The top players

Posted on 4 Apr 2011 by The Manufacturer

Jon Miller of Gemba Research comments on the case for computer gamers as business superstars

A Harvard Business Review article titled The Gamer Disposition makes a case for the players of multi-player online games as good candidates within the dynamic and flexible modern organization. Specifically the authors John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas list five qualities that make these gamers winners in today’s workplace. The qualities are:

1. Bottom-line orientation
2. Understanding the power of diversity
3. Thriving on change
4. Having fun learning
5. Marinating on the “edge”

The authors claim that the “bottom-line orientation” characterizes gamers whose goal is “not to be rewarded but to improve” and who use a system of points, rankings etc. to measure achievement. They play to win, in other words, and presumably also because playing is fun. What is different with complex online games is that the gamers are able to see the data underlying their game play. They are developing an understanding of cause and effect. These are great skills. Will the online game player find fulfillment in the modern workplace? This is only so if the workplace offers an equally rigorous fact-based system of measuring progress, achievement and statistics on personal performance. Real work is quite a bit more complex than the game world and I have yet to see a workplace that does this better than a video game.

In these games “the key to achievement is teamwork” according to the authors. It is true that these video games are designed with specific roles that people must play in order to win. In life in general it is true that teamwork is necessary in order to have a full set of skills and strengths to meet challenges in life. This is no different for a player of team sports, a player in a bluegrass band or a player organizing a picnic with friends. What makes me skeptical is the claim that these gamer disposition actually helps in the modern workplace where, unlike in sports, positions and roles are not clear cut, balanced, fair and stable. For the gamer to be a player in the modern workplace, work must be structured so that the only way to succeed is through cross-functional teams. This requires clear rules and coworkers who respect them and play as a team.

The “thriving on change” attribute is interesting because entire premise of many games is that the players are part of a narrative. The ultimate goal is to be strong enough and skilled enough to “beat the boss”. The storyline can be linear or non-linear and branching with variable outcomes, but in essence it is a book that has already been written. The gamer is only turning the pages. The players have power over the world in that as one progresses, the gamer is able to unlock parts of the game thereby changing how the game narrative progresses or what landscapes become available. The irony of this phrase should not be lost. In reality, the online game is far more stable than the average workplace in its day to day chaos. Very little changes in the online game, when compared to the real world. For this gamer disposition to allow people to thrive in the real workplace requires a stable environment in which the player has the ability to progress deeper into the narrative of the business, whether it be serving customers, meeting personal goals or beating the boss.

The authors claim that gamers are disposed to “see learning as fun” and that the reward is converting knowledge into the ability to do more things in the games, to solve other challenges and beat bigger bosses. This seems naive. Much of the online game experience seems to be mindless repetition of the same actions in order to obtain money, reputation or other items which are necessary to acquire a sufficient level of brute strength to progress in the narrative. This fits the business model of the companies that sell subscriptions to these games; the more you play, the more you pay. If it was possible to “learn” one’s way to beating the boss, these game companies would not be making the billions that they are. Ironically this may be the point missed by the authors, that the multi-player online game uniquely builds in players a tolerance for the mindless daily grind necessary to get ahead in the modern workplace.

What does it mean to “marinate on the edge”? Marinate means to soak or immerse a food item in a sauce for a period of time in order to give it flavor. The authors explain that gamers often “explore radical alternatives and innovative strategies for completing tasks” in order to gain deeper understanding of the game. One important point to remember is that video games allow you to die and come back to life many times with minimal cost other than lost time. The trade off between the low cost of failure and the high benefits of learning something potentially useful (will doing this kill me?) makes it easy for this common human quality of curiosity to come out in gamers. I don’t believe it is a “gamer disposition” as such, merely a human one. Applied to setting up these gamers for success in the modern workplace, the lesson is that we need to make failure a safe part of the system.

I’m skeptical about the conclusions of this article, in part because one of the major factors motivating gamers to play is mentioned early in the article but not further explored for its implications on the modern workplace:

Today’s multiplayer online games are large, complex, constantly evolving social systems. Their perpetual newness is what makes them enticing to players.

Gamers play because games aren’t boring. Games are new, fun, challenging, and social due to their multi-player online nature. How many of us can say that our workplace offers a high degree of desirable newness? Once these workers with the gamer disposition find out that the modern workplace is not so new or fun, may or may not be challenging and offers less socially than their Facebook account, I am afraid these five dispositions will not show their advantage.

There is a modern urban English expression, “don’t hate the player, hate the game”. This means we should not fault someone who succeeds in exploiting the rules of a flawed system but instead we should find fault the system itself. Another way to phrase it is that we should not condemn someone for their actions without understanding the situation that led to the actions. Dr. Deming was saying “don’t hate the player” when he spoke out against placing blame on the workforce which he claimed was only responsible for 15% of problems while the system designed by management is responsible for 85% of the problems.

Gamers may well make great performers in the modern workplace. But if Deming is to be believed we have far greater leverage in designing or choosing good systems than we have in choosing good people to work within our flawed systems. If the workplace system provides the environment that allows the gamers to take advantage of their five dispositions, we have a good fit in hiring gamers. However my experience in helping modern organizations (and some less-than-modern ones) become more effective leads me to believe that the majority of them do not offer systems in which the gamer can thrive as a player. We need to design the game, hire the players, and then teach them what Deming called the theory of knowledge, the rules of the game and how it is played.

Jon Miller is founder of Gemba Research and Gemba Panta Rei blog.