The gaming world meets the corporate world: Generation G grows up

Take a look around your workplace, and count the number of people who are under the age of 40. At many offices, it's probably a lot -- according to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July 2007, there were 81,562,389 people in the U.S. between the ages of 20 and 39, or just under 47% of the people aged between 20 and 69.

Meet Generation G, the under-40s who belong to the video game generation. Most people in this demographic grew up with games, and many of them still play now. They are familiar with gaming conventions relating to movement, exploration, cooperation, competition, and communication. Additionally, interaction with video games from an early age has created a foundation of familiarity and interest in computing technologies.

Ten or 15 years ago, few would discuss gaming in the office, but the stigma is rapidly dying as Generation G expands in the workforce. You undoubtedly know members of Generation G. You probably work with them. You may even work for them.

What else do gamers bring to the office, besides some interesting fodder for water-cooler discussions? I believe that certain real-world management and teamwork skills can actually be learned or reinforced from video games, particularly online games that require close cooperation to complete complex or difficult missions.

I'm not alone. Earlier this week, three MBA students in South Africa outlined some of the thinking around video games as management training grounds, noting the rise of virtual organizations and the learning experiences gleaned from repeated trial and error:

Future leaders will naturally be more collaborative and more willing to make decisions than many of today's managers. This willingness to share authority, to make decisions collaboratively and to assign the person most suited to any given task is what games teach.

How they teach it contains another invaluable lesson for educators: games teach by trial and error. Consequently, gamers learn that failure is a necessary and unequivocal part of the path to success.

This is a message that is often lost in the real world, because repetitions are few and far between and therefore the stakes are too high during each attempt. In games, repetition is high and immediate feedback is provided to the gamer. While failure in the real world is disheartening, in games it serves as an encouragement to try harder.

In the Slashdot thread that referenced this article, many readers related their own leadership and teamwork experiences. One comment listed six skills that were learned (or reinforced) by playing World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online game that has more than nine million subscribers around the world:

1. Learning how to pick team members. This includes avoiding the tons of idiots out their and fostering relationships with competent people. Additionally it forces you to figure out what skill sets are needed and available at a given time, and for you to know how different people work together.

2. Planning. Large raids take some work for getting people willing to work on a project (the raid), and do not come together instantly. You must plan out ahead of time when you are going to do things to allow people to work it into their schedule.

3. Evaluation of goals and performance. If your project (raid) fails, you must take a step back and figure out what went wrong and to come up with a strategy to avoid that problem.

4. Dealing with underperformers with tact. Yes, there are some people who just aren't quite holding up their ends of things. Sometimes they are just bad players who don't care, who should perhaps not be a part of your team anymore. Other times however, they desperately want to do better, but aren't sure. In such situations, as in life, you need to sit down with them in a non-confrontational way and talk about the problem, and work with them on how to improve. As in life, the individual and the team will improve.

5. Dealing with team morale. Things don't always go well, but you almost always have to see some good aspects of what the team is doing to let the team know that (while at the same time identifying ways to improve). When the team does a good job, you need to make sure they know that you know that they did a good job.

6. Dealing with life conflicts. People have (hopefully) lives outside of WoW, as they have lives outside of work. You have to understand that situations come up, and people can't always be where they have said they will be. At the same time, there has to be consequences for people who are complete flakes.

There were a host of interesting responses to these ideas. People questioned whether or not WoW/MMORPG guild leaders had leadership skills before they started playing -- that is, did they learn how to be a leader in WoW, or were they already leaders and inclined to take up that role in-world? Others criticized the learning by trial and error hypothesis put forth in the South African article. They noted that game-related failures cannot be compared to real-world situations, as the cost of failure in a gaming world is so low -- all you need to do is hit reset or start over, whereas in the real world failure has far more serious implications, including getting fired, losing money, or (for certain occupations) death.

I'd be interested in hearing what Computerworld readers think of these issues -- feel free to use the comment form below.

For people who have never taken part in an massively multiplayer online game like World of Warcraft, and don't know how guilds work, the video of a battle in World of Warcraft below may help explain some of these concepts. It's a little confusing at first, but it will soon become apparent that a coordinated attack on a large monster is taking place, and teamwork is required to complete the mission. Be sure to turn on the audio, so you can hear the dialogue between players.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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