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Things The Real World Can Learn From Video Games

Why read a book on business leadership when you can play a game? Video games are interactive and fun. They may just provide the best business model to date, if you know what you're looking for. Because, sometimes, life doesn't imitate art enough.

Plants Vs. ZombiesI sat down to play Plants Vs. Zombies for the first time the other night.  It wouldn't be my usual choice of gameplay after a stressful day; I'm not much into casual games.  Normally, I'd go for something with more punch such as Burnout or Soul Calibur.  This game, however, had been recommended by my manager with a bit of passion, so I gave it a try.  I was right, for me.  I found this strategy game boring, but it made me think about employees and employers and the things that we can learn from video games. 

To begin with, what do players (employees) want in a game (job)? 

Introduction:
We want the intro to match the game and make us want to play.  How does it draw us in?  What's in it for us?  Some of this is, of course, player responsibility.  A player is not going to buy a racing game if they hate racing games.  But, if they buy Grand Theft Auto, they would expect to be stealing cars.  Perhaps they would also expect to be chased by police.  "Grand Theft Auto" is the name of a crime, after all.  Players expect the play to match the description on the box, the title of the game and the opening credits.  They don't want surprises or dramatic changes in gameplay.  The introduction tells you what to expect and players want the introduction to be honest.  

Tips for Managers:  Be honest in the interview and let the prospective employee make an informed decision.  If the job changes often, let them know this up front.  Tell them what the company culture is so that they can determine whether or not the job fits them.
  You'll gain happier, more productive employees who promote your business.

Getting Going:
In-game tutorials work the best.  It keeps the player involved in gameplay while showing them the ropes.  Hopefully, the learning curve isn't too steep and frustrating for the player.  Players want to play.  Get them in the game and empower them from the beginning.  While challenge is essential to all great games, a player should feel as if they are able to play the game and that they have some of the skills necessary to do so.  

Tips for Managers: A new employee wants to hit the floor running.  Reading materials and videos don't mean much to employees who are unfamiliar with the job and are useless to employees who are.  There should be a balance of work and learning.  Empower your employee and help them find their strengths in the job. 

Fun:
Is the player smiling, laughing or emotionally engaged in another way?  How does the game make players feel?  What makes them want to play?  What makes them come back for more?  Part of great game design is designing the player experience.  We want players empowered, making choices, using their resources, and having fun. 

Tips for Managers:  If you can't find anything engaging about your job, neither will your employee.  Telling them "This is just the way things are here" is the same as saying "Thanks for playing."  Your player will soon find a new place to play. Employee turnover is expensive; engaged, happy employees are more productive and give better customer service.

Immersion:
An immersive game covers the senses or at least gets the player into a zone.  It affects them personally in some way and the hours tend to slip away.  Immersive play includes fun; it's engaging.  The player is empowered.  They are making decisions.  They are making choices.  They have a sense of control over their play.  They receive rewards or incentives that drive them forward whether it's to further the story as in Bioshock or to complete a set list in Guitar Hero

Tips for Managers:  How immersive is your work?  Do the hours fly by or do employees spend the day watching the clock, waiting for it to end?  Even tedious jobs can become engaging if the environment is made more playful or competitive.  Once again, a fun environment and happy employees increases productivity and improves customer satisfaction.

Empowered Player Characters:

In any story-driven game, the player character goes on a hero's journey.  He begins lacking in some way.  Perhaps he must fight but never has before.  Perhaps he needs to be more compassionate or come to grips with a past event.  No matter what the PC's story is, he will grow steadily during the game until he is transformed in some way at the end. He is forever changed by experience and experience brings skills he will be able to use somewhere in the future. 

Even in games without any real player character, such as Guitar Hero or Tetris, the player grows with the experience of play.  In Guitar Hero, for instance, the game wipes the floor with the player on some solos until they find, with time and muscle memory, that their play has improved so that the solo has become easy.  Picking up a guitar months later reveals that the skill learned during previous sessions has only slightly diminished.  They'll remember struggling with a solo that now comes easily. 

Many games offer different levels of play or different player options.  An RPG, for instance, allows players to shape their game experience through choice of character class and fighting style.  Action games often contain a variety of combat styles allowing those who prefer shooting to use weapons where others might choose melee, magic, or even stealth.  Video games allow players to play to their strengths.

Tips for Managers:  Give your employees opportunities for growth or they'll stagnate.  Stalled employees don't shine, don't stand out and don't reach for opportunities.  They come in, do their jobs, and go home. They lose their ability to, and their interest in, improving their job or workplace.  They lose their creativity. Play to their strengths. Empower them to make choices, find solutions, and to be autonomous.  Everyone wants an opportunity to shine, their "15 minutes of fame".  Sometimes, increasing employee satisfaction is as simple as that. 


Social and Co-Op Play:
Contrary to popular belief, gamers are social beings.  Playing video games is a social activity.  Casual games such as Farmville and Mafia Wars are teaching us new ways to use Farmville co-op play in social settings.  In these games, you don't have to play at the same time to help each other out.  Online play allows players to play with people from all over the world.  Sometimes, such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,  the online play is preferred over the story mode. In general, we are social beings who welcome the opportunity to work with others to accomplish a goal. 

Tips for Managers: Foster a friendly, co-operative environment in the workplace.  Friends are more likely to jump in and cover for another friend and to freely lend a helping hand without being asked.  Playful workers will happily include customers in the jovial atmosphere which can only improve the customer experience.  In game studios, a sense of play and goofiness allows a creative spark to travel through the team, breeding innovative ideas and impressive player experiences.

Rewards and Punishments:
Game states tend to have an abundance of rewards and few punishments.  Players move through a game, leveling up, obtaining treasure, making discoveries, improving their skills and stats, earning trophies, unlocking new items, and buying items from shops or vendors.  Level endings often give affirmations, such as Guitar Hero's "You Rock!", and statistics such as a star rating, grades, medals, or numeric scores.  In some cases, such as earning a medal in Burnout, the rewards the player works for are very clear.  In others, such as hidden trophies, the rewards are a pleasant surprise for good play.  Punishments are usually brief and definitive.  You're Dead.  Game Over.  Sometimes, you lose very little with the death.  You might pick up where you died, or you might have to replay a good portion of the level.  Most of the time, though, the ending is foreseeable.  You're aware that your PC is dying or that the blocks are stacking up faster than you can move them.  Games are transparent in this way.  Whether you are working toward a reward or playing poorly, the game lets you know, in real time, how you are doing. 

Tips for Managers:  This is one area in which life definitely does not imitate art, and it should.  Whether you are a teacher, a parent, a leader, or a manager, people thrive on rewards and die when all they get is negative feedback.  Rewards should always be plentiful and participants should always have a clear reward to work for.  Rewards must be intrinsic, natural.  Studies have shown that extrinsic rewards do not work because people will take the shortest, easiest route to the goal.  It reduces effectiveness, risk-taking, and creative problem-solving.  There is no way to keep an eye on the goal since the goal is not part of the task at hand.  Intrinsic goals keep the player focused and engaged, improving the big picture while moving forward. 

Summary:
Under the current recession, the prevailing attitude seems to be "you're lucky to have a job".  I have worked under great managers, but have also seen my share of managers with the attitude of "If you don't like it, you don't have to work here" or "You can be replaced."  This is all true, and it's one way to look at things.  However, without the team, there is no business and your team is the front line.  A unhappy customer tells 10 people about their experience, a happy customer tells 3.  On internet review sites, the number of ears a complaint reaches is multiplied a hundred-fold.  Likewise, an unhappy former employee can be your business' worst enemy.  In addition to the marketing damage an unhappy workplace creates, turnover can be a costly problem.  Whether your field is highly specialized or not, each employee required some degree of training with your systems.  Depending on how long an employee stays, they've gone through changes and upgrades.  Replacing them requires replacing knowledge and skills. 

Happy employees and a friendly, playful work environment are inviting to customers.  Pike Street Fish Market has become World Famous for it's atmosphere of fun and excitement.  The job is dirty and stinky and the men who work there might have every reason to hate their jobs.  They could trudge to work every day and give excellent customer service and still fail to thrive.  The atmosphere and the way the employees are empowered, and empower each other, has made them a tourist destination instead.  We can't all throw fish, but we can take a lesson from video games and lighten up. We can be creative and learn to think outside of the box.  We can find creative solutions together.  We can work as a team.  We can play. 

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