When is playing video games actually a seminar in executive leadership?  When the game is an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online game) and the stakes seem high – just as high as the goals, accomplishments, recognition, disappointments, and politics in your workplace.

There has been a lot written about the learning that happens as part of the meta-game of World of Warcraft – how there is a participatory community that posts and shares and learns from the other members, how educators are using the economy of the player-driven auction house to teach economics and the RNG (random number generator) –driven events during raids and quests to teach probability.  Like John Seely Brown, I’ve taken these with a grain of salt, thinking that the World of Warcraft might serve as an interesting model of what learning communities could be, or that passion for the game could be leveraged to create engagement in lessons about math, but I’ve known the real learning that happened in the game was about getting better at the game – not about real life.


I participated in a particularly poignant discussion with a person who wanted to become an officer in our guild.

In World of Warcraft, guilds consists of up to 1000 characters, but given that each player has multiple “toons”, the actual number of players per guild is perhaps a few hundred – about the size of a mid-size company.  A given realm (server) may host several thousand players (I’ve seen estimates in the low 5 figures) and there are about 7 million players world-wide (by comparison, consider that the largest occupation, retail sales, has around 4 million people and it is clear that the size of the player landscape is analogous to the size of the workplace world).

Each guild has a guild master who, like a CEO, has final say regarding who is invited into the guild or fired from it, who decides members’ rank within the guild, and who chooses the guild officers.  The guild master may delegate or share authority and decision making, but ultimately controls membership through the administrative access granted via “ownership” of the guild.

Guilds also have raid teams.  These are groups of qualified players who meet regularly (often 10-30 hours per week in addition to regular play) to collectively overcome the hardest challenges in the game – killing the raid “bosses”.  Raids require a wide variety of skills from each player, a balance of different kinds of characters that, depending on race, specialization, and talents will have different unique powers that can be used during the raid encounter.  Guilds generally have different levels of teams, depending on skill with each raid team having its own raid leader. Raid leaders hire and fire team members based on their raiding skills and their team skills.  Members are able to be promoted to more highly skilled teams when they have demonstrated competence to their peers and openings become available:  criteria that are startlingly similar, in practice, to the criteria for promotion in the workplace.

But it’s just a game.  It’s not really the workplace and in the end it’s about entertainment not making a living.

This is True.  However.

As a veteran executive leader and as a leadership coach to employees, I had always believed that the emotions and urgency and intensity associated with workplace triumphs and disappointments came from the fact that the stakes were high – the employees’ ability to provide for themselves and their families.  Until I talked with gamers who wanted to advance within their guild in World of Warcraft.

The drive, the feelings, the urgency, the sense of importance and salience coming from the candidates felt the same as when I coached young (or for that matter experienced) engineers and managers in the workplace.  Clearly there was more in play here than the high stakes of financial viability – the stakes were, in the minds of many participants, just as high for promotion within the game as within a workplace.  In hindsight that makes sense – how “real” do the wins and losses of our sports teams feel?  How “real” are triumphs and disappointments in the relationships that matter to us?  Or, if you turn it around, are the ebbs and flows of important relationships not more important than the ups and downs of office politics?

But what is salient here is that, to the participants, the successes and failures, the promotions and demotions, the respect of the team feel the same, and follow the same dynamics in the virtual World of Warcraft as in the workplace.  It serves, in a sense, as a workplace simulator.

As a result, I have found myself with the opportunity to provide the equivalent of professional coaching to fellow players.  Some are young, just beginning their work lives (though often experienced gamers).  Some are more experienced in life (though sometimes relatively new to gaming).  And I’ve found that the virtual world provides some advantages over the workplace when it comes to coaching diverse players for executive leadership skills:

  • The stakes, no matter how it feels, are actually low.  In the worst case, if you really, really mess up you can change your name, move to a different server, and rebuild your reputation (unless you are a professional gamer – a different situation altogether).  Also, it’s just a game.
  • In workplace coaching, my job involves talking with professionals and getting their take when problems arise, as well as talking with others involved to put together a second-hand picture of the situation, then offering advice & guidance, and reinforcing the behaviors that will lead to success.  On-line, I am often participating in these exchanges at the same time as my “client” and can offer real-time advice through a private chat channel.  There is plenty of time to talk things through in the moment before responding to the situation – opportunities seldom afforded in the real-world workplace.

Sometimes my job is just talking with young players who want to advance in the guild about simple things like performance criteria and expectations, reliability, courtesy, and the demands and expectations of promotion to higher levels of responsibility.  Sometimes it involves talking with guild members who have crossed a line with respect to harassment or simple insensitivity.  Sometimes it involves real leadership skills development.

In a professional setting, coaching is about everything except the specific job skills.  I’ve successfully coached professionals with job descriptions very different from my own, as well as those who are following nearly my exact trajectory.  So even if the skills in World of Warcraft are about how to win a game and they don’t apply outside that environment, the 21st century skills involved in working with diverse personalities who are geographically distributed, in leading from positions of authority or developing leadership through influence, and in participating in professional learning communities – those are the same and they transfer from one environment to the next.

What does this mean for education?  Does the “workplace simulator” become a tool for preparing students for work in the 21st century?  Well, yes and no.  In order for the simulator to be effective, the student would need to spend several hours weekly over the course of months to years to become sufficiently embedded in the game for these dynamics to apply and teachers/coaches would need to be embedded in the same environment as a particular student.  This is not particularly realistic as part of formal education.

However, these observations do suggest some interesting ideas:

  • There may be the potential to take advantage of and leverage the context of MMO’s such as World of Warcraft for helping students who are already deeply engaged in them to develop and enhance their 21st Century skills.  Some of this happens naturally, as young people (anonymously) make mistakes online and live with the consequences.  Some of it happens through the informal coaching that is prevalent within the guild environment (guilds tend to include a healthy mix of professionals, grandparents, working adults, and a surprisingly wide array of role models who informally guide and support younger players.)  Some of it happens within families who play together.  What would more formal coaching engagements look like?
  • There may be the potential to develop gaming environments that are structured specifically for helping students to develop these important skills through their school careers.  Model UN meets WoW?
  • Perhaps one of the most valuable elements of learning leadership through gaming is that the actual “job skills” are accessible to anyone regardless of age.  In sports, youth leadership workshops, and other places where young people develop leadership, there is always structure and organization that comes from adults who are the authorities and who have skills and experience far beyond that of students.  In gaming, teens and young adults are often the most skilled at the real job and on the Internet, no one knows you are a dog.  Consequently, young people (very young people in some cases) are on an equal playing field with adults when it comes to skill and experience.  This takes the bias of youth or small size out of the equation when it comes to taking on leadership roles – the leadership work and the missteps are authentic.

So perhaps they question here is, what can we learn from gaming about environments where young people can lead “for real”?