Revenge of the Gamers!

Smart companies should be playing too

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How are the game and business environments different? On the very legitimate issue of the consequences of failure. When something bad happens in a game, you're not taking down millions of people invested in a company. Some of the psychological feelings may be the same, but in terms of the actual stakes, the consequences are broader in business.

What would it feel like in World of Warcraft if the future of the company were on the line? It would feel different. But businesses say they don't want the seriousness of the consequences to be handcuffs for innovation and risk taking.

And there are other differences. One is the whole notion of transparency. In games, there's a lot more transparency in the culture as well as the rules.

You know a lot in the games. You see what gear people have, what level they've achieved, and you know a lot about their status. You're a priest or a dwarf, and people know what you bring. You can make inferences at work, but there's not as much transparency of expertise. There are laws about transparency in business -- privacy rights.

You note certain distinctive characteristics of leadership in online games that point toward skills tomorrow's leaders will need. Can we discuss speed? Certainly, things can happen more quickly in games. In a game, you might congregate with five people you've just met; you've got one minute to decide who will lead and what the strategy will be, and then the gate opens. So there's a lot more opportunity to do things quickly.

Iteration is an important part of this. In business, we're not going to go to Step 2 until we know we won't fail on Step 5. The default strategy in games is, "That's a good idea; let's try that." Then, wham! "All right, we all die. Let's go left instead of right next time." There's a lot of opportunity to try things a lot of times, and there's value in that: A lot of small failures add up to global success rather than being so careful about each step.

Are gamers less risk-averse in business? Tony O'Driscoll has studied several hundred gamers at IBM. It occurs to a majority of them that things happening in these games are similar to and different from real work and useful to think about in real work. People volunteer that they have made that connection.

Tell me about the honesty that the use of avatars engenders. In games, they are signals of your role and expertise. In respect to representing expertise, the games keep you honest in ways real life doesn't. You can't say you are a Level 50 when you're only 40, whereas you can probably do that at work, where expertise is more objective. That's one reason people like these games: because they're fair. It's not about who you know and how well you do in the hallway conversation; it's what level you've achieved.

Finally, you note that leadership roles are often temporary in games. To some extent, people with competence rise to the top, but there is a lot of temporary leadership: I've been in this dungeon, so I'll just take over. A corollary is that leaders get experience being followers and that's useful also, because people who know a lot are being directed by people who know less, but for whatever reason, it's their turn to take over.

Getting back to the conclusion that the right environment may matter more than the right leader -- how can companies benefit from that insight? Build better environments, and leadership will emerge. There's a real interest in analytics in business now. You can have a lot of data about how things are going. Dashboard and analytics is a good example. They provide a leader board and a score card like games have, and they're right up there for everybody to see. It's very gamelike.

Other recent Q&A's with Harvard Business Review authors:

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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