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April 02, 2021

Leadership Lessons from Video Gaming

I’m a video game guy. From the first time I played Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) back in the late 80s, something about gaming grabbed ahold of me. And I’m not alone. The video gaming industry has grown tremendously over the last several decades into a 150 billion dollar industry. There are over 2.5 billion people playing video games worldwide!

So why’s gaming so popular? I think there are lots of reasons. It provides an escape. It’s fun. It’s a challenge. It gives us the chance to do things and become characters we never could in real life!

In addition to that, I think video games tap into some core human motivators. And it’s these motivators I’m interested in as a student of leadership. If leadership is about inspiring and influencing others to pursue common goals, then I think we can learn a lot from how video games capture our attention, energy, emotions, and (hours upon hours of) time.

Now, all that being said, I recognize that the impact of video games isn’t always positive. Like many other created things that have the power to captivate us (food, media, or technology, for example), they can be used for negative ends or become out of balance. But that shouldn’t prevent us from enjoying the gift that gaming can be, or from mining its wisdom.

Here are some leadership lessons from video gaming:

We Are a Questing People. If you look at almost any video game, there’s always a goal to achieve. For fellow fans of the role-playing game (RPG) or open-world adventure game genres, this goal is often positioned as a quest or series of quests — oh so many side quests! The pursuit of goals seems to be an essential element of human motivation. We are a questing people, driven to move out of the status quo and to journey towards something new and valuable. So, as a leader, are you ensuring your team has clear and desirable goals?

We All Want to Become More. One of the most captivating things about playing video games is that we can be something different and greater than we are. In becoming an avatar version of ourselves within games, we can possess qualities and abilities beyond what’s possible today (or maybe even ever). Why is that attractive? I think it’s because all of us, deep down, strive to become more than we are. We yearn to be free of our limitations and fears in order to realize our full potential. As leaders, we can harness this desire by helping our team members grow and develop.

Storytelling is King of Communication. When a situation or goal is presented in video games, it’s not done through the use of spreadsheets, charts, or bullet points. The best games don’t communicate by delivering a monotone set of instructions. Instead, they pique our curiosity and capture our hearts through the use of compelling and emotional storytelling. There’s a lot I could say about what makes for good storytelling and how to use it in leadership. But to start, try bringing more personal stories forward in your business communications, where relevant. You can also practice using more expressiveness when talking, especially smiling. And keep in mind the simplest of story structures – a beginning, middle, and end.

Challenges Bring Out Our Best. Some of my favorite video games have been the ones I’ve cussed at the most. They were tough! At the same time, they weren’t so difficult that I couldn’t make progress through persistent practice. And then, when finally achieving a tough goal, it felt super rewarding! The challenge of it brought out my maximum effort and resourcefulness. This tells us something about the sorts of goals that might motivate our workplace teams the most.

A Map Is Crucial. I enjoy a genre of video games called “Metroidvanias.” These games include certain elements inspired by the retro classics Metroid and Castlevania, including a labyrinthine world that has to be explored and unlocked using various skills that become available as the game progresses. Metroidvanias would be virtually impossible to play without the use of a map, which helps you navigate smaller twists and turns in order to stay on track towards the larger destination. I think this also applies to our real-world quests – does your team have a clear sense of which path will lead to the big-picture goal?

The Right Tools Matter. Many times, the difference between defeating an enemy and dying in a video game comes down to having the right weapon or armor. You might be the most experienced player in a game, but without the right tool, you’d still lose. This can also be true for workplace teams needing to solve a problem or overcome a challenge. It can be critical to have the right tools and resources. And as a leader, it’s part of your job to help acquire those resources in order to equip your team for success.

We’re Drawn to the Quirky and Unique. If you’ve ever played video games, I bet some of your favorite and most memorable characters are the ones that stood out because of their quirkiness or unique characteristics. Actually, some of the most beloved video game characters of all time are pretty kooky…think about it – a plumber who eats mushrooms or a hedgehog who runs super fast. When applying this to our own lives, I hope it inspires us to be our most authentic and fully expressed selves as leaders. Let your quirkiness shine!

We Gotta Keep Leveling-Up. Part of what keeps certain video games interesting is that the player can repeatedly “level-up” their character’s abilities. With new skills and increased strengths, what used to be impossible in the game becomes possible. This creates excitement and renewed motivation to continue a quest. The same is probably true for our employees at work. The more we can provide coaching, mentoring, and training for our team, the more their skills will expand and their motivation will grow.

Mistakes Are Part of the Journey. One of my favorite games on the Nintendo Switch is called “Celeste.” It’s a retro style pixel-art game with a moving story about a girl named Madeline who decides to challenge herself (and her own inner doubt and anxiety) by climbing a mountain called Celeste. The game is super tough, with lots of unforgiving scenarios that require very precise moves and perfect timing. So, needless to say, I died a lot when playing it. Like, a lot. Like 5,500 times before I beat the game. And I know it’s that much because the game tallies-up your deaths as you go. It’s expected that you’ll die a lot. At first, this really bothered me, being the recovering perfectionist that I am! But then, it was really freeing. Making mistakes was normalized and even became a source of pride and resilience. This made me think about how much I’ve tried to avoid mistakes in my professional life. And I wonder if, as leaders, we can help normalize mistakes for our team so the fear of making them won’t hold us back from moving forward.

Success Requires Support from Others. Lots of video games involve a team working together, especially with the advent of massive multiplayer online (MMO) games. In MMO’s, people link-up with others over the internet to collaborate on various missions, each person contributing based on their individual skills and abilities. Without the team, it would be hard to progress in the game. I think the same is true when facing goals and complex challenges in our real world – we need others to succeed. As leaders in our organizations, let’s model this by asking for help and leaning on the complementary abilities of others.

Timing is Everything. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen “game over” come across the screen because of an improperly timed jump and a lack of patience! In many situations at work, timing can also be crucial. It speaks to the power of thoughtfulness and intentionality. As a leader, do you pause to think before you speak or act?

The Right Soundtrack Makes All the Difference. There’s something about music that can increase our energy and motivation, right? It’s like the feeling of working out when that epic song comes up on Spotify. I’ve found the same is true when playing video games that have a great soundtrack. The music creates that extra spark, excitement, or feeling of flow. Could this also be true for our jobs? I don’t mean literally playing background music for your team meetings (although that could be pretty effective, actually). We can also think of “soundtrack” more generally as a metaphor for the cultural context you help shape for your team – the values, norms, energy, and mood that “plays in the background” of everyone’s interactions. As a leader, you have a big part in influencing what type of “music” is playing.

Checkpoints Keep You Motivated. There are some games I definitely would’ve given up on if they hadn’t provided the chance to succeed at reaching intermediate checkpoints along the way. “Winning” at these smaller milestones gives me much-needed positive momentum to keep going, and makes much larger goals feel doable. Take note of this as a leader. Are you allowing your team to experience small wins while in pursuit of the bigger goal?

Healthy Competition. Some of you may get an uneasy feeling when thinking about the idea of competition in the workplace. But, unfortunately, I think we’ve conflated competition with the extremes of territorialism and ego. There’s a type of healthy competition that can be motivating, and I think it resembles what we experience when facing an opponent in video gaming. This type of competition doesn’t become personal, but there’s a playfulness about it that allows both competitors to bring out their max resourcefulness, creativity, and effort.

There are Moments to Be Decisive. When time is running out and the pressure is on, your success in a video game can come down to the ability to make a quick decision without perfect information. The same can be true at work when you’re up against tight deadlines or in the midst of a crisis. At those moments, your team will appreciate a leader who’s willing to make timely decisions that provide clarity and direction.

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