Tomorrow’s finest leaders may well be today’s gamers

Video games have become problem-solving exercises wrapped in the veneer of an exotic adventure. In today's fast and rapidly-changing business environment, the strategic skills they teach are more important than ever.

These skills are undergoing a metamorphosis on their own. Strategy is more about vision and less about planning; more about communication and collaboration and less about autocratic direction; more about being creative and intuitive and less about being rational and precise.

Here is an area where video games provide players with their greatest gift. Regardless of their subject matter, they teach skills that are becoming the most important tools in the strategist's toolkit.

John Beck, co-author of Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever, shows that the game generation will have a profound effect on businesses, particularly on teamwork and business strategy.

Beck and co-author Mitchell Wade state that anyone "who actually looks at the games selling and being played knows that the typical video game is not the blood-spattering, media grabbing, parent stressing cartoon that makes the nightly news on a slow or tragic day.

"Instead, it's a massive problem solving exercise wrapped in the veneer of an exotic adventure. Or it's the detailed simulation of an entire civilisation, or a pivotal battle that affected the course of world history. Or it's a serious opportunity to try coaching a sports team or setting military strategy. In short, games are incredibly complex computer programs that lead the brain to new combinations of cognitive tasks."

Video and computer games are not mere rational, mental exercises. They engage rationality and logic as well as bring about visceral and raw emotions. They draw on reflection and intuition. Unlike television, where the viewer is reduced to the role of bystander, games draw the player into their world, so that temporarily the game world becomes the reality.

This effect, called the willing suspension of disbelief, results in a game experience that is more real to the gamer than any reality television show could ever be. Not only is the experience real, the learning that takes place is just as valid.

An important change that has taken place in the world of gaming is that games are no longer an isolating experience. Massively multiplayer online games (MMOG), particularly role-playing games, are played over the internet and, depending on the popularity of the game, may host up to several million players. World of Warcraft boasts the most paid subscriptions to date, claiming more than 6.5 million active accounts as of the middle of last year.

Many of the quests in these games require the creation of teams of two or more players to successfully complete a mission. This creates an interesting situation as players can communicate with each other to request assistance on a mission.

This is the true collaboration and teamwork that are the staple of businesses these days. By leveraging everyone's best abilities, these teams succeed where individuals would struggle.

Peer learning is prominent, where the more experienced assist those with less experience to reach a higher level.

An organisation that understands the importance of games and is placing increasing emphasis on them as tools for recruiting, training and rehabilitation is the US armed forces. The MMOG America's Army, developed by the US military, is one of the most sophisticated games. With an estimated 6 million players, it gives recruits a realistic insight into the business of modern warfare.

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.

This attitude towards failure eventually permeates life outside of the game. The result is that the gaming generation is willing to take more risks and be more entrepreneurial than previous generations.

Beck and Wade's research indicates that the need for lateral thinking and the ability to integrate all kinds of different dimensions during games leave their mark.

They found that 80 percent of managers in the US under the age of 35 had significant video game experience and that gamers had a more positive outlook on life than non-gamers. Gamers tended to prefer multitasking to individual assignments, to stave off boredom.

Gamers naturally think outside the box and possess a unique set of skills that have been developed and honed during hours of game play. Beck states that gamers are unique, in that they naturally think about the systems that underlie a game, rather than thinking linearly.

Beck reiterates that one of the most important life lessons that games teach is that "failure is part of the process that leads to success". As gamers encounter different challenges in life, they may be set back but are very less likely to give up.

Virtual organisations are also becoming more commonplace: companies are becoming networks of people and entities defined by the relationships, rather than the nodes. Gamers are naturally comfortable with this concept, as their reality is one of connectedness, of a world that is created in the memory of a network of computers that has life breathed into it by the imagination of the participants.

The challenge for gamers and senior executives is to not to take a game literally, but to apply lateral thinking to problem solving and the ability to think in systems to understand the inter-relatedness of the real, rapidly changing, business world.

From realistic battlefield simulations to the building of great nations, from fantastic voyages through worlds of mythology to conquering space, "Generation G" could well offer the answer to unlocking great 21st century strategists and leaders.


This is an abridged version of a paper written by Goebel, Govender and Drake while completing the MBA programme at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business last year.


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Tomorrow’s finest leaders may well be today’s gamers