Your Job is a Video Game: The Torch and Boomerang Phase

AJ Mastav
4 min readJan 19
Photo by Ryan Quintal on Unsplash

In the Golden Age of video arcades, there was nothing more intimidating, or enticing, to a kid than a new video game with some wacky control interface — the game Defender had about 100 buttons, Atari’s tank commander game Battlezone had two handles that (I guess) were supposed to simulate controlling a tank’s two tracks independently. Several games used a combination of trackballs and buttons to help you manage frenetic action — the most notable being Centipede. Your first three or four precious quarters might be used up just getting a handle on which button or control did which thing. (I’m looking at you Asteroids Deluxe!)

Getting out of that introductory phase — being able to navigate, shoot, fly an ostrich, or deliver newspapers virtually (Paperboy was such a mess of crazy controls I don’t think I ever touched it) — is always a good feeling, and one of the reasons why video games are such great entertainment.

Having grown up with video games and that constant stepwise progress from clueless to competent, this is a paradigm that has always stuck with me. I’ve had various jobs over the years, and no matter how much experience you’ve got, you always start out just learning the controls: where’s the bathroom? How do I get coffee? What do I wear? How do I ask for time off?

Every job comes with its own norms - departments within an organization often have their own way of doing things. And that’s not even taking into consideration the degree to which a workplace has a culture of either overt or subtle hostility toward new workers.

Much more fun is the period a little bit later on when you’ve got your feet under you and you can ask moderately intelligent questions. This is like the stage in the original NES Legend of Zelda where you have a boomerang, or that point in Minecraft when you’ve got a ton of torches. It’s the point at which you have just enough agency to be dangerous.

I have a real soft spot for this period, professionally. It’s a bit like adolescence — things are exciting and the stakes seem much higher than they actually are. When you mess up and lose a heart or two, it’s crushing. But it also has value to you: it teaches you what to do next time. I would argue that making mistakes is critical in this part of your…

AJ Mastav

Professional planner, unprofessional writer. Member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. Also, a Sunday School teacher.