Boss by day, gamer by night: Tech leaders' favorite video games

High-tech titans from Red Hat, Adobe, Cisco and more admit: All they really need to know they learned from ... World of Goo?

Do video games stimulate the intellect? Are gamers more social and better equipped to make decisions than nongamers?

Author Steven Johnson drew fire from cultural hand-wringers for presenting those assertions a couple of years ago in his book Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.

But his theories elicited little more than "Well, yeah, duh" from people who grew up gaming and subsequently entered the high-tech workforce and began rising through the ranks.

These days, corporate managers are as apt to spend their off hours in front of Call of Duty as they are on the golf course, especially if they're techies. And that just might be a good thing for the modern enterprise.

IBM's Institute for Business Value, an in-house think tank, says online gaming can provide clues as to how today's global corporations function. The institute interviewed 214 members of the IBM community who play games online and found that nearly half believed that gaming had improved their real-world leadership skills; three quarters said that the collaboration tools available in games could have business applications in the virtual enterprise.

"How do you manage an organization that's becoming more virtual? How do you provide leadership when you don't have a formal hierarchy, and what leadership behaviors are being displayed in these environments?" asks Eric Lesser, an associate partner at the institute. Lesser compares the modern distributed workforce to a "quasi-volunteer army," similar to those that form in online video games.

To find out if those lofty questions can be answered by real-world experience, Computerworld queried seven executives at some of today's top tech firms to learn how they started gaming, what they play now and how their virtual skills translate to the real world of the office. Here's what we found.

Lee Congdon

CIO, Red Hat Inc.

What was the first video game you played, and what system was it on? My first video game was the classic Spacewar! on a Modcomp minicomputer. Other favorites over time include Qix and Missile Command on arcade consoles, Space Raiders and Othello on the Atari 2600, and Zork, Lemmings, SimCity and Myst on the PC platform.

Do you play now, and if so, what games and on what systems? I play occasionally, most often choosing a game at random from the selection available for the Fedora Linux distro. I tend to stick to variations on the classics but have to admit that Blob Wars is amusing.

Lee Congdon, Red Hat
Congdon: "Games require you to think strategically about the long-term goal."

What skills and lessons from gaming translate to your present job? Games are interesting because the right combination of technique, decision-making and risk-taking will yield success. Not all enterprises are like that.

That said, games have three characteristics that are very valuable in the business world. First, they provide an environment in which trial and error, or the ability to change approaches, is available with relatively low cost. Giving people the opportunity to explore and innovate can contribute significantly to their flexibility and resourcefulness.

Second, modern games require the player to think simultaneously about the immediate objective and strategically about the long-term goal. And third, games encourage people to be very goal-oriented. Most any enterprise can benefit from individuals with those skills.

Gareth Davis

Platform program manager, Facebook

First game, first system: Space Invaders in a video arcade, followed by Asteroids on the Atari 2600.

What you play now: I play social games on Facebook -- Geo Challenge, Texas HoldEm Poker and MouseHunt -- and console games on the PlayStation 3. But I think games are so much more fun when played with friends.

Gareth Davis, Facebook
Davis: "Be wary of the end-of-level boss."

Skills and lessons that translate: Cooperation from playing Gauntlet, in which each player has a character with unique skills, just like my team here at Facebook. Persistence from playing MouseHunt -- it often takes time to see the results of our work, and we must continually change our approach until we succeed. And the hand-eye coordination I've learned from playing Geo Challenge helps me get through doors carrying my laptop, security card, BlackBerry and iPhone.

And, of course, I've learned to be wary of the end-of-level boss.

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