Learning From Gamers
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When you think about hardcore gamers, what comes to mind? Do you think of twitching slackers wasting away -- mind, body and soul -- in front of a flashing screen? Or do you see highly skilled people who have mastered a wide range of very complex tasks with a combination of memorization, intuition and big-picture understanding?
Even if you find the content of some popular Xbox and PlayStation games objectionable, and the lifestyle of hardcore gamers unhealthy, you can't say dedicated gamers are unskilled.
There's probably no objective means for comparison, but my gut feeling is that at any given high school, the gamers are probably more skilled at gaming than, say, the debate club members are at debating, and the Mathletes are at math.
I think there's a very good reason for that: The process for learning games is more compatible with our human brains than the processes we've developed for academic education.
Academics, broadly speaking, is about preparing for non-failure. The system is set up to maximize the cost of failure. If you get a C on the final, it will wreck your GPA and you'll never get into Princeton. This approach has merit -- it coerces students to learn things they don't want to learn, which is necessary. However, it also has costs. It can make kids hate learning, for example, so they stop doing it as soon as they graduate. I've met far too many A students in college who have absolutely no interest in the world. All their natural curiosity has been beaten out of them.
Gaming, on the other hand, is about learning from failure. The costs of failure are carefully calibrated by the game designer. Failure incurs enough of a penalty so you try your best to avoid it, but not so much of a penalty that you'll hate the game as much as you hate doing homework. By carefully optimizing the right cost for failure, games are made fun. So gamers do massive repetition, and enjoy the challenge of mastery.
The best Halo players kick your butt because they've practiced the myriad skills required to do so thousands of times. They beat you because they've been through more failure than you have.
As video games become more complex, they're starting to actually teach something. A North Carolina man witnessed an accident on the highway last year, and actually saved the life of a seriously injured man by applying first-aid he learned in the "medic" class in the video game, America's Army.
As videogames become more complex, nuanced and sophisticated, increasing numbers of people will start actually learning about history, politics, and other subjects through game play.
Video games and business
Silicon Valley business is like a video game. You try a new business plan or to market a new technology. You fail. That's OK. If the company is still there, you try again, this time integrating what you learned from your failure. If the whole company dies, you go work at another startup and try something else. The "failing softly" approach is one of the reasons Silicon Valley is the world's top engine of business and technology innovation. Stated another way, Silicon Valley is so successful because it's so good at failure.
Those of us in business and in IT have much to learn from gamers.
For example, blogging is like video gaming. I have a personal blog called The Raw Feed, which I use as a "farm program" for ideas I might develop for a column in this space. Its purpose, in part, is to give me a place to fail with my ideas, and learn from those failures.
I'll typically link to a story, then add my point of view about it. Some critical readers might slam either the angle of or the facts in the story, or my stated opinion on it, or facts in my post. Sometimes other bloggers link to my posts to criticize. It's all good, because by the time I write my column I'm done failing with those ideas.
Some people trickle out bits of their novel or non-fiction book as blog entries, then integrate feedback in the final draft.
Everyone should have a blog for this reason. Blogs are a safe place to fail.
If you're a manager, your department may find new success if you're able to foster a video game-like culture of soft failure. Instead of firing the people who try something and screw up, for example, instead retain those now-educated people and fire the ones who never try anything new.
Some organizations never punish failure. Others punish it way too harshly. Instead, learn how to perfectly calibrate the cost of failure in your department like video game developers do. Every failure should come with a minor penalty, but not a demoralizing one.
And figure out how to foster a culture of repetition. When people are preparing a big presentation, have them present to one of their peers privately, and ask that audience member to bring up three things that suck about the presentation. After integrating that feedback, present to the second peer. Then the third peer and so on. By the time they're in front of the client or the audience, that presentation will flawless, and the presenter will be skilled. That's just one example.
By learning from video games in the development of your department's and your company's culture, your people will have more fun, they'll become more skilled and -- most importantly -- you'll "pwn" the competition.
In addition to writing for Datamation, where this column first appeared, Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org m or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.