How We Play to Lead

One of the most central concepts behind my alignment of leadership and game studies is the idea that we can use games to achieve both an understanding of leadership, but also a certain kind of hands-on practical “experience” with leadership – as both leader and follower – within fantastic gamespace (whether virtual or simply imaginary).

In addressing videogames, McGonigal states that “Although we think of computer games as victual experience, they do give us real agency: the opportunity to do something that feels concrete because it produces measurable results, and the power to act directly on the virtual world” (60). Agency is at the core, I think, of both gaming and of leadership. In gaming, agency is required in terms of voluntary participation; if one does not willingly participate in the game, it ceases to be play and becomes work. In leadership, agency is required of both leaders and followers; without agency neither is a willing participant in the relationship and it ceases to be a “leadership” relationship and starts becoming something else (self-delusion, oppression, etc.).

Agency, therefore, is vital to an understanding of both gaming and leading/following. But what is also important to both is the idea of “acting directly on the world.” In a game, that world is composed of virtual or gameboard space; in leadership, it is the “real” world, real space. But any interaction with a virtual world is also contained within the real world – gamespace is also contained by real space. An action undertaken in gamespace can translate to real space, the way that we often use roleplay to teach appropriate workplace or situational interactions, the way that many children learn about rents and properties from Monopoly, or typing from a game like Typing of the Dead or TyperShark. These are game skills that translate to real-world skills. “Map-reading” and “hand-eye-coordination” are the two most often cited skills of gamers that can translate to the real world, but I would argue that NexGen games are offering much more complex intellectual skills to players than simple motor skills.

For instance, a game of recent note – Mass Effect 3 – places the player in the position of a military leader forced to make difficult strategic and interpersonal decisions. The player is given clues and (perhaps most importantly) time to make those decisions, to weigh the potential reactions of the other characters in the scenes, and to ultimately choose their actions and words based on the outcome they wish to achieve. This is not a different skill-set from that required of a leader in the real world – although real-world leaders do not often have the luxury of a pause button. Nevertheless, in promoting active consideration of the consequence-tree (scripted in ME3 unlike in reality), the game is creating a pattern of learned behavior of that same consideration in real world analogues. The degree to which such skills plays out has yet to be determined, but I would hazard to predict that as such games become more commonplace, we will also find an increase in consideration of consequences – and even, possibly, direct discussion of those consequences like that seen on game forums – and awareness of the possible ramifications of actions and words. And that would not be a bad thing.

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