What I’ve Learned From Video Games

In light of the recent Gamergate hoopla that has featured some outrageous misogyny and personal attacks, I thought this might be a useful opportunity to discuss the positive lessons I learned from a life of gaming. 

When I was 5 years old I started playing educational games like Math Blaster, Treasure Mountain, Operation Nepture, and Carmen Sandiego, but my true love was always Sierra’s Quest For Glory series.  The combination of humor and adventure in these role playing games made me fall in love with creative story telling and develop the long-term commitment needed to complete a quest. 

From there, I expanded into Tie Fighter, Duke Nukem 3D, WarCraft II, StarCraft I & II, and the Civilization and Colonization games.  I still occasionally play StarCraft II and Heroes of Might and Magic 3, and once a year I tend to binge on Civilization III for a weekend. 

Here are some takeaways from my experiences in the gaming world:

1.  Practice pays off.  If you’re starting a new fitness regime, it can take months of exercise and diet changes before you see noticeable progress in your body, but spend a few days playing a video game, and you will see rapid improvement.  This is experience of neuroplasticity confirms what Carol Dweck describes as the Growth Mindset – the belief that everyone can learn and improve through practice.  Talent is not solely pre-determined; it can be developed. 

2.  Mastery is pattern recognition.  Watching online gaming competitions (often called e-sports) is a mind-blowing experience.  These players have practiced so much that they can predict their opponent’s strategy from the smallest details during a game.  To develop mastery, repetition is needed to experience and adapt to the many permutations in any given field or activity.  From chess and sports to business and politics, being able to recognize patterns will give you the edge. 

3.  When you fail, try again.  Games are an excellent training ground for learning to fail without giving up.  I recently went to a “free play” arcade where all the machines had unlimited plays.  I quickly realized that what makes games fun is the challenge and possibility of failure.  There are “easy modes and cheat codes” in both games and life, and the most rewarding sense of accomplishment comes from succeeding without using these shortcuts. 

4.  Balance short-term and long-term interests.  Most real time strategy and turn-based games require the player to weigh the needs of the short term (building armies and buying weapons) against the long-term investment in workers and buildings to develop a strong economy.  In the latter stages of the game, a strong economy will allow the player to dominate, but if he or she doesn’t survive the short-to-mid-game, that economy won’t matter.  I often find myself doing a similar cost-benefit analysis when deciding whether to make an immediate business spend or invest that money towards longer-term growth. 

5.  Automation creates efficiencies.  Most games have a large variety of tasks and decisions that must be made constantly.  Having a plan and automating routine or frequent tasks frees up your mind to focus on strategy and tactics instead of debating about the build order of units or buildings.  In my personal and professional life, I try to make conscious decisions about routine tasks like food, exercise, accounting, and production schedules.  Then, I stick to the plan, which frees up my mental energy to focus on relationship building, strategic planning, product development, or even just being fully present in an activity. 

6.  You can learn from everything.  I learned a surprising amount about world history and colonial America by playing Civilization and Colonization.  Carmen Sandiego taught me world geography.  StarCraft II taught me how to manage a complex empire in real-time, and Wolfenstein 3D taught me… uhh… how to hunt Nazis? J The more I think about games, the deeper appreciation I have for their instructional abilities.  Commentator Day 9 beautifully explains the community and perseverance that can emerge from gaming in his epic ode to StarCraft, which he describes as the chess of our generation.  I am thankful to have learned much from video games to had a ton of fun while doing it. 

Do you have any other lessons you’ve learned from gaming?  I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.