The Gaming Skill Set, or How Computer Games Prepared Me For Working Life
Computer games don’t have a good reputation in large parts of society. They are made responsible for crazy people running amok, kids’ bad performance at school and declining health and social contacts, to name just a few of the criticism. Millions of kids are wasting their free time on gaming, spending unreasonable amounts of money on hardware and commercial content updates for their games. And generations of parents and teachers over the last decades have learned to teach these kids, that computer games will destroy their future, if they do not finally go out playing in the nature with the other kids, or start learning for the upcoming math test!
What if these teachers and parents were wrong?
I have been working as an IT professional for several years now. And I would claim that I’m doing quite an okay job and that I have gained some valuable experience, while working for various international companies. When reflecting, how I have acquired the skills, which I am utilizing at work, I come to the conclusion that it is surprisingly not my school and university education that brought me here. Neither were it the on the job trainings, additional workshops, and industry certifications that helped me persist.
In fact, it is my long time experience in computer gaming, which really helped me to get prepared for all those complex technical and organizational tasks, which modern work places, especially in the IT sector require.
It took me a long time to come to this conclusion and for some time I though that this is all bullshit. But now I got my point straight. So let me tell you a story…
1. My Computer and Me
When I was a little kid, my family owned a Commodore 500, a very simple computer, but in the 80s a revolutionary device for computer games and basic office work. Of course, I wasn’t too interested in the office-related stuff of the Amiga Workbench operations system. I rather spent a big part of my free time playing computer games, which were very popular in the late 80s and early 90s, especially on that platform. Mostly I remember playing games, such as “Lotus 2”, “International Karate”, “Dojo Dan”, and “Silkworm” just to name a few. Back in the days, I could spend hours playing these games. In the same time, I wouldn’t say that I was too much of a geek. I spent a lot of my free time outdoors with my friends: football, hide and seek, the usual stuff… Nevertheless, sitting at home and playing computer games made up a big part of my weekly schedule. Already back in those times, I got annoyed with my parents complaining: “Son, you spend too much time in front of that stupid cube. You will soon get cube-shaped eyes” and funny stuff like that. But I did not really care about their opinion.
In the early 90s, a new gaming platform gained popularity, at least in the area, where I grew up: Nintendo! And of course, all the kids in primary school went crazy about stuff like “Street Fighter”, and “Street Fighter 2”. For those, who don’t know it: Street Fighter is a 2D martial arts game, in which two players, connected with a game pad to the Nintendo station, beat the shit out of each other. It’s a great early multiplayer fun game, and it was one of the best ways to get to know the other kids in my primary school class. I never had my own Nintendo, but enough other kids in class did, so that was never an issue.
It was only in the late mid-90s (around 1996 or 1997) that I first used the family’s PC, running on Windows 95. Up until then, I wasn’t really interested in that device, as I perceived the early Windows-based computer games, which I came across as being far too immature and unentertaining. I rather stuck to the good old Commodore 500 games. Everything changed with “Fifa ’97”, a football simulator that a school friend showed me, and which made me aware that PC games were suddenly to be taken seriously (of course there were earlier good games, but for some reason I missed all of them, probably also due to my own ignorance). From that point on, I was using the family PC as often as I could, gaining again massive criticism from the people around me. Especially, when my school grades started deteriorating (I was a total failure in math and natural science subjects), my parents and teachers urged me to spend more time with my homework and school literature, and not to “waste time with that stupid machine”. I still couldn’t resist the power of fun and technology, and I couldn’t care less.
Nowadays I am glad that I didn’t care, for I regret absolutely nothing and my alleged gaming addiction caused me and other people no harm. There are occasions, when it is ok to listen to the advise given by the people around, and there are times, when it is not. I did precisely the right thing in the right time. And further below I will point out why.
The computer and all the various technical innovations it provided, illuminated a whole new world of opportunities to me: text editing, picture editing and media post production, listening to mp3 music; not to mention access to the (even in terms of that age extremely slow and unstable) internet via 56k modem, which was another eye-opening experience…. But I would like to focus on the computer game topic here.
By the time, Windows 2000 came out, I already had my own PC, and I developed a passion for strategy and simulation-based computer games. A few examples of games, which I appreciated the most are: SimCity (mostly 3000 + 4), Age of Empires 2, Anno 1602, Medieval 2: Total War, among many others… . The late 90s and the early 2000s were the peak of the strategy game culture, as I witnessed it. Strategy computer games, and all categories and niches it includes (such as economy simulators, city-building simulators, or round-based war games) just became much more visually appealing, and more and more complex in handling. These were my final years in grammar school, and I spent a lot of free time on these games. I was fascinated of the idea of building up stuff and managing resources and it was a lot of fun to me. The fact that most of the games came in English language, which is not my mother tongue, did not stop me. Since the Commodore days, I was already used to that and had a dictionary at hand. Little did I expect in that time that this would be one out of several skills that I would be able to utilize later.
School was still a big issue for me. Most of it was just not interesting to me, except for some subjects, such as art, literature, or sports, which entertained me. Moreover, there were many teachers, who did not really have a talent in raising enthusiasm for the stuff they were teaching. I nearly failed my graduation and eventually finished school with a poor final grade. And I still have the feeling that I wasted most of my time in that institution. Most of the content taught at school, of which teachers always said they would become necessary in my professional life, are things which I never encountered again after school.
However, my strategy gaming journey continued, although I massively cut on the free time I spent on it, as soon as I started university and working my first jobs.
By 2005 the gaming industry changed the direction, and strategy games became less demanding. I assume that the industry recognized that it could be more successful on the market by focusing on better graphics, less complexity, and less difficult gameplay, in order to target a wider audience. A development, which is condemned by many, but economically understandable. Nevertheless, several game developers and game companies have defied and still defy the new developments and are still publishing demanding and complex strategy games (One nice example is “Banished” from 2014, in which your task is to set up the economic infrastructure of a little medieval settlement. It is very hard to keep the population alive). Nowadays, I don’t play a lot of computer games anymore. Other hobbies and activities have taken the spot. But when I do, it is mostly the classic and complex games, such as Sim City 4, which entertain me the most. That might also be a generation thing.
Nevertheless, I am very grateful for the childhood and youth I experienced, accompanied by one of my most continuous friends: the computer, who changed his shape, and size, and speed several time over all these years. I am also grateful that I had the opportunity to grow up with all these computer games, which took away a lot of free time, which I might or might not have invested in more meaningful activities. Was it a waste of time? I don’t think so…
2. Strategy Gaming in Practice, or How the Computer Kids Can Contribute to the Business
Now take a look at the skills, which companies, and especially IT companies, require. Most of them are actually requiring (note: not searching) a versatile office worker, who brings:
- basic IT skills (such as operating a computer easily and processing stuff on it quickly),
- a few international language skills (getting more and more important in most industries, not a very new development),
- good resource and time management skills to deal with several overlapping and sometimes diverging tasks and projects at the same time
- and the ability to adapt and respond quickly to change and external pressure.
- (note: we are talking about skills, not proven work experience).
These are core business skills, which are required by many jobs. It would be too narrow-minded to focus only on these skills, though. And in fact, there are industries and lines of work, which have absolutely different job requirements. But let’s face it: from customer support operators to logistic workers, university teachers, project managers, event organizers, journalists, politicians, executives or global drug lords it is mostly exactly these skills that matter (among others) in order to persist in their line of business.
Now here are some examples of classic computer games, their concept, and how they relate to usual business endeavors…
SimCity 4 is the fourth PC release of the SimCity Game series, published in 2003. Compared to its predecessors and successors it’s the most complex and deep release. The gamer gets to create a functioning city from the scratch, given a map to build on and limited money as main resource. As the games continues, monthly expenditure costs and taxes are due, which puts pressure on quickly establishing a financially feasible system of residential, business, industry areas, infrastructure and leisure institutions. This means that you will need to attract inhabitants, business, and labor (low tax income), while in the same time establishing infrastructure (decrease congestion and pollution) and institutions for health, safety, leisure (all increasing living standard and keeping your population from moving out). if you run out of money, you have the option to take up a loan from the bank, which you will have to pay back at a higher interest rate. That is a very difficult concept. But the game was always a big fun for me and I believe it still is for many people today. At least there is still a modding community, working especially on that version of the game, although new versions of SimCity have been released in recent years.
SimCity 4 teaches several skills, which are important in business, such as time and resource management. In most jobs you will also have to take quick decisions on how to handle a project, how to handle issues and risks, which goals to pursue first, which directions have the highest priority, and where to allocate which colleagues, especially in leadership positions. SimCity also enables how to learn deciding between different options (i.w. nuclear power, solar polar, or garbage plants) and to learn the possible negative outcomes the hard way. Furthermore it teaches, how to satisfy the interests of different stakeholders and business partners in the same time (the city population, business and commercial leaders, and project support workers, such as the energy advisor, safety guy, budget advisor etc. …), or which stakeholders are the most urgent to satisfy at the moment. And it’s definitely not very easy to keep the budget green and the population happy and prosperous. Many times you have to be decisive and chose the lesser evil of options and counter measures concerning the current issues, gaps, or stagnation. Unfortunately, the later games of the series, such as SimCity Societies destroyed the concept by making the gameplay much less demanding((https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casual_game)). But the more I think about it, I come to the conclusion that SimCity is rather a graphical and practice-driven project management training software, than a simple computer game.
Anno is a trading and economy production chain simulation. All the parts of this series are fun, but I picked 1404, as it is the most complex in terms of producible and tradable goods. You set up a new harbor village on a little island, which is part of a sea map with several inhabited and uninhabited islands. Space is limited, so you should think in advance, where to put settlements, and where to establish agriculture and production structures, especially concerning the unavailability of large spacious construction options (i.e. large cathedral), which can only be built later in the game. The more wealthy your population gets, the more taxes it will pay, which you may reinvest. On the other hand, it will also require more goods, which need to be supplied regularly to the population, in order to keep it happy and alive. Again, it is very difficult to keep the balance and to maintain a positive budget. Key of handling the settlement project successfully is to get set up and control the necessary production chains and maintain a healthy balance between offer and demand of goods to your population ((http://anno1404.wikia.com/wiki/Production_chains)).
This is how a typical production chain in Anno looks like: Your citizens (2nd level of medieval population rank, evolving from peasants) require bread. In order to create your first unit of bread, you will need a bakery. A bakery requires gold (money), tools, wood, and stone to established. The latter three also require separate buildings, in order to be harvested. Before you start building a mill, you need to have a crop farm (harvesting crop) and a mill (transforming crop into flour), which also require resources and need to be established separately. Once you have a farm, a mill, and a bakery (best results will evolve from 2 farms, 1 mill, and 1 bakery), you can start producing bread and it will be distributed to the markets. The demand of the citizen population will slowly be fulfilled, and eventually satisfied, at least as long bread is produced and supplied to the market to keep the demand satisfied. Once the population of citizens grows, you will also have to extend the production chain, in order to satisfy the increased demand (i.e. 4 farms, 2 mills, 2 bakeries). And this is only one out of many production chains that need to be created and maintained! Next to the production chains, which first of all target your own population, trading is very essential for the game. You set up a trading network and trade surplus goods to other players on the map. In the same time you utilize your trading network to import goods, which you are not producing, or which are running out of stock due to poorly established production chains.
Anno does not only teach basic economic principles of demand and supply. It also provides ideas and an understanding of long-term sustainability and project improvement models, which can be found in business and organization focused academia and commercial certification programs as well. However, such programs are more expensive, and usually less fun. No offense against academia and the certification industry. But based on my own professional experience with these programs, I am convinced that it is legitimate to draw a parallel here.
Age of Empires 2
Age of Empires 2 is much more a real-time war game, than an economy simulator. Do you remember the board game “Risk”? Yes, it’s basically like that! Although for example the “Total War” series would fit better into that comparison,
Aim of AoE2 is to smash the competition and gain control over the whole map. However, even here you need to start with the setup of a basic economic infrastructure, given a settlement center, a few peasants, and a scout. First, you will need to start harvesting wood, food, stone, and gold (the 4 base resources o the game), in order to set up military structures, fortification, and an army. The way how you allocate these few starting resources (peasants for farming or building stuff), and the right time and ratio for everything is the key for setting up a competitive war-fairing settlement. There’s always the danger to be rushed down by a competitor, very early in the game (for example, there is a strategy to utilize the horse scout to bait all the wolves in the area and lead them to your enemies villages, while it is still rural and defenseless…).
It is a key question of the game, when to move from collecting raw material to building structures, and which kind of structure, and when to start investing in military forces. After all, military forces are expensive , and they draw resources, which could have been allocated in another way (just like in the real life). If you manage to survive the initial phase of the game, other issues arise: the raw materials on the map are limited, and your population is set to a maximum size of 200 (workers and soldiers included). Because of that you will have to gradually shift parts of the working population (which is working less efficient as raw material to harvest runs scarce) to the military forces. Your opponents will be in exactly the same dilemma, no matter if you are playing against a computer, or against human players in the network multiplayer mode. If you shift to early, in order to gain military dominance, you risk that the others will harvest away raw material, which you could have harvested instead. If you shift too late, there is a thread to be overrun by more powerful armies and to be eliminated completely. These are very difficult choices, especially if you play against AI and choose the most difficult game mode. Another interesting point is the multiplayer mode, which brings up the team building advantages of the game…
In the early 2000s, there was a new fashion, LAN parties. And on the smaller and private LAN parties of that kind, which I attended, AoE2 was always a big thing. Usually we played in 2 teams, consisting of 3 players each, while each team had its own room, and only the screams and whining heard through the thin basement walls allowed an impression on how the other team was doing. Within the team, everybody was usually working together, sharing goods via markets and sharing fortification structures along the battle fronts. When it happened that one player of the team got his settlement rushed down by enemy forces, we would allow him to send his remaining peasants and recreate his settlement within allied fortification. It was great fun and never boring, although each game lasted several hours and could sometimes be quite unnerving. People were always trying to come up with an unconventional strategy to surprise the other team. Once, the lines of fortification at the front line were so unbreakable (several layers of stone walls on both sides), that somebody had the idea to lumberjack the surrounding forest with a trebuchet, in order to reach the enemy settlements from behind. It often required creative thinking. And furthermore, it was always a great team play workout, especially when it came to finding a solution together.
3. Reconsidering Education, Hiring and Employee Training Models
What does this mean for the labor market and the education system?
When it comes to hiring new people for a job opening, a large amount of organizations operate more or less exactly the same. The manager(s) in need usually start with a candidate profile, which they hand over to their HR departments. These profiles usually contain some default points, as the ones I have listed above (basic IT or technical skills, language knowledge, good resource and time management, the ability to adapt quickly) plus some specific skills related to the job opening. I argue that strategy computer games, such as the ones I have described above, are fundamentally training these skills, and generating a skill set, which is essential or at least highly advantageous to persist in most jobs.
These default skill points, formulated in different ways, but mostly referring to the same, are not such a basic part of a standard candidate profile without reason. Although many people, who are operating within hiring processes, make the mistake to focus too much on the specific requirements, instead of the generic skill set described above, which is more advisable to look for in candidates. Instead of job experience and specific skills in the requirement area or business domain (which are without question also important), HR departments may be better off, searching for people with the computer gaming skill set.
Schools (on all levels) do not only prepare kids for traditional job markets (see above), or at least the should not do so. They should help the kids developing a personal set of skills, with which the kids will be able to maximize their personal goals in life, however these goals may look like. Supporting the gaming skill set described above would help the kid to follow its dreams in all kinds of goals, which lie totally outside of the regular labor market. That does not mean that schools should make it mandatory for its student to play strategy computer games. But at least they should not persecute such hobbies in any way.
Just some examples, how to make practical use of the gaming skill set…
To Human Resources: If you start an assessment center, in order to evaluate candidates for an opening concerning their behavior in certain group situations and team playing games: let them play a multiplayer session of AoE2 and see how each candidate copes with the situation!
I can assure that you would be surprised by the results.
To business and team leaders: employees require training and career development. In the case of project workers, why should one spend too much money on stuff like PMP or PRINCE2 training classes and certification, trying to encourage project contribution and leadership skills (although there are certainly in some cases good reasons to do obtain certification): “Reward” your employee’s previous achievements with a Steam voucher, instead.
Or organize a LAN party as a team building event! This will have most likely 2 benefits: 1) increased practice in team playing and cooperation, and 2) expansion and training of crucial individual skills (if you provide the right games). Especially in IT teams this can be a promising approach.
And one final advise to schools and especially English teachers: I am not a native speaker and most of the time I sucked at English classes in school. What taught me quite well to expand my language knowledge and vocabulary however..well, you name it. I always had to face the fact that many games were not translated into my mother tongue.
Support your students’ interests! Try to find things that most of the kids in class enjoy and organize your teachings accordingly. If the kids enjoy it, use the fun topic as a trojan horse to bring English grammar and vocabulary to the students.
Now that’s enough finger-pointing and precocious advise from my side.
After all, I can only summarize my own experience and perception regarding this topic. I understand that there are very different opinions on the same topic. And there are many good reasons not to get hooked up on computer games. For example the following side effects might occur: lack of social contact, lack of workout, signs of addiction and exclusion in case of really good game releases, and shitty blog writing…
As for many things, it is advisable to find the right balance. If dealt with responsibly, computer games can mean a real benefit for the development of each individual’s skill set and personal development. And this might be a useful point to consider in several areas of life.
Just think about it.