Saturday, January 22, 2005

Do video games make players better leaders?

Some "top researchers" at the University of Wisconsin-Madison assert that video games create better leaders.

According to the article (forgive the extensive quoting):
Video games let their players step into new personas and explore alternatives. Not only that, but people can try to solve problems they’re not good at yet, get immediate feedback on the consequences and try again immediately.

Gee said the ability to explore right away makes games more engaging than textbooks or lectures. In schools, “you have to read 500 pages of biology and then you get to do biology,” he said. “Of course you only actually read 200. [A video] game allows you to perform before you’re competent.”

Because games keep things “pleasantly frustrating,” Gee said, players have incentives to keep on improving their performance. That can lead to learning outside the game as well. After his son started playing Age of Mythology, he started reading more about real-world mythology, Gee said.

Does this sound very different from the breathless anticipation with which computerized education was predicted in the early and mid eighties? Although computers are undoubtedly a fixture of the classroom now, they are far from the primary teaching tool.

I'll continue to quote extensively from the article:

In Full Spectrum Warrior, Gee said, players lead a team of soldiers and must keep them all safe by using the right formations and maneuvers. Losing even one means the game is over.

Gee and his colleagues would like to make similar games that let players be scientists or take on other professional roles. Squire has worked on a game called Biohazard in which firefighters must react to dangerous situations. They learn the most effective ways to, for example,
evacuate people from a mall after a sarin-gas attack. Firefighters like the game and even play it over break because it allows them to be heroes, he said—and because the game characters are smartly dressed.

Games also let players be producers rather than just consumers. Many recent games allow “modding,” the insertion of new plot-lines, graphics and characters, or even the creation of entirely new games. Squire mentioned the strategy game Civilization III, as well as first-person shooters such as Half-life. Role-playing games such as Neverwinter Nights also allow players a high degree of control.

“You can use Neverwinter Nights as an application development environment,” said Preston Austin, chief architect at Clotho Advanced Media, Inc. The game includes an event-driven programming language that lets people set up their own complex plots and scenarios, which they can share over the Internet.

So the thesis is that games enable players to learn, er, some things. Or they might. Sometimes.

But what of leadership? I hate to harp on this, but unfortunately it was the focus of the article's title.

Because there is nothing whatsoever about leadership mentioned in the article (just search the page for instances of the term "lead"), I feel confident in making the following statements:
  • The authors of the article do not have a clear definition of leadership.
  • The authors of the study, if they have a clear definition of leadership, have not made it clear to the article's authors.
  • Leadership is not easily taught by video games.

I suspect that the root of the problem is that our society believes that leadership is a Good Thing but does not really think much about what it might be or how one might get some. That makes the discussion generated by this blog pretty important.

But the reason I read the article at all was the title, and after reading the article I find no reason to agree with the title's statement at all. I suspect that the facts that

  • games have an obvious point;
  • the problems in games are meant to be solved;
  • no intelligent force is acting against the player's agenda; and
  • the world of the game is necessarily limited

imply that games are far different from the leadership situations in the real world.

If games can help create leadership, their assistance must be moderate at best.

Anyone disagree?


At 11:19 AM, Blogger Simon said...

Interesting post - thanks for bringing it up.

I agree that the scope of video games may be limited, but I don't think that means they're not suitable for learning leadership.

I mean, we can learn through movies, can't we? And games are increasingly becoming the next step of evolution for movies. Instead of a single plotline, there are multiple ones, influenced by you, the player.

A friend of mine is lousy at managing his money. When he gets in debt, he borrows more. Until, that is, he played "Total War", a strategy game with wars, cities, the whole deal.

In this virtual world of Ancient Rome, he discovered how just building bigger cities wasn't making any difference to his eventual outcome - defeat.

So instead of continually cancelling the game and starting again, he played through. He learnt strategy, which has come through into his personal life and helped him get out of trouble - or rather, troublesome habits.

So, while games aren't as useful as real-life situations, I believe they're a pretty good item to have on the shelf. Depending on the game, of course.

(Hmmm. I wonder if the tax department would let me count an XBox as a business expense?)

And on the specific issue of whether video games teach leadership, I think they can only go as far as personal leadership (that is, leading yourself), unless they're multi-player and all the players are on the same team. I don't know games well enough to know if there are any like that.

Then, of course, there are old-fashioned RPGs (Role-Playing Games, not Rocket Propelled Grenades), which, for a lot less money, get people together in highly unusual team situations and teach some pretty kick-ass leadership skills. IMHO of course.

At 10:35 PM, Blogger Borscht said...

For a very apt example of a game that runs against the crux of your position in this post, M, I'd recommend a gander at THE MOVIES.

THE MOVIES is based on the old 1920s studio system -- where you literally are able to play the role of the Producer (which is those days was all-powerful -- think David O. Selznick). You get to make all the on-set decisions, as well as the choices in actors, lighting, budget, directors, etc.

I'd discovered it in a film magazine I took when in Montreal recently called: FAMOUS (

Check it out. You want leadership? Hum-dinger, the movie business's got it in droves.

-- AM

At 3:05 AM, Blogger M@ said...

Okay, to answer a couple of points here...

First, I'm not saying that there are no benefits to be gained from playing video games. (Maybe I'm annoyed that I never seem to gain any? :) ) I think that there are a lot of great games being made these days, and I've learned a lot from games myself -- such as from the Civilizations series, which did a lot to form my basic world view.

However, learning skills that might, indirectly, assist one in leading others -- as Simon's friend did -- is not the same as learning leadership.

But let me tell you the kind of game scenario that would show _real_ leadership: an online multiplayer game in which one player, because he is skilful in the game and a good negotiator, has other players (people whom he has never met) sacrificing their time and effort to perform tasks that he has assigned, because they fit in with his greater plan.

I have never, ever heard of such a scenario appearing and I strongly doubt that it could spontaneously appear.

Players necessarily have an egotistical viewpoint -- the games are made that way.

As for the type of game that Adam mentioned -- although I have no doubt that it's a good and useful game (and I look forward to checking it out) these types of games are not so different from the (very) old Lemonade Stand games of the early 80s. You respond to the pre-programmed stimuli, and the better you respond to them the more successful you are. I don't think that real life affords such satisfying conclusions.

And that's among the reasons we play games: they are satisfying simplifications of real life. Leadership, on the other hand, is not such a simple business.

All in all, if I were given a choice, whether to be led by a very experienced game player or a less experienced shop floor manager, I know which I would pick. The article I posted gives me no reason to change my mind.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger Sandra said...

Well, since my video game experience stopped right around the time of the Atari 64 (my big brother's), I don't know how much I can contribute here.

The only leadership skills I ever learned from it were how to better negotiate (re: finagle) the joystick away from my brother (much like the advent of the television remote control -- 'round 1988 in our house).

That and loads of hand-eye coordination, which has been shown to heighten nervous system response and motor functions, so that's something.

At 3:42 PM, Blogger Simon said...

>an online multiplayer game in which one player ... has other players ... whom he has never met) sacrificing their time and effort to perform tasks he has assigned, because they fit in with his greater plan.

I think you've hit the nail on the head. Maybe there is scope for that sort of game out there? Or maybe it's already out there, but not in the high-graphics, high-profile packaging we're used to?

Playing Star Trek:Bridge Commander I was frustrated that you could play with another person as enemy, but you couldn't both be on the same team. I think being able to do that would be, like, really awesome.

(Sorry for the lapse into Californian; I just didn't know what else to say)

(Suze, nothing against Californians, either!)


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