I’ve been thinking about virtual game worlds lately, and World of Warcraft specifically.
Ok now for the two or three of you still reading this, I’ve been thinking about this in the context of business leadership development strategies. I signed for World of Warcraft mostly because my brother has been really into it for a while (we chat more in game than on phone). The funny thing is that while he’s never held what most would consider a leadership role in the meat space, I’ve found him to demonstrate both leadership qualities and networking (social that is) qualities in the virtual space. Naturally, I wondered whether group virtual games might be a good training grounds for leadership candidates.
Management Thinker, Meet Warchief Thrall
It turns out Harvard Business Review writers Byron Reeves, Tom Malone, and Tony O’Driscoll are thinking and writing about the same things. The issue here is that leadership material is sometimes “invisible” to decision makers either because of pigeon-holed talent (“Bob is too good at coding to promote”) or because of lack of objective opportunities to assess everyone. It’s the latter gap which virtual games may plug. But to understand why virtual worlds may provide a breeding ground for leadership, one must first understand the nature of what goes on in games like Warcraft. For those of you familiar with the game, just skip the next paragraph.
Players can assemble ad-hoc to run missions (“instances”) either in groups of 5, or can run expanded missions (“raids”) of 25 players for more experienced players. Usually coordinated activity is run by a group leader, but in the case of a raid, there are usually several leaders, each by function. Raids are particularly fascinating to watch from a leadership development standpoint, since coordinating the efforts of 25 people involves some degree of work. Usually work coordination falls along the lines of functional sub groups, or “classes“. Examples include front-line “marines” called Warriors and long-range strike classes like bow and arrow-wielding Hunters. My alter ego belongs to the Priest class, which is essentially a medic or healer. Each class has a conversation channel of its own during raids, and coordination of niche tasks, while an raid leader coordinates the various class leads ensuring the pace of raid progression is neither frenetic nor sluggish. This is in addition to the raid leader’s responsibility to ensure a balanced distribution of skills in the group (classes).
World of Leadershipcraft ?
In one of investor and activist Joi Ito’s blog posts, he writes that “a well-run raid is an amazing thing to participate in.” The opposite also holds: a poorly run raid is frustrating and usually leads to bickering and abandonment of the raid goal. It requires precise coordination with functional subgroups and among them, as one person slipping up may cause the entire 25 man group to end up dead. Executing on a complex group strategy requires minimal direct management and relies on solely referent power as opposed to title-based or command structure based power. Class leaders and raid leaders are sometimes selected ad-hoc, but often are scheduled ahead of time. If you’ve been involved in any open source project, the leadership parallels are stunning. What’s more surprising is the leadership is coming from a surprising array of unlikely places. The raid leader I’ve participated with the most is (drumroll)… a customer service rep in Florida for a large telco. I’m stunned when I think of the wasted potential here: I’ve seen this fellow anchor a team and find him to be an inspiring leader. Various class leaders I’ve interacted with in the past include a 9th grade student, unemployed lawyer, two disabled blue collar workers, an expecting mother at home, an 85 year old retired petroleum engineer, a liquor store clerk, a minister, and a programmer.
The Future is Now
So is this a window into the future of management in an uber-diverse, ad-hoc, real time world? Well, perhaps it’s not the future, but the present. Consider that Best Buy’s Geek Squad unit cements working relationships and brainstorms over massively distributed onling games. Still, how accurate a predictor of leadership talent are these online game worlds? Your basic leadership model taught in any business school in the world consists of three traits leaders must possess: empathy, communication, and vision. Empathy is more important in tactical or front-line leadership roles, while the more you move up the traditional hierachy the more important vision becomes. While online worlds certainly put communication and empathy to the test, these environments do not provide a real world proxy for vision. The reason is simple enough – online raids can be reduced to numbers (see the #1 entry on this list). Each class and each raid is specific in nature, and requires a specific combination of skills and balancing. Out of the box thinking is tested in the case of unexpected setbacks, such as a player disconnecting abruptly. Real world leadership involves boundless options for action, versus predescribed paths which need to be managed. That doesn’t invalidate online worlds as leadership development grounds, but does put some qualifiers on them.
My take is that online worlds provide an excellent proxy for mid level management where skills like communication and personality/empathy matter. While out-of-the-box or strategic thinking takes some role, it’s important to remember the players can’t simply realign the class rules in the game, nor can they negotiate their way out of conflict, which is of course in the interest of generating fun. Afterall, Gandalf in Tolken’s classic Lord of the Rings wouldn’t negotiate with Sauron. That would be lame. Still, there’s enough value here (as Geek Squad proves) to explore online world leadership development.