Gaming Can Make A Better World. McGonigal is a game designer whose stated mission is, “to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is in online games.”

In 2009, she suffered a severe concussion and found herself bedridden and suicidal. With her mental and physical health at an all-time low, she turned to the only thing she knows, games. McGonigal created “Jane the Concussion Slayer,” now renamed “SuperBetter”, an rpg that gamified her recovery. The game — informed by research that indicates games allow us to tackle tough challenges with more creativity and optimism, and empower us to reach out to others for help — allowed her to make a full recovery. Jane is proof that digital technology can be used to channel positivity and collaboration in the real world for our own betterment.  

Inspired by Jane, and my firm’s foray into the world of eSports, I want to share how Fallout 4 has completely changed how I think about my career and what I believe you should learn from it, even if you aren’t committed to spending your sleepless nights patrolling the post-apocalyptic streets of Boston in the wasteland brought to life by Bethesda Studios.

Why Fallout?

Perhaps, most central to my enjoyment of Fallout is that it’s non-linear. Sure, you can follow the game’s storyline if you’d like, but the game also allows you to strike off in any direction and interact with any number of missions, places, or people in the world.     

In my own life and career, I’m about as far as you can possibly be from linear. A desire to work outside of the boxes and siloes that I felt trapping me early in my career are what led me to found Digital Surgeons in order to fuse my love of design and technology.

Outside of siloes and linear progressions, we can focus on doing what we truly love and chase the work, and quests, that inspire us.        

What the S.P.E.C.I.A.L System Taught Me About Employee Development

The only thing that you do have to follow in Fallout 4, is the progression or S.P.E.C.I.A.L system. S.P.E.C.I.A.L is an acronym for strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck. Each of these skills has 10 ranks that the player can level up to by earning points within the gameplay. The higher your rank, the better your character can utilize that skill.  

The S.P.E.C.I.A.L System 

When you first start the game, you are given 28 points to use however you see fit to customize the skills of your unnamed protagonist. Want to use almost all of them making your character intelligent and charismatic? Go ahead, but then your unbalanced character will be weak and unlucky.

Additionally, the system rewards you for building yourself horizontally across different skill sets to unlock perks as you progress vertically in just one skill.

It’s easy to immediately draw parallels between the S.P.E.C.I.A.L system and the modern, highly desired “T-shaped” employee popularized in the employee handbook of you guessed it, another gaming studio called Valve. Valve are the creators of the leading gaming ecosystem, STEAM. Never heard of STEAM? Think Apple’s Appstore, but for games.

The horizontal part of the letter T represents an employee’s knowledge across many different disciplines (broad). The vertical part of the letter displays their advancement and specialization (deep) in their chosen role. At Digital Surgeons, I encourage everyone irrespective of discipline to be what I like to refer to as a “creative generalist.” Here creativity is a right of passage, not a job title.    

The above graphic illustrates how I might map the skill set of a client-facing practitioner at my firm. The role requires a knowledge of all the disciplines at Digital Surgeons for the purposes of informed project management, but primarily requires the ability to develop relationships with the client.  

Each and every company must establish the baseline horizontal skills required of employees to succeed within their position. For Digital Surgeons, a baseline education on Design Thinking and User Experience is a must to ensure we can build human-centered experiences for our clients.  

Vertical progression can be mapped with core competency matrices to demonstrate how employees can level up their ranks in their chosen skill sets.  

The progression scale within a Creative Competency Matrix for a Designer

This progression scale is part of a Creative Competency Matrix we’ve begun developing for designers on our team. Using the matrix, designers can assess their skill level and see clear expectations for progression.

A Creative Competency Matrix for an Associate Creative Director

Now the employee, or player, is informed the perks of leveling up. The vertical progression displayed in the first matrix is now given the context of what is expected in a given role. The progression necessary to level up from an Art Director to an Associate Creative Director is clearly established.

When a game informs an engaged player they have 10 points and need 20 more to level up, the player is going to search, fight, build, craft, whatever they need to do in order to get those 20 points.   

Too often in the workplace, employees feel like they have no idea where they stand. Growth seems possible, but out of reach, a result of putting their head to the grindstone day in and out with the hope that one day they will be rewarded for their efforts.

It doesn’t have to be like that. Sure, growth is the result of hard work but it’s just as much a product of smart work. It’s about being aware of your deficiencies and strengths, it’s about taking ownership of how you can develop to provide more value for yourself and your employer.

For employers, use gamified systems that demonstrate an employee’s competencies to indicate just how they can grow and level up. Progression will feel attainable and within reach, employees will be empowered to better themselves and advance their careers.  

For employees, relish in the challenge of growth hacking your career. Break progression down into small steps that ultimately put you exactly where you belong to be.  

Avoid The Peter Principle

Like many games, Fallout 4 restricts the player from doing certain things until they have reached what the game determines is a high enough level. This common game mechanic gives the player incentive to progress, but also protects the player from in-game experiences they might not yet be equipped with the resources or skill progression to navigate successfully. It protects the player from what is potentially an incredibly frustrating game experience in which they “lose” over and over and over.

Too often in the modern workplace, we try to advance our careers too quickly. We want the Director or VP title, but do we really have the resources and skills to navigate the challenge successfully?

Companies, feeling pressure to retain performing talent, will hand out titles left and right. The employee will feel proud of their accomplishment and satisfied they have earned the progression, but this positivity will be fleeting. What often occurs is that the employee has been set up for failure. Even if they can perform the tasks required within the construct of that organization, the title sets unrealistic expectations externally that doom the employee for failure.

The employee now begins to feel loss after loss after loss.

The Peter Principle is a management theory created by Laurence J. Peter. It states that an employee is typically selected for a promotion based on their performance in their current position, not on their ability to perform the role they are being promoted to. This creates an environment where employees will always rise to incompetence.

Tacticians, skilled at doing a specific thing, eventually become managers of tacticians.

But what if your top performing, world-class tactician doesn’t have management skills? The tactician desires a promotion to avoid the feeling he has topped out in his current role, and will almost assuredly leave for the competition if he is passed over another time for the promotion. This puts companies in a difficult quandary. If only there were game mechanics to protect us from our ambitions.

I'm challenging myself and anyone reading this article to really take stock in where they're at in their careers. Let’s all set ourselves up for success by arming ourselves with the right skills and resources to navigate our next challenge successfully.

Let’s make sure we do the reps. Let’s make sure we spend our next 10,000 hours wisely — the time theorized by Malcom Gladwell that it takes to truly master a skill with smart practice.     

Fallout 4 has renewed my respect for what needs to be done before you can get to the next level.

Explore, Explore, Explore

Within Fallout 4, hundreds of available locations are filled with a seemingly infinite number of possible interactions. Avid players spend hours and hours searching the radiation-ridden commonwealth for rare items, interactions, and experiences. They trove the internet to discover just how other players are able to find these coveted in-game “easter eggs.”     

As humans, it’s in our very nature to seek to consume and explore the world around us.

In marketing, the term “unicorn” is often used to describe a hard-to-find, highly valued employee that has both marketing savvy and technological fluency.  

Remember that “unicorns” are born from exploration. No matter the industry, polymaths versed in many different skills and subject areas are of the utmost value.  

To better ourselves, we must have the curiosity to explore our interests, discover new passions, and build empathy by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Passion cannot be taught. Passion is gained through exposure, gained through cross-training and gained through exploration.

But remember you are not alone in this exploration….

Haters and Ghouls You Will Encounter in the Wasteland

As you traverse the radiation-washed-landscape in Fallout 4, you commonly encounter mutated zombies called Ghouls. Ghouls may be fast moving, but they are relatively dim-witted and easy to get rid of once you’ve built up your skills. But don’t lose respect for the harm they can do, they start to weigh you down if they catch you off guard.  

In life, in the workplace and everywhere in between you will come across people that will tell you what you can’t do. Misery loves company. They’ll tell you to follow corporate ladders, to chase the big titles, and to not even consider thinking about starting your own business.

These are your ghouls.

They’ll try to pull you down, and sometimes even the ones we love are wired to lose simply based on their negative attitude.

Fuck the haters.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my chutes and ladders career that Fallout reminded me of, it is don’t be afraid to color outside the lines in obscure directions. Or as my friend and fellow Creative Director James Dowd says “Aim to misbehave.”

The greatest innovations of our time have come from those who had the perseverance and self-efficacy to keep trying new things. From the light bulb, to the world's leading startups like Uber and Google, it’s effort and a tad bit of rebellious creativity that drives us forward.

And that my friends, just like Fallout 4, isn’t linear.

Thanks for reading.
Digital Surgeons
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