Playing by the rules

I’m at the Pinburgh pinball tournament today, the world’s largest pinball tournament with 840 registered players. It’s my fourth year at the tournament and roughly marks 4 years of me taking pinball seriously as a hobby.

When the tournament began, the directors went over the rules and consequences. Not all of them — the official rule set is actually quite lengthy, at 19 pages, and includes a reference to the official PAPA ruleset for anything that isn’t adequately covered here.

But there are a few rules that are important enough to make the morning announcements:

  • Only climb up on stage using the  ramp entrance. I presume this is for liability reasons since having people fall off a stage is a Bad Thing.
  • Don’t play another player’s ball. It’s always your responsibility to ensure you’re doing your own work and not someone else’s.
  • Treat every single player with the same high level of respect regardless of their age, skill level, or experience. Don’t crowd other players, harass other players, get violent with any equipment including the machines, or get violent with other players. Doing so results with either a warning or an immediate ejection.
  • For all other circumstances, if you think you might need a ruling, get a Tournament Director. It is better to ask for a ruling and not need it than not ask for a ruling and find out later you needed it.

I like playing competitive pinball for many reasons, but one of the big ones is transparency. There are rules. Here they are. The Tournament Directors get last say on how they’re enforced, but there’s a really good chance that if the people around you get a TD involved because of your behavior, the TD is not going to rule in your favor. You might get a warning, or you might get ejected. They are not screwing around.

Day 1 was a long day of pinball. We played five rounds, each being up to 2 1/4 hour in length. Each round was 4 games, almost all of them with perfect strangers. Each game had a minimum of 3 balls per player. At 840 players that was 282,240,000 (840 x 5 x 4 x 3) opportunities for someone to screw up during a game.

And screw up they did.

I was in two different groups where someone plunged someone else’s ball. The first time, someone just didn’t have their brain turned on. The second time, one player walked away not realizing that his ball had been “saved”, and another player played his ball.

In neither case was the mistake malicious, and everyone was a bit sheepish that it had to be fixed. In both cases, a clear and consistent ruling was made. The plunger took a 0 for the game, the victim got an extra ball and any points the plunger had accrued.  There was no question as to who was guilty or did they mean it or what about their reputation. They screwed up. That was it.

Those are, admittedly, pretty clear-cut mistakes to rule on.

But there were also yellow cards handed out for abusing machines or hollering or crowding players. Those “harassment” scenarios are murky. It could be argued that the player didn’t actually mean it, they lost their head, they’re sorry, it won’t happen again. But while tolerance at Pinburgh isn’t zero, it’s pretty darn close. The TDs assume that no one is calling on them for assistance unless they feel they have to, and if they have to, the TD is going to scrutinize the situation carefully.

Player conduct in the PAPA/IFPA rules is described as follows:

All players are expected to conduct themselves in a polite and sensitive manner. Outbursts, especially those including indecent language, are unacceptable. A wide variety of players and observers will be present, including media, and these types of outbursts do nothing to promote pinball as a sport. Any express or implied threats or actions of violence are grounds for immediate ejection from the facility, and authorities will be contacted. Other possible grounds for ejection include but are not limited to fraud, theft, illegal activity, harrassment, inappropriate behavior, public drunkenness, etc. Any person ejected from the facility is banned and may not return to the property. Banned persons will be prosecuted for trespass if necessary.

(Emphasis mine.)

The driver here is promotion of the sport we all (presumably) love. If an event that occurs would tarnish pinball’s reputation as a sport, the Tournament Directors are going to remove the person who caused the event.

They’re not going to keep the situation secret. All the players on the group and anyone else who asks will be informed of the results.

They’re not going to side with an individual because they have a reputation. If you do something,  you’re going to take the consequences. Regardless of whether if you’re a star player. Regardless of whether the reporter is an unknown. This isn’t about reputation of individuals; it’s about pinball’s reputation as a sport and the tournament’s reputation as an event that holds up those values.

Contrast this with the standard non-pinball convention I attend, usually in the UX field. The codes of conduct often begin with some variation of “Be professional adults,” ignoring the fact that professional adults behave badly all the time. (Pinball does not pretend adults behave well.)

The onus to report an issue is on the reporter to find a con director, which frankly, a lot of professional cons make really hard.

Most cons don’t spell out the consequences of bad behavior, opting for a “we will handle it on a case by case basis.” That often translates to “unless the police are involved we will side with the  accused because we don’t want to ruin anyone’s career.” Most horribly, many of the cons don’t want the reporter to talk to anyone about the incident except a very small group of people, because they don’t want anyone embarrassed, especially themselves.

Once upon a time, I reported an incident at a UX-based convention where someone had behaved in an unprofessional and disturbing manner.  I was frightened, I was angry, and of course I told my friends. The con made it very clear (weeks later) that “nobody had gotten hurt” and I had no proof that actual harassment had taken place, so I shouldn’t have reported. Plus, I learned, I had potentially broken the code of conduct by talking to my friends.

Once upon a time a few years before that, I tweeted at a Pinburgh tournament something along the lines of “Dear shit-talking drunk guy, I do not need to hear from you the whole time I am trying to play my ball. Please go away.”

Within 20 minutes a TD found me, asked me who it was, what had happened, and said they would provide a warning or have the person removed.  They said, very clearly, “We’re not putting up with anything that ruins the experience for anyone of our players. Even if this is your first Pinburgh. Even if you are a woman. Even if the other player was fairly well-known.”

I didn’t know they were listening to the backchannel. I didn’t even know they knew who I was. That didn’t matter. They acted. Transparently, clearly, and with no hesitation.

Pinburgh tickets sold out in approximately 2 minutes this year.

UX conventions, though slightly more expensive, cannot touch that pace.

You might argue that these two types of convention have nothing to do with each other; they’re in different industries, one is professional and the other a hobby, different types of people and different walks of life.

But hear me when I tell you this: when profession conventions in UX and IA and IxD and IT can all clearly and confidently say, “Our conference’s goal is to promote our industry as a space others will want to get involved in,” there will be no more opaque rulings on incidents, no more “oh he didn’t mean it,” no more “but nobody got hurt”. When the people in charge say “The most critical aspect of this industry is the promotion of the industry as ethical and respectable” there will be no more victim-blaming, because victim-blaming is neither ethical nor respectable. And we all know it.

Until that day, you’ll find me enthusiastically queuing up for Pinburgh every year, and attending UX-oriented conferences only because it’s necessary for my career.

Chasing Titles

Sorrento-Gillis: “Why didn’t you ever run for office?”

Avasarala: “I like getting shit done. And I like to keep my head attached to my neck.”

— The Expanse, “The Seventh Man”

When I was newly in the workforce, I just wanted to make enough money to pay rent, eat, and buy music. The further I went, though, I saw that the power to make the decisions rested with managers and executives. These are the leaders, I thought. I want to be one of them.

For the next few years, as I transitioned into the world of web design and then to user experience, my goal was simple: I want the title. If I had the title, I could finally run things the way they should be run.

But no one would give me the title. I wasn’t “a manager,” not in the sense my bosses saw a manager. I was miffed, of course. I would show them. I fought harder, led projects, built enterprise solutions in greenfield spaces no one had ever designed in before.

The title never came. Sure, I was a “senior user experience architect” or a “design lead.” I was appreciated, listened to, looked to. But where was my Director or Manager title? I wasn’t going to be “there” until I had it. Authority flowed from title, right? When was I going to be recognized for my Authority? (Insert Cartman quote here.)

A year or two ago, I started moving away from the Title Chase. I did the thing I should have done at the beginning: I studied how the directors and managers I knew and worked for functioned. They didn’t function all that well. Managers that wanted to design and manage and ended up struggling to do both effectively. Directors too busy expanding their power to notice the miasma of low morale coming from their reports. And in both cases, the power and authority they were supposedly projecting with the leadership was minimal.

The real leaders in the organization weren’t the people with the manager or director titles. They were the senior and principal designers, the researchers, the project managers. These leaders were pushing the organization by building relationships, delivering effectively, and creating the spaces where great design actually happened. They mentored. They facilitated. They led.

And my brief time as a director reinforced that. To lead design in an organization, you have to do much more than just get the execs to kneel before your title. You have to think about how you make the organization better, your team better, yourself better — three jobs in one. Oh, and do it all in 168 hours a week.

I have no idea where this idea came from that our title means authority and leadership. Maybe it’s because they’re in the meetings where we think the decisions happen. (OK, that’s probably where it comes from. I’ve seen one too many C-suite dweller kill my Great Idea.) But just as generals need field marshals, directors and managers need people on the ground who can build, motivate, and drive teams.

I’ve shifted away from chasing titles. I chase projects and opportunities instead. I look for opportunities to grow, stretch, and build on what I have created. I’m not going to say no to being a director again, but I have no delusion that being a director means I’ve “arrived.” It merely means I have a lot more work in front of me and greater challenges to overcome.

The hard thing about this shift, though, is you can do all the “work” and never get the title. The title comes from an organization’s assessment of a person in view of their chain of command, and that view comes from culture, from supervisors, from perception. Demanding a title may get you branded as “brash” or “too big for their britches,” but not demanding a title while doing the work doesn’t guarantee you’ll be recognized for it.

Don’t think I’m saying being a manager or director isn’t worthwhile. Certainly, we need to see more women and people of color in those management seats. We should, however, consider what such a position offers us as well as what we can offer it. Do we want to be in the business of critical conversations with reports? Do we want to try to untangle management knots while trying to fight bad morale? Does that excite us… or does the blocking and tackling of design excite us more?

In The Expanse the complicated and conniving Chrisjen Avasarala uses her political power and connections to unravel a set of conspiracies that are putting humanity on the brink of annihilation. But she’s merely #3 at the UN, not the Secretary-General. Her quote at the beginning of this article explains her raison d’être: She wants to get shit done, not play the games politicians need to survive.

It’s become my motto, too. I like getting shit done. And I like to keep my head attached to my neck. To do that, I lead from wherever I am.

Don’t worry about title. Worry about getting shit done.