By Joe Miao
My Video Game Obsession
I have a confession to make. I spend a bit of…. well honestly most of my free time playing video games. In fact, probably slightly more time than what’s best for my health. There are many people out there who would see this as a big waste of my time. It isn’t really immediately beneficial for me personally or professionally, and eats up my time being holed up in my room yelling (constructively!) at internet strangers. BUT, I think there’s much more to it that first meets the eye, so bear with me.
You may not have heard, but recently the grand final of one the largest e-sports (competitive video games) tournaments in the world was held. The International 7 had 18 teams duke it out over a prize pool of $24M USD. The game they played was Defense of the Ancients 2 (DotA2), a multiplayer online battle arena game, where you battle 5v5 controlling a “hero” character with a range of skills, using your mouse and keyboard. To win, as the name suggests, you have to defend your “ancient” and destroy the opponents “ancient” using your hero. This is the game I’ve invested most of my time in, but unfortunately I’m not quite at the skill level where I can be winning millions over a week of play.
I’ve caught a lot of flak from my parents playing computers games, and I don’t blame them. It definitely doesn’t look productive seeing me in my room with my headset on, (“Are you running a call centre in your room?!”), but playing this game has actually provided me with a simulation space for building self-awareness. If we think about the game play conceptually, you are (generally) put into a team of strangers controlling a variety of heroes, who bring different skill-sets, to achieve a common goal. In the real world, people often work a context that requires them to do this every day for professional success. Of course the team might be more familiar, may be larger or smaller and it may be in person rather than virtually, but the concepts remain the same. I’ve found that my experience playing games has helped me in shaping the way I work with others and building my resilience.
Learning to learn
People generally like to have some feedback about their performance, whether it’s for bragging rights or for that sense of accomplishment after a job well done. In the game, this is given in the form of a number that represents your skill-level called your “match-making rank” (MMR) and bigger numbers = more bragging rights. To increase your MMR, you need to win ranked matches against other players. If you lose a game, it often takes two more wins to bring yourself back to the same MMR, and this creates a high-pressure environment where players feel like there’s a lot on the line.
This creates a lot of stress, which tends to bring out the worst in people, and this is just as true in online gaming as it is at work. Being in a team of strangers that you potentially may never meet again, criticism, blame, insults and all sorts of other things you’d be shocked to hear someone say in real life often gets thrown around daily in DotA. Despite this toxicity, this environment has helped me better my understanding of many concepts.
It’s all in your head
MMR is an indicator of your skill in the game, but this isn’t limited to purely your game mechanics. Your mechanical skill is definitely a part of it, but it also incorporates your game knowledge, decision making ability, understanding of strategy and many other things that influence your chances of winning. Something that players often underestimate is the importance of the team’s mood. In a team of 5, if you even have one person lose motivation and hope, that’s 20% of your team. Imagine a business trying to achieve the same level of success with 20% less talent.
Before the game even starts, I’ve seen teams arguing and fighting over roles to the point where one person gives up before the horn sounds. In these scenarios, success depends on the members’ ability to put ego aside and play the role that is needed, as opposed to the one they wanted or even that they’re significantly better at.
There are many other key points in the game that can cause players to lose motivation or go on “tilt” and start making poor decisions.
For example, a resource that is distributed when the game starts are called “wards” that provide you with an information advantage in being able to see what your opponents are doing. This is similar to project managers not being assigned the resources they require to succeed. There are a limited amount of wards, and in the same way there are a limited number of resources an organisation can assign to a project. These situations have helped me identify the importance of managing expectations, in that if good reasons are communicated as to why a person isn’t given the resources they need, they are much more likely to be patient and give you room to find a mutually acceptable solution.
These are just two examples, but there are many more involving all sorts of complicated game mechanics that translate quite well into real life problems. Essentially, DotA has given me the chance to be put into a virtual cross-cultural team and try out different approaches in order to make the most of the talent assigned to the my team without risk of getting fired.
Change what I can, accept what I can’t, and know the difference
As with many other games, there are factors in DotA that are decided by chance that can confer significant advantages in the game. The very first factor is the team that you’re matched with, as with any other measure, there is some level of variance involved. You might get a team of players who speak your language, full of confidence from a winning streak. You might have a teammate who has had a bad day at work and came home to take out their anger online. There are also game mechanics that allow some characters, with enough luck, to kill your character without any chance to outplay them no matter how skilled you are, giving rise to phrases such as “17%”. I’m a big fan of learning from my mistakes and identifying areas for improvement, but in these situations, there’s nothing you can do but surrender to your fate.
Playing DotA, among other games (I’m looking at you Hearthstone!), has exposed me to situation after situation where the outcome is simply outside of my control. I’d like to think I’m relatively resilient, but when this happens, it can really get me down. Regardless of how good you are, sometimes you just can’t win if luck isn’t on your side. It’s not even just the losses, it’s the fact that it’s fruitless to be reflecting on these situations, because there’s nothing that can be done and therefore nothing you can really learn from the experience.
There is a concept in psychology called ‘locus of control’, which is the extent to which you have control over the outcomes in your life. An internal locus of control indicates that you believe you have the means to improve your lot in life, whereas an external locus of control indicates that you believe there are other forces beyond your control which have a stronger impact. An internal locus of control is positively correlated with job satisfaction and job performance (Judge & Bono, 2001)¹. Taking that into account, I’ve found it important to reflect on all areas of my life and identify areas that I can improve on to achieve better results. At the same time, it’s important to accept that there are some things you simply can’t control, and avoid getting worked up over these things.
So how do I manage this? Well, a strategy I’ve adopted to improve my outlook during the bad streaks is to go to my mantra of “regression to the mean”. In statistical terms, regression to the mean is about extreme measurements eventually evening out over a large enough number of samples. Unless you have a large enough sample size, or in the case of real life, enough opportunities, success and failure isn’t necessarily a true indicator of your ability and you shouldn’t give up too early. I’ve found this idea to be helpful when talking with others who are harsh on themselves. Unless you open yourself up to enough opportunities, you just won’t know what you’re truly worth.
Beyond the game
Although I’ve spent a lot of time talking about DotA, the big idea is that despite being just a game it’s actually given me a safe simulation space for me to monitor and practice a range of my transferable skills. We often see how employers value these transferable skills, and DotA has been a learning environment where I developed my resilience, communication, teamwork, leadership, problem solving and interpersonal skills. The list just goes on and on.
Now let’s go meta-conceptual, because I don’t think this just applies to DotA or videos games. Day to day, people are often exposed to all sorts of things that teach them concepts useful in a wide range of settings. For example, for a band to sound cohesive, they need to find a rhythm together, and you could translate that into understanding your common purpose in a work team. We can miss out on many opportunities to learn without reflecting on how our experiences apply to all the other areas of our life. I think this is part of the trouble with the prevalence of toxicity online, in that people partition these experiences into their ‘online’ self and their ‘real life’ self, instead of treating the online community as a safer space to practice being your best self.
The Future of Work, or the Work of the Future
Now onto the future of work, or as Cathy Engelbert from Deloitte² put it, the work of the future (definitely sounds more visionary). We are moving towards a world that is VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. In order to prepare for a world that is VUCA, we need to be increasingly adaptable. So how do we do that? One movement I’ve been highly interested in is the concept of design thinking, which began in engineering/architecture, but is now increasingly being put into practice in business as a way to become more flexible in approaches towards problem solving.
Design thinking encourages you to avoid assumptions and think conceptually, and it’s an iterative process where you can go back and be constantly improving the solution. We should treat ourselves as a design thinking ‘prototype’ that is tested through the whole range of different experiences we have every day, and not only reflect on how what we learn in this experience can be applied in this facet of our life, but every facet of our life.
Part of our current culture towards work is reflected in the way we often define ourselves by our professional titles. For example, I call myself a psychologist and that often lends itself to people asking “So do you deal with crazy people all day?” or the classic “Can you read my mind?” Instead, I feel we should define ourselves by what we seek to achieve in our roles, creating purpose and flexibility, and avoid the assumptions people make towards those in specific occupations. Instead of “I’m Joe, and I’m a Psychologist”, I should try “I’m Joe, and I get a kick out of helping other people achieve their best.” But I’m definitely still a prototype that needs a lot of refining, and I’m not quite brave enough yet to avoid hiding behind my title that I spent 6 years at university for.
If you’ve made it this far, I’d like to give you my sincere thanks. This has been a big chunk of my thoughts that you’ve managed to get through and I appreciate your giving me your time.
The world of work ahead of us is definitely uncertain, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’d like to think of the work of the future as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for individuals to adapt the things they’ve learnt into a new context and bring in a unique perspective. It’s also an opportunity for organisations to create unique employee experiences that allow people the flexibility to truly bring their whole selves to work, and shine at their brightest.
Finally, I’d like to challenge you, whoever you are that’s read this far. Take some time to reflect on one of your experiences. What have you learnt from it, and how can you apply that throughout your whole life? Write it down and share it with me, would love to hear your stories!
Joe Miao is a Psychologist working as a Recruitment Advisor at UTS Careers, where he helps students get a head start in their career journeys. He is passionate about guiding people to make the most of their experiences, use their skills to work purposefully and achieve their potential.
Featured image courtesy of news.com.au
¹Judge, T. A., & Bono, J. E. (2001). Relationship of core self-evaluations traits—self-esteem, generalized self-efficacy, locus of control, and emotional stability—with job satisfaction and job performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of applied Psychology, 86(1), 80.