Elliot Noss, chief executive of domain name provider Tucows, has spent the past five years training to become a better leader. How? By playing World of Warcraft for six to seven hours a week.
"You have these events [in World of Warcraft] that are very leadership-driven," Noss says. "For example, when you're in a raid that's poorly led, it's really easy to see how valuable are skills like managing the social dynamic, making sure there was the right level of preparation and making sure that there was a clear hierarchy in terms of who is performing what roles."
In World of Warcraft, each action, even a small task like hunting an animal, has a purpose and fits into a broader framework. Similarly, Noss has set up frameworks at Tucows that allow employees to understand how day-to-day tasks impact the company.
He does this, in part, by giving employees a broader narrative and context for their work. Noss does a regular lunchtime series called "Tucows Lore." Around 20 employees come to each session. Noss plays the company poet, telling tales of Tucows over the years — its heroes, villains, battles with large telecommunications companies or the early days of the domain registration market. "The feedback is fantastic. It helps people feel they are part of something bigger," Noss says.
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Noss' efforts seem to be paying off. He says he has seen employee satisfaction rise and turnover decrease by a noticeable percentage.
To be sure, videogames have long been thought of as distractions to work and education, rather than aids. But there is a growing school of thought that says game-playing in moderation, and in your free time, can make you more successful in your career.
"We're finding that the younger people coming into the teams who have had experience playing online games are the highest-level performers because they are constantly motivated to seek out the next challenge and grab on to performance metrics," says John Hagel III, co-chairman of a tech-oriented strategy center for Deloitte. Hagel has been studying the effect that playing videogames has on the performance of young professionals in the workplace.
Hagel cites Stephen Gillett, a gamer who became chief information officer of Starbucks while still in his 20s. By playing World of Warcraft Gillet developed the ability to influence and persuade people through leadership rather than trying to order them around.
Gamers learn to respond to, and even seek out, new challenges in order to progress. They also learn to improvise, and are thus more likely to be able to solve problems creatively when there is no solution to be found in a manual.
A book published in April called Your Career Game discusses how online Xbox games like Modern Warfare 2 can teach players about game theory. The strategies gamers learn in interacting and competing with others in games, assessing different motivations and finding and utilizing mentors can help employees get ahead in the workplace or help job-seekers get an edge in their search. The book was co-authored by Nathan Bennett, a management professor at Georgia Tech, and Stephen Miles, vice chairman of executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.
Hagel also says games can cultivate "dispositions" that are valuable in a corporate setting. Videogames are often a trial-and-error process where players become accustomed to failure, and learn from it.
Games can also present players with unexpected challenges and new situations. Gamers learn to respond to, and even seek out, new challenges in order to progress. They also learn to improvise, and are thus more likely to be able to solve problems creatively when there is no solution to be found in a manual.
Player vs. self
Games can train you to manage and organize high volumes of information. Luis Corujo, an archivist at the Portuguese National Archives and a professor at a private university in Portugal, credits playing history game Europa Universalis 2 with helping him learn how to research historical information and sift through archives.
And of course, games are competitive. "There's a player-vs.-self aspect: 'I want to beat my high score or keep the streak alive,'" says Ross Smith, director of product testing at Microsoft's Unified Communications Group. Smith says he has seen some impressive productivity gains using games as a way of motivating product testing teams.
Videogames can also inspire entrepreneurship. In 2004 then 22-year-old David Storey entered the Guinness World Records as having bought the "most valuable object that is virtual," a virtual island in the online game "Project Entropia," for a whopping $26,500. Far from being a digital sucker, Storey had moneymaking in mind: He now runs the island as a virtual game preserve, making $100,000 a year from taxes he charges hunters on his island. Being a virtual property owner, says Storey, has taught him a lot more about business than he ever thought a game could.
Does that mean entries like "guild leader" or "virtual island business owner" will become more common on resumes? Not yet, but maybe soon. Says Hagel: "I anticipate in the not-too-distant future this will be as standard a part of your resume as where you went to school."