Friday, January 13, 2012

Used to be a public servant, took an arrow to the knee

Don't worry if you don't immediately recognize the verbiage, "taking an arrow to the knee" is an internet meme popularized by the action/role-playing video game Skyrim. In Skyrim ...
... the town guard non-player characters (NPCs) have several stock lines they repeat when the player walks near them, including a bewildered statement about "curved swords", a patronizing statement about “sweetroll” theft, and the melancholy confession “I used to be an adventurer like you, then I took an arrow in the knee.” The restating of such a specific story over and over again by so many different guards caused it to be noticed by players, who then proceeded to post about it in gaming forums and image boards. -- Know Your Meme (emphasis mine)
So what does a common regret, uttered by otherwise unmemorable would-be adventurers, popularized by the Internet meme machine possibly have to do with the public service?

In a word: everything.

The Skyrim experience and emerging professional narrative

Skyrim relies on a non-linear model of gameplay, meaning that the game doesn't follow a strict path but rather leaves players to explore, discover, and interact with the world on their own terms. In practice this means that Skyrim is less of a game and more of an experience, it also means that the player can exert a significant amount of control over that experience. Players shape the game as much as the game shapes the player, or more rightly their playing style; and while every game of Skyrim starts the same way, players soon realize just how expansive the universe is, and just how many paths are available to them. As someone who has played a significant amount of Skyrim over the holiday season, I can attest to the fact that the game's natural ability to conform to my playing style, interests and goals (even as they change) has undoubtedly contributed to its wild success.

In short, I think that Skyrim delivers an experience on a gaming console that many people are seeking in their careers, namely a completely customizable experience that evolves as they evolve; that perpetually follows their interests; that keeps them challenged/engaged; and that allows them to prioritize their actions and execution (deliverables) in the way they see fit.

As such, I also think it's a perfect proxy for the Internet age's preferred narrative of life as a young professional: self-centric, entrepreneurial and adventurous. But Skyrim also:

  • is replete with divergent and convergent story lines (but players are free to pick which to pursue and which to ignore);
  • is geographically vast (but players can travel slowly or at breakneck speed); 
  • is deeply detailed (but players determine how much attention to pay to them); 
  • offers opportunities for specialization or generalist play (but without boxing players in or forcing them to forgo other opportunities); and 
  • allows players to switch focus on the fly (but allows them to leverage past experiences without penalty). 

Guards, arrows, adventurers and the public service

If Skyrim is in fact a good proxy for the Internet age's preferred narrative, then examining the difference between the roles of adventurer (the player in Skyrim) and the city guard (the non-playable character who takes the arrow to the knee) is worthwhile.

The adventurer is free to roam, explore, and develop their skill set. They travel the land, find new challenges and have a considerable impact on the world. In fact, when the adventurer enters a city, they often overhear the guards talking about recent events, events that always revolve around the actions of the adventurer themselves. On the other hand, guards are confined to the city, they meander about its walls, and lament lack of excitement in their work. If only they hadn't taken an arrow to the knee! Instead, they suffered an injury that forces them to do something they would otherwise not do: accept a position on the periphery and settle for talking about the events around them rather than actively shaping them. My observation is that risk-averse organizations are similarly polarized, which is to say (and thereby continue the metaphor) they are made up of adventurers and guards; those who define themselves and those defined by the system around them.

Of course, I'm not speaking in absolutes, but rather trying to tease out an important point of comparison. My travels across Canada and the United States have afforded me the rare opportunity to speak with public servants from different levels of government, geographical areas, and functions. Overwhelmingly they all share a single concern: the loss of their adventuring spirit. Interestingly, when I pressed these would-be adventurers, many revealed that they never actually suffered an arrow to the knee themselves, but rather feel (or have been outright told) that they will undoubtedly suffer one should they become more adventurous.

I wonder how many public servants have actually suffered an injury so severe as to limit their ability to be bold, or to seek novel solutions to complex problems? I get a sense that there is a fundamental disconnect between the stories we hear (and sadly perpetuate) and the reality of those on the edges of our organization. Culture is after all built on stories, and if we only ever tell the ones about risk and negative consequences then those two things will ultimately define our culture. Is it any wonder that rather than being encouraged to be bold and adventurous, many of us are, like the city guard, left to meander about our cubicles or blend into the machinery.

Again, I'm not trying to be insulting, this is simply a metaphorical articulation of what a risk-averse culture could (and often does) look like; and while it is clear to me that the culture may inhibit those inside the organization, it must also be said that it inhibits those looking to join it. The people that buy Skyrim, don't buy it to play as the city guard, they buy it to play as its central character. Similarly, public servants shouldn't settle for playing roles on the periphery of their organizations. Instead they should be actively building careers as central characters, pushing other protagonists to elevate their game while simultaneously sharing and collaborating with them.  Because I for one am tired of hearing about a culture defined by "arrows to knees".

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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