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On Leadership publishes a weekly video series with prominent national and international leaders. Complete archives available here.

Transcript: How video games build leaders

Byron Reeves
Byron Reeves is a professor of communications at Stanford University and co-author, with J. Leighton Read, of the recent book Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete. He explains how multiplayer video games can transform work environments and build better leaders.

Byron Reeves: Last week about a hundred million people in the U.S. played a game of some sort, a video or computer game. Many of them were adolescent boys in dark rooms with no windows, but many were people that have mortgages and yard work and jobs.

Reeves researches how to use video and computer games to develop leaders

Reeves: People say it's most important to be born a leader. You get nurtured, you get selected, you probably showed leadership qualities early on in school, you've been involved in activities that develop something that naturally existed.

In games [players] felt that leadership was not so much an attribute of individuals who were doing the leading, but leadership was an attribute of the environments in which the people were acting.

On game "environments"

Reeves: I'll tell you about one of the most popular games right now, which is the kind of gold standard for these large, collaborative games. That's World of Warcraft. That's 15 million people paying 15 bucks a month to play collaborative games. But the interesting thing is that they go from level one to 70 -- but I don't win unless we win. So I have to join a guild or a group, and you're all in a narrative. This is a very important feature of these games is that they're not just random exercises that these groups go on, but they all fit within a story.

And then my individual participation is via a role that I agree to take in the group. So we're all not the same, some are priests, some are warriors, some are magis. Some have different levels, different expertise, different potions, different abilities. So we all have to get together because you need to do something in your raid or during the raid that's different than what I need to do and we can't win unless each of us does our job.

On why games are "empowering leaders"

Reeves: One reason they're empowered to be leaders is because there's feedback. Feedback in multiple time domains about my contribution to the larger goals. It's also moment by moment: I know how we are doing in this action, moment by moment. The most important feature that we notice for how we might use games more generally at work and in society is this notion of collaboration. We think these game interfaces are some of the most complex, collaborative social experiences possible.

If you're working in a call center, why not work at home? Be an avatar with a team, answering the phone and having all of the features in these games represented in your workspace. These are jobs that are really tough, these are jobs that people get bored with in nine, 12 months and they quit because there is no engagement, there's no social sense of belonging, there's no knowledge of what my contribution meant for the larger team. Allowing that to be intimately linked to work could be a great advantage.

Transcribed by Fahima Haque.


Serious Games Initiative, founded at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington D.C.

Jan. 2010 Harvard Business Review article: 'Avatars in the Workplace'

2008 Wharton Leadership Digest: 'Letter from Omaha Beach: How 'Call of Duty' Can Teach Leadership'

2007 IBM/Seriousity report: "Virtual World, Real Leaders: Online games put the future of business leadership on display"

2007 IBM panel: 'Leadership in a Distributed World: Lessons from Online Gaming"

Other Harvard Business Review research from Byron Reeves and co-author J. Leighton Read available here.

By On Leadership video transcripts

 |  April 6, 2010; 2:48 PM ET
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Are you aware that WOW is in a landmark lawsuit with automation tools that can move a character up in rank without human intervention so a character of rand can be sold. Selling rank is big bucks in China where WOW has no legislative power. Maybe it does say a lot for leadership, mob mentality and rule by disengagement. I am really certain that anyone who devotes the time it takes to dark places is not healthy.

Posted by: TinMan2 | April 8, 2010 6:42 AM
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Absurd. So this is what we should count on, to develop leadership? Hand & eye coordination, fantasy...all to develop top skills in manipulating smoke & mirrors, distractions. I would offer that the game scenarios could be more inclined to 'condition-to-submit', above all other attributes.

Posted by: DavidinCentralFlorida | April 7, 2010 1:18 PM
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Is Prof. Reeves just looking for an excuse to get paid for playing World of Warcraft while doing research about it? His point seems to be that it's easier to see how one's individual contribution contributes to the overall group goal in WoW than it is in a real-life work environment, but how does that insight translate into real-life work and leadership skills? I know various nations' militaries have used wargames (both tabletop & computer-based) to teach military tactics & strategy to officers for centuries, but translating a fantasy MMORPG like WoW to the real-life business environment seems to be much more of a stretch.

Posted by: CatherineMcClarey | April 7, 2010 10:37 AM
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