By Darren Gladstone, PCWorldFeb 5, 2009 10:00 pm PST
“Organized and led my 50-member guild through three successful back-to-back Nexus runs.” You don’t see that written on anyone’s résumé, but apparently some folks do list the level and class of their World of Warcraft characters. This might seem a little far-fetched, but associate professor–and director of MIT’s Education Arcade Program–Eric Klopfer says that a number of recent studies have examined what practical skills a person can pick up by playing electronic games. Can you legitimately learn something from WoW besides efficient techniques for slinging fireballs at foes?
Klopfer points to Constance Steinkeuhler’s work at UW Wisconsin. She is “showing that people are developing and applying all kinds of useful skills in World of Warcraft–data collection and analysis, collaboration, planning, resource management and even team management.” Remove the “WoW” identification from the place of employment, and all of these accomplishments look fantastic on a résumé.
“It’s just too bad that gaming still has this stigma attached to it in the modern workplace,” says Ethan Mollick. A researcher at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and coauthor of Changing the Game: How Video Games Are Transforming the Future of Business, Mollick believes that many employers view video games as some scarlet “S” for slackery. After all, Gears of War 2 is no replacement for vocational training unless you happen to own a chainsaw. There is evidence that task-specific educational and corporate training games can vastly improve real world performance (Mollick points to a study concluding that executives were at least 25 percent more effective months after playing Virtual Leader — a game about virtual meetings. yay.), research into the effectiveness of mainstream games is still in its infancy.
So, considering the miserable state of the economy, what can you do? Well for starters, you need to blow off some steam. And while you’re doing that, maybe we can try to level up a couple of traits. In that spirit, I asked Klopfer, Mollick, and David Edery (Mollick’s coauthor on Changing the Game) to help revisit some time-tested résumé bullet points and see how some games might provide an upgrade.
[DISCLAIMER: The following suggestions are intended for mental calisthenics, not as talking points in a full-court-press job interview–unless you’re looking for employment in the game industry. And even then, you’d have to convince the interviewer that you play games during off-hours and not on the company dime. So let’s just keep this between us for now.]
“A Born Leader”
You know how to make a commitment and you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty to achieve team objectives. The experts agree that an MMO guild is the best place to start (though some guilds are better than others). You devote time and energy to your guildmates, prioritize quests, and pull long hours for glory (not to mention epic loot). While you could form your own guild and cut out the middleman, working your way up through the channels and receiving promotions is a better way to hone you ability to lead others–and to strengthen your interpersonal skills in the process.
“Strong Communication Skills”
A big part of any MMO involves learning how to express yourself and how to work well with others. Here’s something else to consider when you join a guild: Today’s online games could be tomorrow’s golf courses, where business deals get made between holes — I mean, dungeons. I’m not saying that the surly dwarf you just resurrected could be your next boss–but you never know. At least one CEO I’ve met rallies against The Horde when he isn’t closing major deals. And this guy doesn’t even work in the video game industry.
My two cents: Even single-player games offer you a chance to refine communications and how you react with others. Take last year’s hit, Fallout 3. It’s a huge, open world with lots of open-ended conversations. There is no patently “right” or “wrong” way to go through that postapocalyptic world–but the things you say and do alter how people perceive you, just as they do in our preapocalyptic world. Ally yourselves with some folks at the risk of angering others. Try to resolve conflicts without firing a shot. It’s no match for real human conversation, but it does immerse you in the practical experience of cause and effect.
“A Team Player”
Rainbow Six: Vegas 2–or just about any other team-based first-person shooter–provides excellent team-building exercise, too. Think of it as the digitized version a white-collar corporate retreat with paintballing coworkers. Hey, there’s a reason that the military experiments with using FPS games to train soldiers. Experts agree that all team-based games help foster small-group dynamics–provided that everyone wants to work together. You’ll still need to weed out any griefers you find along the way. A who? Griefers live to cheese other people off and get their own teammates killed. In World of Warcraft, the best-known example is Leeroy Jenkins. It’s hilarious to watch–though not so much if you’re the victim.
More than dealing with occasional haters, you’re navigating through seas of people–some mature, some not. I’ve played team-based shooting games in which I voluntarily muted my teammates. Because who needs to hear people cursing like Tourette’s patients on speed and failing to work together? But once you have a cohesive crew that takes it as seriously (or jokingly) as you do, you’ll learn how to rely on your teammates and back them up when needed.
Klopfer raises a great point about kids who play card-collecting games like Pokemon: They get a light course in statistics each time they play. As players get older, and the games get more complex, there are more numbers to crunch. Dedicated WoW players, for example, collect and analyze everything. Want to know the optimal times and places to find loot drops? Need to know the odds on how to win specific battles? Want to help calculate the best going rates for gear on a game’s open market? People are trawling through reams of data to provide answers. Is this a replacement for Statistics 101? Unlikely, but I find it interesting that gamers pay monthly fees for the privilege of gathering more statistical info. You’d have to pay me!
“Able to See the Big Picture”
Ask people who’ve spent nights on end sweating out each turn in Civilization IV or beginning urban planning from scratch in SimCity whether it has taught them something (besides the perfect no-doze cocktail recipe). Over time, they pick up the ins and outs of mapping-system dynamics and the way varying factors influence each other. You try to plan for every eventuality and streamline city planning, but something inevitably goes haywire. Meteors, floods, Godzilla–whatever. This is where it’s easiest to say that players are learning how to process data and figuring out how it fits together in game form. And of course many Sim or Tycoon games offer equally effective practice in managing big projects and juggling multiple variables–everything from budgets and salaries to stocks and bonds. Mollick half-jokes that they can also teach practical lessons. He credits Europa Universalis for teaching him European history. Me? I can relate more to The Beer Game. This four-player, browser-based simulation walks players through the logistics involved in producing, distributing, and selling suds. That’s entertainment!
By the same logic, you’d think that real-time strategy games such as StarCraft and Command & Conquer would be able to teach players all the same skills, along with how to multitask in real time. “If anything, the real-time strategy games could teach you about how to divide your attention,” says Mollick. “But whether that’s good or not is an open question.”
There’s no consensus yet about how effective brain-training games really are. One study suggests that Brain Age improves math skills in children by 19 percent–but so do pen-and-paper activities. As Edery observes, “the research leads to a negative conclusion that video games aren’t anything special, but that misses the point entirely. Brain Age is wildly popular–people voluntarily play it. Any activity that increases math skills by 19 percent sounds good to me!” (The article notes that other research reported 50 percent improvement.)
Similarly, games such as Professor Layton and Zack and Wiki introduce a new generation to puzzle-solving adventure games. Unfortunately you can’t measure how any of those puzzle-solving skills transfer to the real world. “Within game worlds,” says Klopfer, “you need to solve problems in different ways. You’re learning to apply variants of strategies. But there is no easy way to measure that skill you’ve learned outside the game.” You’d have to sit and observe all sorts of behaviors before and after using the game for testing. But, as I alluded to earlier, there remain more questions than answers.
If this helps anyone take a break while prepping for a new job, then I’ve done mine. And to anyone out there hit hard in these past couple of weeks, my thoughts are with you. Good luck and keep at it. Until next time….
Casual Friday columnist and PC World Senior Writer Darren Gladstone geeks out over gadgets, games, and odd uses for humdrum tech. In other words, he’s a nerd–and he’s okay with that. Need even more nerdity? Follow gizmogladstone on Twitter for more time-wasting tips.