High Tech Titans Share Their Favorite Games

Do video games stimulate the intellect? Are gamers more social and better equipped to make decisions than nongamers?

Author Steven Johnson drew fire from cultural hand-wringers for presenting those assertions a couple of years ago in his book Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.

But his theories elicited little more than "Well, yeah, duh" from people who grew up gaming and subsequently entered the high-tech workforce and began rising through the ranks.

These days, corporate managers are as apt to spend their off hours in front of Call of Duty as they are on the golf course, especially if they're techies. And that just might be a good thing for the modern enterprise.

IBM's Institute for Business Value, an in-house think tank, says online gaming can provide clues as to how today's global corporations function. The institute interviewed 214 members of the IBM community who play games online and found that nearly half believed that gaming had improved their real-world leadership skills; three quarters said that the collaboration tools available in games could have business applications in the virtual enterprise.

"How do you manage an organization that's becoming more virtual? How do you provide leadership when you don't have a formal hierarchy, and what leadership behaviors are being displayed in these environments?" asks Eric Lesser, an associate partner at the institute. Lesser compares the modern distributed workforce to a "quasi-volunteer army," similar to those that form in online video games.

To find out if those lofty questions can be answered by real-world experience, Computerworld queried seven executives at some of today's top tech firms to learn how they started gaming, what they play now and how their virtual skills translate to the real world of the office. Here's what we found.

Lee Congdon

CIO, Red Hat Inc.

What was the first video game you played, and what system was it on? My first video game was the classic Spacewar! on a Modcomp minicomputer. Other favorites over time include Qix and Missile Command on arcade consoles, Space Raiders and Othello on the Atari 2600, and Zork, Lemmings, SimCity and Myst on the PC platform.

Do you play now, and if so, what games and on what systems? I play occasionally, most often choosing a game at random from the selection available for the Fedora Linux distro. I tend to stick to variations on the classics but have to admit that Blob Wars is amusing.

What skills and lessons from gaming translate to your present job? Games are interesting because the right combination of technique, decision-making and risk-taking will yield success. Not all enterprises are like that.

That said, games have three characteristics that are very valuable in the business world. First, they provide an environment in which trial and error, or the ability to change approaches, is available with relatively low cost. Giving people the opportunity to explore and innovate can contribute significantly to their flexibility and resourcefulness.

Second, modern games require the player to think simultaneously about the immediate objective and strategically about the long-term goal. And third, games encourage people to be very goal-oriented. Most any enterprise can benefit from individuals with those skills.

Gareth Davis

Platform program manager, Facebook

First game, first system: Space Invaders in a video arcade, followed by Asteroids on the Atari 2600.

What you play now: I play social games on Facebook-- Geo Challenge, Texas HoldEm Poker and MouseHunt -- and console games on the PlayStation 3. But I think games are so much more fun when played with friends.

Skills and lessons that translate: Cooperation from playing Gauntlet, in which each player has a character with unique skills, just like my team here at Facebook. Persistence from playing MouseHunt -- it often takes time to see the results of our work, and we must continually change our approach until we succeed. And the hand-eye coordination I've learned from playing Geo Challenge helps me get through doors carrying my laptop, security card, BlackBerry and iPhone.

And, of course, I've learned to be wary of the end-of-level boss.

Mark Randall

Chief strategist, Adobe Systems Inc.'s Dynamic Media Organization

First game, first system: It was Pong in a pizza joint about 1975. The first video game I played at home was one I wrote myself in BASIC on a Radio Shack [TRS-80] Color Computer with 4K of RAM circa 1980.

What you play now: I play LittleBigPlanet on the PlayStation 3 and World of Goo on the PC. But most of my gaming time is spent on a MAME [Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator] cabinet I designed myself. My latest obsession has been Japanese vertical shooters of the "bullet hell" genre, such as DoDonPachi and Dangun Feveron.

Skills and lessons that translate: I've noticed that around our house, we often spend more time playing classic arcade games than some of the current state-of-the-art games. The new games are visually stunning, but the game play of some 20-year-old classics can be longer lasting and in many ways more satisfying.

Mark Randall, Adobe

Randall: "Extreme technological limitations and constraints can drive creativity and innovation."

There are two interesting technology design lessons here: First, we must resist being seduced by dazzling new technology. Simplicity and elegant design can sometimes accomplish more than all the whiz-bang features in the world.

Second, extreme technological limitations and constraints can drive creativity and innovation you might not have reached if you'd been given endless resources and technology. The creators of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong were able to push their primitive tools beyond all expectations and create engaging experiences that were entertaining and magical. As developers, it's all too easy to dwell on the technical and creative constraints placed on us by factors beyond our control, such as an installed base of old PCs or creaky networks. We can instead choose to see such limitations as a creative springboard ready to propel us to new heights.

Alan Cohen

Vice president of enterprise solutions, Cisco Systems Inc.

First game, first system: Pong and Space Invaders. I played them in college, usually with a cold Genesee Cream Ale not far away.

What you play now: I play tennis and bowling on the Wii, but Rock Band 2 for the Xbox 360 has taken over in the Cohen household. We play as much as we can, and it's great to play something with my kids that we all enjoy.

Skills and lessons that translate: Those early arcade games were me versus the computer, mano a máquina. It was an individualistic, self-focused experience -- an Internet 1.0 encounter.

Now, increasingly, games are Internet 2.0 encounters. They're all about how well you work together with others any time, any place, with players from around the world. Rock Band 2, World of Warcraft, even Guitar Hero promote the shared experience and are all about how together we can do more, be more, compete better than we can by going it alone. That's right in line with how the corporate environment is evolving: You can play (or work) anytime you want, and you have to compete and collaborate on a global basis in order to succeed.

So, besides improving my mental and physical reflexes and my thumb action (handy for those tiny QWERTY keypads), gaming sharpens my focus on collaborative planning, problem solving and execution.

Rahul Sood

Founder, VoodooPC Chief technologist, Voodoo brand, Hewlett-Packard Co.

First game, first system: Mattel Football on a handheld Mattel toy. I used to collect these devices, which were powered by 9-volt batteries and lasted forever.

What you play now: I play everything. I have a bunch of PCs, a PS3, a Nintendo Wii, an Xbox 360 and some handhelds. I currently play Call of Duty 4, Grand Theft Auto IV (a bit extreme, but very fun) and Mirror's Edge (an awesome game, very well done).

Skills and lessons that translate: In the early years at Voodoo, we'd shut down the office and play Command and Conquer almost every night. C&C is a real-time strategy game -- a live game of chess, essentially. The type of base you build, what type of leader you are and how you handle your army all play a role in whether you will win or get crushed.

And I'm dead serious when I say this: Playing games like C&C helped us make crucial business decisions over the years. Playing C&C with our team reminded me of Sun Tzu's Art of War, and many decisions that we made in our business can be paralleled with The Art of War.

Arthur Lewis

General manager, Dell's gaming group (including Alienware)

First game, first system: OK, I'm dating myself here, but my first home video game was football on the Atari 2600. (My 2600 was quickly replaced by the Intellivision and subsequently by my ColecoVision).

My first arcade video games, at around the same time, were Space Invaders and Asteroids -- and, of course, who can forget Pole Position? My first PC game may have been Karate on the Commodore 64:J.

What you play now: I'm an MMO fanboy, and I've enjoyed playing Lord of the Rings Online MMO for the past year. Every now and again I mix in other genres -- recently, Call of Duty 5 and Fallout 3 have been a lot of fun. There are just so many games out there, and not enough time!

In terms of systems, I play on my Alienware M17 notebook, but I also have an Area-51 desktop -- for MMO fans, dual-boxing can be advantageous.

Arthur Lewis, Dell

Lewis: "Multiplayer first-person shooters ... teach you team play."

Skills and lessons that translate: Well, different game genres teach different things. Real-time strategy games teach you strategy, of course -- you have to be looking at what you're currently doing while simultaneously evaluating how your immediate actions impact future moves. In this industry, you are always battling fires in the day-to-day, but you can never forget about what needs to get accomplished over the course of the next six, 12 and 18 months. Age of Empires taught me this lesson ... many times over.

Multiplayer first-person shooters, on the other hand, such as Counter-Strike and Unreal Tournament, teach you team play. You can't win without having a sound strategy, understood by all, and the ability to execute. You also need a leader who can provide operational and strategic guidance to the team as needed.

Have your say

What games do you play, and how do they build business skillz?

Single-player role-playing games teach you to think and use logic to complete quests and advance in the game. And multiplayer RPGs and MMOs, my personal favorite genre, teach logic, strategy and teamwork.

You have to have a good, logical strategy and a massive amount of coordination, especially in raids of 12 to 24 people. All these principles are core to any successful business.

Rob Lacroix

Vice president of development engineering, Immersion Corp.

First game, first system: Donkey Kong on my ColecoVision console in 1983.

What you play now: I have always been a PC gamer, building my own gaming rigs. Over the past year, I've dabbled with Crysis, but I'm enamored with Mass Effect -- the setting, style and pace really suit me.

Skills and lessons that translate: Practice, practice, practice. Take advantage of the things you do well naturally, and enjoy the challenge of learning to do the things that don't come easy.

Chris Melissinos

Chief gaming officer, Sun Microsystems Inc.

First game, first system: The first video game system I ever played was a home version of Pong in the late 1970s. The first arcade machine I remember playing was Space Invaders.

What you play now: I am a collector and have 42 game systems at home. As a lifelong gamer and father of three, we incorporate playing video games into our regular routine as a family.

Currently, most of our family game time is spent playing LittleBigPlanet and Rock Band on the PS3; Pokémon and Puzzle Quest on the Nintendo DS; and Mario Kart, Super Mario Galaxy and Wii Sports on the Wii.

Skills and lessons that translate: Video games have taught me the value in rapid assessment of situations, new ways of conveying information to multiple participants, working within team dynamics, and new ways of interacting with information. In a world that is ever connected and globally interactive, with online games being a lead connection point, I am able to better understand future trends for data services, greater public use of technology, adoption roadmaps, and so on.

The value of video games does not lie exclusively with the amusement of the games themselves. It is increasingly about shared experiences in environments and settings not possible in the physical world. It is about empowerment and igniting creativity. It is about discovering new ways to educate, inspire and communicate, across multiple generations, in ways that have never before been explored.

San Francisco-based Jake Widman is a frequent contributor to Computerworld.

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