Knowing Your Role

On a recent phone job interview, the interviewer kept steering me back to the topic of level design, despite the role not being a role about level design. I really don’t bullshit, especially in interviews or resumes despite that apparently being the norm, so I just answered by saying that I worked for a studio that did sports games and sports games really don’t pull lessons from architecture and psychology the way that a shooter or an RPG would, but here are some similar skills I had used that are similar to those of a level designer…

He didn’t seem to buy that. And afterwords I felt like it was a really crummy interview because instead of being able to talk about what I could bring to the company, we talked more about what I couldn’t bring to the company. I was contemplating this on a sleepless night and wondering how I could have handled it better and my synapses fired in a weird way connecting it to an experience I had officiating last year.

Last season was my first season as a high school football official. Many people do not know that there are positions for football officials just as there are positions for football players and each of these positions holds responsibilities for different parts of the game. Instead of trying to be a “jack of all trades, master of none”, I focused on being the best linesman/line judge I could be since that is where I was told I would be assigned most often.

One game I was assigned to be the clock official, which is a comparitively easy job. When operating the clock, you are often seated next to the game announcer who calls the results over a loudspeaker. Often this announcer would turn to me and ask questions before the referee on the field could signal: “Was that a first down?” “What was that penalty?” “How many timeouts are left?” &c.,

After one play, there was a particularly complicated situation with multiple fouls. The announcer turned to me and asked where the ball would be spotted. I wasn’t sure of the answer since I guessed that it mattered on the order of enforcement so that is what I told the announcer. “I’m not entirely sure.” Now that isn’t an answer you give on the field because you need to be seen as in charge and fully competent, but I didn’t want to give the announcer false information and have him read it over the public address system. I wasn’t entirely sure because the nuts and bolts of the mechanics of penalty enforcement are generally jobs for the referee and umpire and as I said, I was studying the roles of linesman and line judge primarily as a first year official.

But when I said “I’m not entirely sure, hang on” the announcer gave a scoffing “Huh” which in it contained an insinuation of “You are wearing the stripes and you don’t even know the rules.” But that wasn’t the case. I knew the rules I needed to know. I handled my jobs on the clock and on the field very well. What I didn’t know was the mechanics of jobs I wasn’t responsible for.

The disconnect came between knowing what I needed to know and knowing what I was expected to know.

Knowing what I needed to know was easy. It was how I studied throughout school (“Oh, that won’t be on the test” or “I’ll never need to use that”) and it was how I applied myself at work. I didn’t know much about level design and I was comfortable with that because my job didn’t entail level design and I wasn’t planning on applying for jobs in level design. But this approach fails when your knowledge is being evaluated by others. You cannot control their expectations of your knowledge. Just as not fulfilling the announcer’s expectations made him think I was a poor official, not fulfilling the expectations of the interviewer made him think I was a poor designer. Yet from my perspective I am both an excellent designer and a competent official.

So in the future I need to focus on sort of the “Platonic forms” of the roles I am appearing to be moreso than simply showing excellence at the tasks put forth to me. Because the lesson is that it is not only your performance that you are judged on but also how you fit the evaluators expectations of how you fit their predetermined role.

One thought on “Knowing Your Role”

  1. This is a good lesson. I’ve tended to be a jack of many trades, which makes me seem really unimpressive for a lot of the jobs I’ve applied for, which demand expertise and specialization.

    And now a theory: I bet almost everyone in the industry has watched some of Valve’s developer commentary, which could be coloring interviewer expectations regarding designers.

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