Life Lessons Learned Through Gaming

I’m a gamer. I’ve always loved games. There’s something about the natural exhilaration of competition, whatever the stakes, that motivates the soul. It’s also great for the ego. Games give us the ability to tell our loves ones “I am your superior” in a harmless and well-bounded context. When the game is over, everyone goes back to the real world, where we’re all equals. All the hateful, spiteful, vengeful energy is checked at the door on the way off the battlefield. All that negative energy is easily switched off because the context of the game as a distinctly different universe with different rules gives our brains clear boundaries for the factual and emotional memories we develop in-game. This allows us to be civil, even friendly, with our fellow gamers, despite the intensely negative trash talking that happens frequently in social gaming.

This boundary, though, represents a rule that itself can be broken. Sometimes, folks take offense to things said in-game, thus breaking the boundary by allowing their personal identity to be assaulted. Social gaming is every bit as cruel as elementary and middle school. Ad hominem reigns supreme in the world of results-based ego identity. For those without a healthy respect for the identity boundary and a thick skin in general, it can be challenging to remember it’s just a game. At the other end of the spectrum, there are many benefits we can derive from gaming. We can learn valuable skills, anything from time management to logistics planning to resource allocation and beyond. In fact, many of the skills required to be a successful entrepreneur have direct analogs in the gaming world. Here are some highlights.

Tactic: Misdirection

Analog: Corporate Espionage

In a poker game, misleading your opponents to believe you have cards you don’t have is a central focus of most winning strategies. The same applies to public relations with rival companies. When two companies compete for share of a polarized market, it’s often important for each company to know what the other is planning before the public knows about it. This can be done through social engineering – calling the company posing as a news representative, asking about upcoming technology, or posing as a candidate for an interview in order to gain access to sensitive information. Counter offensive strategies might include advertising open positions that indicate shift in corporate culture or development focus, but never actually filling the positions.

Tactic: Bottleneck

Analog: Simulated Demand

Spies call this a choke point. It’s a physical barrier that prevents or dramatically reduces freedom of movement and/or clear line of sight of the disadvantaged party (them) without affecting that of the advantaged party (you). A good example of this is a hallway. Hallways are defensive disasters in a gunfight. All the shooter needs to do is stand at the end of the hallway, and they can pretty much guarantee a clear shot of anyone who enters the other end. Hallways are also bad for escape from a gunfight, for similar reasons. Once you enter the hallway, you must reach the end before your pursuer reaches the beginning, or you get shot in the back. Savvy business owners use this effect to profit from the desperate. For example, the cost of plywood tends to spike when the news warns of an imminent hurricane, just as the per-night cost of a hotel spikes during an annual conference. Business leaders go one step further, by manipulating the market to create the bottleneck, thus driving customers into the net. Apple, by asserting through advertising that people wanted mobile digital music players, created the demand for a product that otherwise had no existing market, and the iPod was born.

Tactic: Resource Balance

Analog: Hiring Policy

Many games use a system of economy, promoting certain key items as standard currency. In various combinations, much like atoms joining together in specific ratios to form molecules, these resources can be traded for other valuable things. The winner of the game is often the player who acquires and spends resources most effectively. In the card game, Gin, the object is to take turns drawing a card and discarding one. The winner is the player who accumulates a valid complete set of cards, plus one card to discard. By thinking ahead, weighing the possibilities of certain combinations, and discarding a card that contributes least to a winning hand, a player can gain advantage. In real-time strategy games, like Starcraft, players must have harvested resources ready before buildings and units can be made. Those buildings and units provide offensive and defensive capabilities, such as point defense, unit creation, or upgrades. The winner is the player who harvests and spends resources most effectively, allowing them to attack the enemy base before they have adequate defenses. The analog in the business world is hiring policy. Sometimes, when you know the situation calls for lots of unskilled labor, it’s better to hire the cheapest available workers. Other times, a small group of experts can run circles around an army of beginners.

Tactic: Fluidity

Analog: Market Pivoting

Often, competition brings out a “fight to the last man” mentality. We can use that to our advantage. Any martial artist will tell you that pulling when your enemy is pushing is an easy way to gain advantage. A well-trained judoku can convert an incoming punch into an opportunity for a devastating hip throw, leaving their attacker on their back with a knee on their throat. Revisiting the Starcraft analogy, when your opponent’s army is at your doorstep, attacking your base, it is sometimes best to counter by attacking their base. This forces them to make a choice – either stay and attempt to destroy your base at the risk of the loss of theirs or retreat to protect their base. Staying means a damage race, where both sides hope to destroy all enemy buildings first. Retreating means they lose the time it takes to move their army back to their base, but they stand a better chance of keeping their base. In cases where the attacker has superior forces, defense is a poor choice, and it’s better to counter. The analog here is the decision to pivot and adjust product development strategy to target a different market. When an aggressive challenger enters a market, it is sometimes better for the existing vendors in that market to pivot toward a less crowded market, rather than ramping up production in hopes of fending off the challenger. The number one lesson I’ve learned through gaming was acknowledging when you’ve lost long before the game is actually over.

Games can teach us a lot about real world dynamics, giving us advantages in project management, contract negotiation, strategic planning, and more. It’s important that we remember that the skills we learn in games can apply to real situations, but that we must be careful to decouple our in-game identity from our real identity. I’ll leave you with two quotes:

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” -Sun Tsu

“Lose your first fifty games quickly.” -Unknown, an old proverb describing the game of Go