Blog Post

Can World of Warcraft Help Build a Better Workforce?

If you’re good at leading people in online games, you’re good at doing it in the real world. At least that’s the theory posited in two studies, one by IBM last year and another, more recent one from Harvard. Both studies noted similarities between CEO skills and those displayed by in-game leaders. They also found that specific characteristics of those virtual worlds could “make leaders out of lemmings.”

While those studies looked at what it takes to lead groups within games, they didn’t focus on player-vs.-player interactions. If you believe business is warfare, then it’s worth studying which factors the winners have in common. That’s just what four researchers at the University of Michigan have done in a report published late last year, using data from Blizzard’s Worlds of Warcraft MMORPG.

In their study, the researchers looked at several variables that affect gameplay, including whether the server allowed widespread fighting amongst players, how populated the server was, and how the guild to which players belonged was structured. These environmental factors are critical: As the Harvard study noted, “Successful leadership in online games has less to do with the attributes of individual leaders than with the game environment, as created by the developer and enhanced by the gamers themselves.”

WoW is an excellent study environment for research into communities. For one thing, there are over 10 million subscribers playing the game. The client is also relatively open, making it possible to collect in-game data reliably. Finally, MMORPGs are filled with rankings, scorings and variables that affect gameplay, all of which offer opportunities for analysis.

The researchers combined data on who was winning fights with algorithms that analyze relationships and advanced visualization techniques. Using the resulting visualizations, they were able to speculate on several factors that may shape winning teams.

They concluded that closer teams scored better, and that certain environmental factors — such as relative server population and whether players’ guilds demanded significant time commitments — led, in turn, to these teams becoming closer.

In particular, they found that “players who frequently collaborate with other players in WoW may adopt better coordinating strategies” while “members of low-performing teams, since they are not part of large communities…may have not developed successful strategies for coordination.”

The study was not clear about other factors that may have given players an advantage. For example, raiding high-level game instances yields better equipment, improving hit rating and dodging ability that can give a fighter the upper hand.

The researchers had a vast amount of detailed information from which to draw their conclusions. But businesses may not be far behind. Electronic interactions provide a “breadcrumb trail” of how organizations tackled a problem, which can then be analyzed in ways that weren’t possible before. By applying this type of research to data from messaging analysis tools like Xobni and Xoopit, or instant messaging, organizations will ultimately identify which people and practices give them a competitive advantage, and which factors lead to success when dealing with specific kinds of problems.

Where online games have the edge today is in their control over environmental factors. Game designers can explicitly control the gameplay, encouraging players to attack monsters over one another, or to spend their time harvesting vs. solving quests. But company executives have a much harder time setting explicit rules — collaboration over mercenary attitudes, for example.

It’s clear that many of the skills people develop online today, such as through the use of instant messaging, avatars and shared environments, will help in the business world of tomorrow. Electronic interactions with distributed teams require different communications styles and leadership techniques. Teams that insist on frequent collaboration and become familiar with their tools will thrive, while occasional users with infrequent interactions will stumble.

As companies learn to harvest the vast amounts of data they have on employee behavior, it will become commonplace to analyze your workforce the same way you tweak an online marketing campaign. If you’re an information worker, get ready to be optimized.

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia.

11 Responses to “Can World of Warcraft Help Build a Better Workforce?”

  1. Well yeah. I personally believe that whatever attitude you show in the game reflects 80% of what you are in real. If you’re thrifty in spending wow gold, make friends and treat others nicely most likely you are like that in real.

  2. Lionheart

    As a WoW player, I can say that if the leader isn´t organized or has a wrong behavior, the guild won´t last any longer. It also depends on the commanders; there is an interesting hierarchy that can be controlled and changed any time. I think there is an important fact that is missing and that is the age; there are usually adults and kids interacting in the same guild.

  3. I wrote almost a similar blog in my Cnet Asia gig a few months back, (Developing Management Skills Through MMORPGs) considering I myself am (or at least used to be) an avid WoW fanatic. Truth be told there are a lot factors though, and it can be quite difficult to actually determine the extent of leadership or managerial skills attained through online gaming, no matter what the game.

    But for me, it is quite possible to train a workforce–and eventually a managerial staff–through online games.

    Game on!

  4. Craig Anderson

    Hi there!

    Of all the many MMORPGs out there, I have no idea why WoW became so popular. The quests are redundant, all the characters look the same, and it seems as though they try to pigeonhole players into having the exact same experience no matter what race/class they choose.

    That said; I’ve been playing WoW pretty faithfully for the past 2 years, and I do enjoy it. It just seems like there are so many areas where it could improve. The main reason that I play is because I feel that I’ll become culturally illiterate if I’m not playing constantly. One of my colleagues likened it to the way that knowing how to play golf was absolutely necessary for business leaders 10-20 years ago. Many of the world’s biggest business deals were done on the golf course. How long before the next big business deals are agreed through guild chat on a dungeon raid?

    However, I do feel that for WoW to be a GOOD barometer for business leadership, it would need to allow players to subvert the rules and backstab their own teammates. It’s easy for everyone to get along when you literally CAN’T hurt the others on your team.

    Just my $.02. I could be wrong.

  5. ronald

    Shouldn’t they first try to figure out what’s a Leader and what’s a Manager and what distinguishes the two talents.
    If they want to do some Companies any good they would also research into where you need which talent, when, and how to build an organization structure to support both talents and the time you need it.
    Just two examples:

    Microsoft has a Manager who tries to lead, out come: VISTA, ZUNE ….

    Apple has a Leader who tries to manage, outcome: shouting matches. Albeit he seem to have learned since the early 90’s.

    From observation, I got the feeling that managed leadership tends to lead to bureaucratic organizations, while pure gut feeling leadership tends to lead to early burn out and chaotic organizations.