Not a Waste of Time: How Gaming Prepared Me for the Business World
The following is adapted from From Simi Valley to Silicon Valley.
“Gaming? What a waste of time!”
At least, that was the popular sentiment during my adolescence. However, as my gaming evolved over the past thirty-five years all the way from playing King’s Quest on my parents’ original IBM PCjr to Atari 2600 to Xbox to PlayStation and Wii to PC gaming and online worlds, I’ve realized there’s more to the hobby than entertainment.
Gaming taught me valuable skills that prepared me for the business world — skills that have helped propel my career from a remote IT guy to one of the youngest CIOs of a Fortune 500 company in history.
I’d like to share the role gaming has played in my professional life and explain how you, too, can level up your career using skills from your favorite games.
The Overlap Between Gaming and Leadership
During college and beyond, I spent much of my free time playing the massive multiplayer online (MMO) game World of Warcraft. I served as the leader of a guild, an organized group of hundreds of players who fight together through series of boss fights called raids. Gaming was a big part of my life, but I kept my hobby and professional life separate until 2001, when they unexpectedly collided.
An executive I worked with named Dr. John Seely Brown, or JSB, came to my house one day so I could help him move his data from an old laptop to a new one.
“Hey, I just have to complete this guild raid,” I told him when he arrived. “Just hang out while I finish.”
As a social scientist, JSB was fascinated to sit back and watch me coordinate this World of Warcraft raid with dozens of players, in a tightly scripted engagement, using voice chat tools and a web browser language translator to make sure the non-English-speaking members of our raid got the right directions for the boss encounter.
I explained that defeating this boss would increase our guild achievement and was something we had been working on for months. We were using open-source voice chat technology to interact in real time, and each of the dozens of players in our raid had a specific task that I monitored via their stats on additional third-party tools to make sure they were doing their role correctly.
While we were by no means the top performing guild in terms of conquering in-game content, we did indeed have a very sophisticated guild structure, with set schedules, recruiters, a treasury, org charts, weekly leadership meetings, and even organizational charts with roles and responsibilities. I mapped out and documented a lot of this using Microsoft Visio, a tool that companies used to make visual charts at the time.
Valuable Skills Both Online and Off
JSB explained to me how unique and special the skillset I had acquired through gaming was. He talked about how it had shaped my thinking, confidence, and — as he called it — questing disposition.
Suddenly, I recognized how many skills gaming — especially in a leadership capacity — and business shared in common:
- Organizing groups of people
- Setting objectives and deadlines
- Maintaining a schedule of meetings
- Strategizing to reach goals
- Collaborating with other leaders
- Implementing new technology
Without realizing it, I had trained for a business leadership role for years through online gaming.
Moving from the Virtual to Business Worlds
I started to try and capture the lessons I was learning in the online gaming world, long before I encountered them in my actual job responsibilities in the real world. Oftentimes, when a business book came out, I would write a sister blog post about it. For instance, when I read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team as part of a work assignment, I wrote a blog post called “The Five Dysfunctions of a Guild.”
When I read about CEOs raising money for their startups, I would write about the difficulties of building a new guild in the virtual world and how that guild represents a lot of the pain points a CEO has to contend with. The more I wrote, the more I realized how much I had transposed from gaming to how businesses thrive, leadership changes, and, most importantly, group cultures are built and nurtured.
Over the years, I’ve felt a sense of redemption in this acknowledgment of the power of gaming. Growing up, a lot of people thought that gaming was a waste of time, but gaming ended up being a great training ground for participating in the emerging digital economy.
I now understand that this is what JSB called the questing disposition. It’s about how you engage and solve real-world tasks, whether they are related to business, market, talent, or culture, or just general leadership. The questing disposition is about mindset and overcoming challenges in these areas. In the end, gaming has been an asset for me, rather than a liability, as I moved through the corporate ranks to become a CEO.
Harnessing Your Gaming Talents in the Workplace
If you’re an avid gamer in the early stages of your career, think about what skills you’re using every time you sit down at your keyboard or pick up your console controller.
Do you lead an in-game team? You might make a good manager. Maybe you solve puzzles or creatively approach boss fights? Perhaps you’d have a knack for coding.
Think about which skills you use in gaming, what you enjoy, and where you excel. Exploring these skills through gaming can be a great way to identify your strengths and weaknesses, develop them further, and then find a career path that benefits from their workplace parallels.
If you’re mindful about your gaming skills, the next time someone says, “That’s a waste of time,” you can reply, “Wrong. It’s career development.”
For more advice on developing business skills, you can find From Simi Valley to Silicon Valley on Amazon.
Stephen Gillett is the co-founder and CEO at Chronicle — an Alphabet company born out of X, The Moonshot Factory — and is an executive advisor to the CEO at Google. As one of the youngest CIOs of a Fortune 500 company in history, he was responsible for leading the technological transformation of Starbucks under Howard Schultz. Stephen’s previous positions included CIO at Corbis, working directly with Bill Gates; President at Best Buy; and COO at Symantec. As an avid lifelong gamer, Wired also recognized him as an innovative Guild Master in World of Warcraft. Stephen lives in Silicon Valley with his high school sweetheart and their eight children. Stephen can be reached at SVtoSV@gillett.org.