“You don’t have that much management experience,” the Microsoft interviewer said from the other side of her desk. “Except – what is this online game you’ve listed on your resume?”
That item, which read, “Coordinated development of online game which averaged 60-70 users at a time with a volunteer staff of approximately 30 writers/coders,” was a decade worth of experience managing a team as large, high-powered and challenging as any I’d ever encounter while working at Microsoft. Over the next few years, this overlapping of the game and business world would occur over and over. I’d apply lessons in conflict management or negotiation I learned in MUDs to resolve situations, and the next day find myself in a management class thinking how best to use the material on the flash cards in front of me to steer my coders down a particular path.
While some staff (like me) list Armageddon, the MUD on which we work, as professional credit, other staff members are more reticent about their online lives; feeling that listing a MUD on a resume would hurt them far more than it might help. Accordingly, several of them preferred to not have their real names mentioned in this article. Nessalin, for one, said, “I think few employers want employees who have hobbies that A) so closely mirror their jobs, and B) eat up so much time.” Another staff member said, “I’d rather not have my real name associated with the game in any way, in case I get a client who thinks MUDs are evil or something.”
Fear of being perceived as a geek also encourages this silence. One staff member noted that when dealing with fellow employees, he wants “to be taken seriously, and not seen as that middle-aged guy that plays games.” Another said, “There’s a social stigma attached to people who play any kind of RPG, especially Dungeons & Dragons.” A third said, “Most of my work is for Fortune 500 Corporations or the government, and the people conducting interviews tend to be conservative and non-technical. A mudding reference might raise questions as to my suitability to someone who doesn’t understand the MUD culture.”
Although he chooses to list games on his resume, David Lipa (Dyrinis) said, “I try to keep the two worlds totally separate, even more than most mudders. For example, I’ve never attended any real life events from my MUD, and even talking on the phone to someone to get an account password was difficult for me.” He continued, “When I was younger I tended to deride mudding as just a game or pastime; in hindsight, it has done more for my professional development than just about anything.”
Those who have mentioned games in interviews have no disaster stories to tell, funnily enough. Raesanos said, “I’m a software engineer, so it’s just straight up good resume material,” while Xygax said, “Having worked on MUDs before I interviewed at Origin almost certainly helped my case.”
Lipa related how he “was actually interviewed by an Armageddon player when I was applying for a position at Merill Lynch. She was surprised to share this interest with me and passed me on to the next round … It was definitely a geek-to-geek moment. It helped to break the ice.” Even one of the staff members who is most private about his mudding admitted that his last two jobs came about as a direct result of mudding connections.
Listing a MUD on a resume is often a way to showcase skills or experience that one hasn’t had a chance to exercise on the job yet. Mentioning the MUD I work on lets me list expertise I developed working with the game. In fact, when the buzzword, “online community,” started going around Microsoft, I already knew much of the associated vocabulary. By then, Armageddon had experimented with several discussion boards, online chat, a LiveJournal for collaborative game history, a staff wiki, staff member blogs and other forms of community-generated content.
People skills are the area of development most cited by MUD staff members. Lipa said, “Being a [GM] on a serious MUD like Armageddon put me in an environment where I had to reconcile my own idea about how things should be done with the team’s. At first, this was difficult … because I had not been exposed to such a challenge before.”
Tiernan, an IT Program Manager, felt his customer service skills were fine-tuned by his experience as a game admin. “Dealing with player requests, etc. is very much along the same lines as what I do in the IT realm with my corporate customers.”
Neal Haggard (Morgenes), a Java programmer, said that the lure of MUDs cemented his choice of career. “My need to get back on the internet (in 1993) made me go back to college … I love solving puzzles and figuring out how to do things, so mudding fit.”
For some staff members, the networking possibilities offered by MUDs are useful. Naiona, a database specialist, said, “As a computer programmer, it is nice to be able to talk with the others on [the Armageddon] staff who have similar occupations when I’m thinking through an issue that I prefer not to discuss in front of a client. There are also times that other staff members have suggested resources or techniques that have worked well for me on the job. In addition, I’ve referred another staff member to a job and references from others have helped fill open positions at my job sites.”
Xygax, a game programmer, noted that “I do … experiment with new technologies on Armageddon, like the newer C/C++ compilers, profiling and performance improvement tools, etc. … Another advantage I draw from working on Armageddon is more intimate knowledge of how [communities work]. At my company, community interaction and support issues are usually filtered through other individuals, and so I am sheltered from things that Armageddon exposes me to. “
Among the main proficiencies he gained from mudding, Lipa felt, were writing skills. “Before mudding, I was a sloppy writer and did not care much about my work. When I began building a zone, I realized just how difficult and important clear writing is.”
For me, training as a documentation manager ended up shaping my approach to revamping my company’s public and staff websites. I used skills I picked up when I arranged online help files in Armageddon.
Nessalin felt MUDs have most strongly developed his ability to debug code and given him “a better understanding of what a customer actually wants when they are explaining what they think they want, due to years of seeing what players ask for versus what they actually use.”
Members of the Armageddon staff have worked for Microsoft, Security Dynamics, an investment firm, Ultima Online, Apple, IBM and the U.S. government, and just as the MUD has shaped approaches to these jobs, corporate experiences have, in turn, shaped administration and processes in the MUD.
As the result of one management lecture I attended, the game may well be the only nonprofit with an actual mission statement which discusses administrators’ accountability to the game, the players and fellow staff, as well as the game’s priorities: stability, game balance, consistency, and something labeled the “Gee-Whiz Factor.” Other professional tools make up the staff webpage; items like a list of job descriptions and a tool for updating responsibilities and indicating one’s current workload were implemented after seeing their usefulness in the real world first.
An Armageddon tradition for the last six or seven years has been a yearly “management retreat.” The staff members who can attend split the cost of renting a beach house on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. The week is one of debauched geekery: An Xbox is usually going non-stop, the table is spread with board games, and people sit around hashing out and writing up lists of ideas for the game. One year, we took the server apart and reassembled it on the dining room table while people sat around it, fixing problems and checking off printouts. At the same time, others were planning the rise of the in-game city-state, Tuluk, which had recently been taken over by its southern rival, Allanak.
One important difference between management in Armageddon and in the real world is the volunteer nature of the former. Tiernan, the in-game equivalent of a middle-manager, said it’s important to ask junior staff the questions that make them go ‘hmmm” and to give them the advice that helps them find out where they want to go, rather than just assigning them tasks.
In Armageddon, like at work, he sees the most important job as helping other people flesh out what they need to do for the task at hand. “I get them to really think in earnest about the project. That moves things along easier if they do that, ’cause it gives us a sense of size/scope. It also helps foster a sense of ownership with the project … [and] helps me see how committed they are. If they haven’t bought into it fully, then it’s another conversation that kind of drifts away.”
Admittedly, the implementation of some corporate strategies and approaches has exacted its price: Armageddon is much more bureaucratic than it used to be. While the days are gone when a maverick programmer could rewrite a major section of code and watch the sever crash for a month before another exasperated coder yanked it out, even small projects take longer to implement. Ideas are posted on the staff discussion board and thrashed out by committee, taking at least a week to resolve. But the size of the staff (as well as the player base) is substantially larger than it was 10 years ago. Formality and processes have been introduced with the intention of making things fairer to both players and staff.
Whether the game has had the same effect on the corporate world remains to be seen. Many on the staff intend to keep their ties to the game secret. One said, “If someone came to me with a resume saying they ran a MUD as a hobby, I would have to talk to them at length about the job before hiring them. It’s a time-sink and it has emergencies that can intrude on your day job.”
Cat Rambo is a science fiction writer and one of the implementors of Armageddon MUD. She can be found on the web at kittywumpus.net.