Of Crack and World of Warcraft

No, this post probably isn’t what you think it’s about.  Yes, World of Warcraft is like crack in its addictiveness and its ability to ruin your life.  One of my college roomates, Joe, has a townhouse around the corner from me (he used to rent from me).  Since WoW came out, he’s been hooked on it.  Whenever I go over there, someone in that house is always playing WoW.  It’s gotten to the point where the kitchen is a disgusting, festering mess of putrid food and garbage (yuck, the whole first floor smells like nasty).

But anyways, I digress.

I came across an article on Wired, You Play World of Warcraft? You’re Hired!, which recounts the experience of Stephen Gillett an all around successful guy who also happened to be a guild master in WoW.

The article’s premise is that playing games like WoW educates players in a way that’s more powerful than tradtitional education.  In particular, it provides a sort of deep social education (how to live, work, lead, and interact within a group) that many of the players often cannot experience in real life.

Unlike education acquired through textbooks, lectures, and classroom instruction, what takes place in massively multiplayer online games is what we call accidental learning. It’s learning to be – a natural byproduct of adjusting to a new culture – as opposed to learning about.

While Gillett is probably a bad case to use, since he was already pretty successful to begin with, it certainly does raise the question of how learning through immersive gaming can help build skills that translate into real world success.  What’s significant is what is being learned, especially at the highest level of the guild.  At the level of a guild master, an incredible amount of things that translate into real world success are mastered and exercised on a daily basis.

In this way, the process of becoming an effective World of Warcraft guild master amounts to a total-immersion course in leadership. A guild is a collection of players who come together to share knowledge, resources, and manpower. To run a large one, a guild master must be adept at many skills: attracting, evaluating, and recruiting new members; creating apprenticeship programs; orchestrating group strategy; and adjudicating disputes.

Indeed, it can take hours to organize and execute a coordinated raid of 20+ players all over the world.  Regardless of the venue, it takes a great amount of leadership to get any number of people to focus on a common goal and execute it in a timely manner.  Even more impressive is that in most guilds, leadership naturally evolves in the sense that most of these people come together without knowing each other and those with the ability and desire to lead tend to bubble up the chain of control.

The article further brings up a good point in stating that virtual worlds are great platforms for teaching these lessons because the cost of failure is low:

Where traditional learning is based on the execution of carefully graded challenges, accidental learning relies on failure. Virtual environments are safe platforms for trial and error. The chance of failure is high, but the cost is low and the lessons learned are immediate.

Cost of failure is a very real metric.  I think people are often afraid of trying new things or undertaking the journey to learn something worthwhile because of the high cost of “failure” in the real world (I’m certainly no exception; it’s why I hate to read books because “what if it sucks?”).  At the least, it costs you a lot of time to, for example, learn a new language, that you may never get to use frequently.  At the worst, it may cost you a significant amount of money if we’re talking about running a business or making an investment.

When the cost of failure is low, it becomes trivial for anyone to adhere to the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

As for WoW, my personal impression that the skills to be a successful guild master in WoW (or a clan leader in any other multi-player game) are no different than the same skills that it takes to be a successful project manager or business leader in the real world.  You have to be able to evaluate resources and place them in a position to succeed.  You have to find the right mix of resources (build a well balanced team).  You have to be a skilled people person (well, at least in your online persona) and be able to resolve member disputes.  You have to be able to motivate people by controlling incentives (distributing loot).  You have to have great communication skills and overall great organization skills.

In actuality, this isn’t too different from what it takes to be successful at many things in life, including dealing crack.  In Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt recounts the experience of Sudhir Venkatesh in 1989, then a young PhD candidate in the field of sociology, and “J.T.”, the leader of a gang that he stumbled upon.

So how did the gang work?  An awful lot like most American businesses, actually, though perhaps none more so than McDonald’s

J.T., the college-educated leader of his franchise, reported to a central leadership of about twenty men that was called, without irony, the board of directors. (At the same time that white suburbanites were studiously mimicking black rappers’ ghetto culture, black ghetto criminals were studiously mimicking the suburbanites’ dads’ corp-think).

Levitt goes into further detail about the incredibly well organized structure of the gang and the immaculate sales ledger that J.T. kept regarding all of the income and expenses of the gang, mostly from selling crack.

In the end, J.T. prevailed.  He oversaw the gang’s expansion and ushered in a new era of prosperity and relative peace.  J.T. was a winner.  He was paid well because so few people could do what he did.

“We try to tell these shorties that they belong to a serious organization,” he once told Venkatesh.

As is obvious, leadership is a valuable skill, whether it’s natural, learned through a proper institution, or acquired through accidental learning.  The interesting question is how well these skills translate into the “real” world of business.  My feeling is that very few gamers will actually make that virtual-real world connection.

It’s simply amazing that Joe probably puts in hours of research each week regarding items, weapons, skills, map routes, raids, and so on.  I often wonder what could be accomplished if Joe put the same effort into his personal life as he did into WoW say doing research on SharePoint or .Net.  But then, the learning wouldn’t be experiential in nature, so it’s hard to say.  I also wonder whether any of these skills can actually be translated into real world success since the whole idea of the online persona is to be someone that you can’t be in the real world.

I should also mention that I think that MMO gaming instills a more general type of positive social training that helps even the most rebellious and anti-social of people since, typically, you cannot reach high levels of success in MMO’s without the help of a group and you are forced to fall into a social order.  In that sense, it’s not much different (and perhaps even more effective since anyone can join) from traditional, contrived, school activities that serve the same purpose like cheering, team sports, debate club, etc.

I don’t think Joe believed me when I first proposed to him that MMO’s were ultimately about a social experience.  You see, he had started playing the game “solo” and didn’t want to be a part of any guild since very few of the group of us that played games together were planning on buying WoW.  This kind of reflects his real life nature in that he has a very close circle of old friends that he sticks with and isn’t the most outgoing person (and neither am I, actually).  But now, oddly enough, as I understand, he’s one of the higher level leaders of the guild that he’s in.

Well, I’m just kind of stammering on now.  So there you have it.  Next time someone makes the obvious comment that WoW is like crack, you can bring up a totally different angle and be a (bigger) nerd.

FYI: I do not play WoW; I tried Guild Wars for a month or two, but I just can’t really get into MMOs, possibly due to my INTP personality profile; more likely it’s just because I’m even anti-social in my online personas 😀

EDIT: There’s some great commentary over at a related thread on Fark, I’ll include some choice bits:


I’ve been a guild leader in WoW. I’ve also held assorted real life positions of responsibility. The article has a good point. You need to bring 50 people of all ages and personalities together to perform complex tasks, without any of the typical forms of reimbursement. You can’t force people to be there, and you can’t really pay them in any way that has an impact in their real lives.

In general, I’ve noticed that the guild leaders in WoW have to be much more saavy than your ‘real life’ management. Most of the latter tend to exploit the power they hold over their employees…they know that they can get you fired, affect your pay, make sure you get all the shiat jobs.

In the videogame, you have to be more persuasive. Start bossing around a 15 year old whose never had a real job, and he’ll just up and quit. Patronize a 40 year old who makes $100k/yr, and he’ll quit. It’s a much more individual-based form of management.


Two candidates – all other things exactly equal – apply for a job. One tells me in the interview that he/she can keep a herd of 100 or so online gamers on task and organized for 4-5 hour chunks of time. That’s gotta mean something.


But irregardless, to do such a thing would take management. And that’s what the article is really about. Proper management and people skills. Get the right people with the right mix of talents and you’re set.

And if you can do that in the virtual world with jackass 13-year olds that nerf you and then question your sexuality, you can do it in real life.

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3 Responses

  1. I know a couple of people who just have to read this!

    Even though I never played any MMO at all (Mario Kart is my only online gaming experience so far due to hardware restrictions), I can see the point this story is making. It does make sense, indeed.

  2. Chuck says:

    I may join you when the DS Lite is released.

    I’ve been holding out until then to pick one up.

    Metroid Prime Hunters, too!

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