Video Games: Training the Leaders of Tomorrow

Running a guild or pack of players in an online game is good practise for running a real corporation – or any other leadership position. That’s the message from a report from IBM (specifically their Global Innovation Outlook).

Online games, and specifically massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), offer a glimpse at how leaders develop and operate in environments that are highly distributed, global, hyper-competitive, and virtual.

Hundreds of thousands of players — sometimes millions — interact daily in highly complex virtual environments. These players self-organize, develop skills, and settle into various roles. Leaders emerge that are capable of recruiting, organizing, motivating, and directing large groups of players toward a common goal. And decisions are made quickly, with ample, but imperfect, information. Sound familiar?

MMORPGs mirror the business context more than you would assume,” says Byron Reeves, Ph.D., the Paul C. Edwards Professor of Communication at Stanford University and Faculty Director of the Stanford Media X Partners Program. “They presage one possible future for business — one that is open, virtual, knowledge-driven, and comprised of a largely volunteer or at least transient workforce.”

Makes sense, after all. If you’re organising a raid in World of Warcraft, you need to coordinate 40 people from various time zones, whose ages range from 15 to 55, with a wild mix of skills and playing styles. You need to motivate them and get them to come together at one place and time, and to work together in a precisely coordinated way. That doesn’t happen by accident.

When you play an MMO you’re interacting, cooperating and competing with real people. There are guilds or organisations in most MMOs. Some, like EVE Online, have a phenomenally well-developed network of corporations that players can create and join.

(EVE as a virtual world is particularly complex – the uncharitable call it ‘gaming through spreadheets’. But any game where players can speculate in a futures market for virtual minerals has got to be building some pretty interesting skills. I mean, could you understand this without Financial Markets 101?)

Of course, if you lose three billion credits in EVE Online, there’s no harm done to you. The stakes in the gaming world are lower. But that doesn’t demean the value of the skills you’re gaining. On the contrary, it’s a plus. Says the IBM report:

The stakes in the real world are obviously much higher. But it’s easy to see how some of the qualities of gifted gaming leaders could translate into a corporate setting. The collaborative influence that online leaders exhibit is extraordinary in some cases. Gaming leaders are more comfortable with risk, accepting failure, and the resulting iterative improvement, as part of their reality. Many of these leaders are able to make sense of disparate and constantly changing data, translating it all into a compelling vision. And the relationship skills of the best gaming leaders would put many Fortune 500
managers to shame.

Games aren’t just training the next generation of fighter pilots and anti-terrorist cops. They might be training your boss . . . business people take note:

While these games attract players of all ages, the first generation that grew up navigating these environments is beginning to enter the workforce in earnest, and managers will need to adjust their styles accordingly. Winning in business will require  enterprises to fully understand how these games are shaping the next generation of leaders and to apply those learnings to their own operations.

. . . or so says IBM. The whole report is well worth a read.

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2 thoughts on “Video Games: Training the Leaders of Tomorrow

  1. Games as ways to practice your social skills, gain some perspective, and consider others; yep sounds very viable.

    But an awful way to meet folks who have both no interest in being considerate, and no understanding of why they should be.

    I also doubt that any non-games industry ceo will be putting WoW on their CV for recruitment purposes (at least until the boomer generation retires).

  2. Well, there’s all kinds on the ‘net. There’s your foul-mouthed 15 year-old, your rascist gun nut playing from Alabama, and your lawyer working for the UN, playing at lunchtime. In my experience online communities tend to form from like-minded people and attract more of the same. You’ll get assholes and griefers in any social context – one of the traits of a good leader is to deal with them efficiently and effectively for the good of the group.

    “I also doubt that any non-games industry ceo will be putting WoW on their CV for recruitment purposes (at least until the boomer generation retires).”

    Perhaps. But let’s remember that most of the boomers are retiring in the next couple of years. No one would keep books they’ve written, or films they’ve produced, off their CV. Games as a medium are maturing at a ferocious rate and popular attitudes are changing fast.

    Right now, if you’re applying for med school, it reflects poorly on your application if you haven’t done any volunteering in hospitals or such. I can see some organizations making guild leadership mandatory for selecting interns and new hires in the very near future, on the same principle. What better way to prove yourself as a leader without running the risk of messing up people’s real lives?

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