Game to Lead; how multiplayer games can aid in leadership development

It is often said that leaders are born; recent research however has shown that this is not the case. Leadership behaviour can be learned. Given the right experiences and opportunities, anyone can exhibit leadership potential. Games can provide these opportunities to practice behaviours which are fundamental to good leadership; team work, communication, problem solving, decision making and emotional management. The behaviours required to succeed in gaming environments are akin to the attributes leaders require in the real world. With the average age of gamers now extending into the mid 30’s many individuals in middle management positions are practicing leadership behaviours in their spare time. Up and coming leaders may show great interest in training applications that utilise elements from social networking and online gaming, where they can receive immediate feedback, take risks, experiment with trial and error and most importantly fail with no impact to the business in the real world. These behaviours will fortify their job specific skills which they will need to carry out in their day to day activities. Combined with traditional interventions, leadership behaviour can be practised in a safe, risk free and focused gaming environment which provides an opportunity to hone these behaviours allowing leaders to reach their full potential.

As a leader you are not given the answer

Leaders often have to set their own goals in line with the organisational objectives. The ability to understand their objective and break that down into tasks and activities and then to follow through is central to their own performance but also to the performance of their team as a whole.

When you first enter a game of any kind, no matter whether it is a first person shooter, role play adventure of even driving simulation you are given an objective. The objective is often high level and may well break down in smaller more focused activities but you have a purpose; rescue the princess, win the tournament, kill all the bad guys etc.

Let’s take rescuing the princess as an example. This overall objective will break down into smaller tasks, such as explore the environment, unlock the door, and raise the drawbridge.  Each of these smaller steps is guiding you ever closer to your overall objective, and each of these smaller tasks requires skills such as problem solving, understanding your resources and decision making. Unless you refer to a cheat sheet or walkthrough you will not be given the answer to the challenge, you will have to work out for yourself what actions are required to reach your goal. A good player, just as a good leader, will utilise their problem solving skills to analyse the challenge, conduct a resource evaluation, and use their decision making abilities to accomplish the task at hand.

You made a mistake, no problem!

The great thing is, if you make a mistake, if you don’t rescue the princess because you didn’t convince the old man to give you the key in time to unlock the door then it’s just game over…and you can try again. There are no real life consequences to making a mistake in the virtual world. Compare this to a time pressured task in your job role where you had to uncover a key piece of information from a member of your team who was perhaps unwilling to cooperate, if you did not achieve your goal, there would be consequences of cost, reputation and potentially reduced team cohesion which can be very damaging to group effectiveness.

Search your feelings

Due to their immersive nature, games and simulations draw users into fantastical or realistic new worlds with new rules and relationships. These worlds can more often than not become very emotionally engaging to the user, by either the use of characters, curiosity driven through the narrative, or simply the desire to win. Frustration is a common emotion experienced by leaders in the real world and the way in which they handle their frustration is fundamental to their effectiveness. Games have the potential to place the user in an emotionally charged, high engagement and potentially frustrating environment. How you manage yourself in these circumstances often has an impact in how successful you are: if you allow yourself to become flustered or so frustrated that you give up you will not achieve your goal. Maintaining a level head and a keen eye on your objective will help you succeed.

In a multiplayer gaming environment emotions can heighten even further and create an environment where you just can’t give up, you must continue for the sake of the team. With the introduction of conflicting goals, personalities and problem solving approaches multiplayer games allow users to practice their self management skills such as redirecting negative emotions in a positive way, resolving inner conflict and facilitating difficult conversations with their team mates.

Be adaptable

Adaptability is a key leadership trait. A great leader can be many things, but most great leaders do not fall apart when change and adversity crop up. Often failure can begin to creep into working practices when they begin to stagnate, when things are taken for granted. By incorporating different tasks, and characters, games provide an environment that is constantly changing. The narrative will develop to reveal new clues that shed new light on your perspective, or you discover a new device that allows you to take on new challenges. The point is, in a gaming environment a player is constantly evaluating their environment, they never become blasé to the objects and world around them, and when something new appears it is a mechanism to instil curiosity rather than panic.

These changes may involve new players or the rules of the environment may change; both of these are facts of life, we often have to cope with new team members and changes to processes. A good leader can adapt and find the best approach to continue their journey toward their objective.

Develop your team

A good leader knows how to get the best from their team; they understand the strengths and potential of each of their team members and which situations will benefit from their input. The same can be said of those who participate in multiplayer games. Each individual often has a specific role to play, and the leader of this group must understand how these roles relate to the task at hand and when best to utilise those skills. World of Warcraft is a prime example of how groups of disparate people come together to form ‘guilds’, each containing a variety of skills such as healer, warrior, thief etc. Each of these roles and when they are used will affect the success of the in game missions the group attempts.

A good leader, whether in a virtual or real world must utilise and develop his or her team members, in appropriate activities, providing feedback, recognition and advice on areas to improve upon.

This opportunity to coach is not purely limited to the team leader. Because the team in a gaming sense is more informal, coaching is available to all team members. Participants are all free to leave when they want, but they chose to stay to help one another develop and as a consequence they all feel a sense of shared ownership of success.

In today’s turbulent economic climate, organizational success can be directly linked to the cooperation and coordination of the workforce; a workforce with a shared vision and objective.  A good leader is essential in making this happen.

The scores of definitions of leadership suggest a multitude of traits and skills which are associated to good leadership, however almost all of them place emphasis on a leaders behaviour first and their skills second.

With increasing globalisation and virtualisation, collaboration is becoming increasingly important to both our work and also our social lives. The behaviours exhibited in these virtual tools such as online games, are analogous to those of effective leaders, for example; being goal driven, a good team worker, a great communicator, and extracting the best out of people, whilst operating in disparate locations, in different time zones. Whether your goal is to create a corporate strategy for a new product launch or to lead a group to explore middle earth and slay 100’s of Orcs, the skill and behaviours required to meet these goals are markedly similar.


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