Would you be surprised to be told that nerdy war-gamers may embody traits that are prized by organizations seeking innovation? Would you accept the premise that teaming up with people you've never met to defeat a tribe of virtual elves breeds collaborative learning?
The vexing challenge of promoting innovation among employees appears to be getting a boost from massively multiplayer online role-playing games or MMORPGs, as they are known. In contrast to traditional training, which tends to focus on transferring existing knowledge rather than creating new knowledge, many fantasy games, such as World of Warcraft, Eve Online, and Everquest, are designed to foster and reward new thinking.
Companies attempting to drive innovation, with its emphasis on breaking the frames around fixed thinking, have tried many kinds of environments to promote new mindsets, from greenfield sites to skunkworks. Michael Schrage, author of Serious Play: How the Best Companies Simulate to Innovate, writes about a "third place" where co-creative activity leads to innovation. Online role-playing games are such a place.
The esteemed John Seely Brown, author of Minds on Fire, a paean to continuous learning and the ongoing creation of new ideas and skills, suggests that MMORPGs may hold some keys to self-directed learning, better individual and team performance, and a more innovative workforce.
The designers of these games, which consume the attention of tens of millions of people daily, use some strategies that any good instructional designer will recognize. They lay out progressively more difficult challenges and reward learning to overcome them by granting access to even tougher ones.
In World of Warcraft (WoW), players earn experience points for taking part in game activities such as raids. As a player advances, more points are needed to move to successive levels. In other words, the more you learn, the more fun you have. And as some research has shown, a player's learning accelerates as difficulty increases. Widespread recognition for players who gain new skills is built into the game.
The marketing copy for Wrath of the Lich King, an add-on to WoW, touts learning as a benefit of playing. Among the features held out to entice new players are these promises: "Master the necromantic powers of the Death Knight; Quest to Level 80, gaining potent new abilities and talents along the way."
Although fantasy games have the look and feel of ancient imaginary kingdoms, they promote some very modern collaborative learning and problem solving. An elaborate subculture of networks has grown up around some of the games. Players consult one another on how to overcome challenges and mentor less -experienced players. Some even use the virtual networks to recruit skilled players to their guilds or teams. Such self-directed learning would be the envy of any corporate university director.
Team play is the norm for the tougher challenges of WoW, and this is where innovation can take place. Collaborative learning, needed to overcome many of these challenges, is enhanced as new players enter the game. According to Brown and others, these advanced players help teams devise innovative ways to learn and gain access to the next level of performance.
Amazingly, given the almost universal dislike of performance reviews, players of WoW review their performance as individuals and teams, using metrics built into the game. Everyone can see the performance scores, and poor players are motivated to improve their skills to stay on a team.
Good performers have what Tony O'Driscoll, a professor at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, calls "reputational capital." "What you have accomplished and how your performance has been assessed by other players is open for all to see." Capability is so transparent that players cannot fake their skills.
Preparing for and executing raids is a popular activity in WoW. After each raid, the spoils - such as captured weapons and clothing and other virtual trophies - are divvied up immediately. "There's a tight link between accomplishment of activity and remuneration for it," says O'Driscoll, referring to part of the game environment that drives engagement and performance.
Brown says that gamers, with their eagerness to learn, collaborate, and innovate for the good of the team, have a "disposition" that would serve business organizations well.
The "learning disposition," described by Brown and Douglas Thomas in an article on Harvard Business Review's Conversation Starter website, has five attributes that can be observed in serious gamers:
- They are bottom-line oriented. They like to be evaluated, and their goal is not to be rewarded but to improve.
- They understand the power of diversity. The key to achievement in a multplayer game is teamwork, and the strongest teams have a mix of talents and abilities.
- They thrive on change. Playing the game changes it, and experienced players expect and encourage flux.
- They see learning as fun. For gamers, fun consists of assembling tools and resources that will help them learn.
- They marinate on the "edge." Gamers look for new insights and approaches that will deepen their understanding of the game. They are consummate innovators.
People with the "gaming disposition" are better able to thrive in the contemporary workplace, say Brown and Thomas, and companies should recruit for the disposition and foster it among employees.
Tony O'Driscoll believes that multiplayer role-playing games are a rough proxy for the work environment that lies ahead and that they offer clues to leadership in the future. Certain of their characteristics, such as nonmonetary performance incentives, data that can be seen by all, and temporary leadership roles that allow practice leading to mastery, could be important in organizations of the future.
"The enterprise of the future will be small, global, knowledge-driven, and dependent on web-enabled partnerships. Such organizations require a different kind of leadership," O'Driscoll says. In the MMORPG world, leadership is a task, not an identity. There's no succession planning. Leaders emerge or are drafted by their teams as needed, and can (and do) walk away from leadership roles.
The game environment favors calm levelheadedness. Teams and their leaders must make very quick decisions with incomplete data, take risks readily, and weigh odds in uncertain environments. But practice is plentiful, and gamers interviewed by researchers have claimed improvements in their leadership skills as a result of playing the games.
Clark Aldrich, a veteran game creator, cautions that not every MMORPG player will come away with a set of transferable leadership skills. "Most people who play aren't becoming leaders of virtual teams," he says.
While some skills, such as scheduling and assigning talent, transfer from the game world into the world of work, Aldrich believes there is much less crossover of management skills from virtual to real teams. "Managerial roles such as establishing trust and acting as a mentor are better accomplished face-to-face," he says. "But if I had a high score in WoW, I'd bring it up in
Some skeptics ask if gaming worlds resemble the workplace of the future or the social tribes of a high school where "noobs" (unskilled new players) are mocked and facile thinking trumps other skills. Will the skills that kids learn from Webkinz (earning and spending Kinzcash) and Camp Penguin (interacting through avatars that look like penguins in human clothing) benefit some future workplace? Certainly not in all cases, but organizations and their learning leaders may be missing the boat by ignoring the gaming environment and the traits of its best performers. At the least, recruiters could filter for gamer attributes such as collaboration skills and enthusiasm for learning and change.
As more gamers enter the workforce, it will be up to organizations to provide the stimulating, challenging, and shifting environment that gamers love. Imagine a company that provided a stream of new challenges to keep brains engaged and innovation flowing. How bad could that be?