Have you ever watched a friend or offspring deeply engaged in a video game and performing a highly complex but completely artificial task with incredible competence? Could that focus and attention be bottled and used for something serious? We’re convinced it can. This is not so much about how you plan to win against competitors, but how you adapt to an extraordinary new form of media that will affect your enterprise: massive multiplayer online games or MMOs for short.
Console video games have powerful lessons for business about engagement and motivation, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you look further into the world of collaboration taking place in the online role-playing games, every day (and night) tens of thousands of teams of 5 to 100’s of people from multiple time zones, countries and cultures, each with different and highly complementary skills self-assemble around extremely challenging goals. Sound familiar? It should. This is the new world of global business collaboration. The psychological principles and affordances found in MMOs have much to teach us about teamwork, leadership, innovation, urgency, and incentives (“what do I get when we win?”).
One of the reasons to pay attention is that these games are dramatically shaping the expectations of people entering the workforce. The gamer generation has different expectations about challenge, risk, authority, and collaboration as we have been warned by John Beck and Mitchell Wade in Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever. More recent surveys have shown the extent to which thirty-something men (and increasingly women) are playing these complex, social on-line games. What’s most important is that we know many of these gamers work at your company right now.
To be clear, we are not talking about just using games for training and simulation, although these are wonderful applications. Beyond using game technology to help people get ready to make money for shareholders, we are talking about game technology to help people while they are making money for shareholders. This could range from borrowing a few of the key psychological ingredients from great games like World of Warcraft that will make the workplace more interesting to the full Monty: re-engineering entire jobs so that workers become their avatars, building transparent and persistent reputations for tackling graded challenges with teammates inside a virtual online world as part of a compelling narrative. If this sounds fantastic, it’s worth noting that tens of millions of MMO players are already carrying out tasks inside their games that look exactly like the kinds of information work that companies have to pay people to do!
If you peel back the patina of medieval or science fiction images of dragons and spaceships, you will find a host of features that perfectly capture the essence of motivation and management in business. Games do an especially good job of encouraging people to try and fail, and try again in the context of clear and interesting challenges. They do a fabulous job of giving feedback in all of the relevant timescales for a task. Leadership emerges as a product of the environment, as we described in the May, 2008 issue of HBR. Collaboration is faster and richer with reputation systems flowing in parallel channels of information where dashboards are as important to followers as to leaders. Importantly, players use a synthetic currency to record, exchange and store value that can be traded in vibrant markets.
Because business is utterly dependent on voluntary creativity and collaboration of workers using their tacit knowledge, ignoring game inspired design principles is a huge missed opportunity. Games offer powerful tools for creating alignment, performance and engagement. And like any powerful technology, they can be dangerous if the implications for stakeholders aren’t thoughtfully considered. In future posts, we’ll share some ideas about how to discover and apply these ideas at work. In the meantime, we are interested in what you think about the notion of using game technology at work.