Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

A Harvard Business Review article titled The Gamer Disposition makes a case for the players of multi-player online games as good candidates within the dynamic and flexible modern organization. Specifically the authors John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas list five qualities that make these gamers winners in today’s workplace. The qualities are:

  1. Bottom-line orientation
  2. Understanding the power of diversity
  3. Thriving on change
  4. Having fun learning
  5. Marinating on the “edge”

The authors claim that the “bottom-line orientation” characterizes gamers whose goal is “not to be rewarded but to improve” and who use a system of points, rankings etc. to measure achievement. They play to win, in other words, and presumably also because playing is fun. What is different with complex online games is that the gamers are able to see the data underlying their game play. They are developing an understanding of cause and effect. These are great skills. Will the online game player find fulfillment in the modern workplace? This is only so if the workplace offers an equally rigorous fact-based system of measuring progress, achievement and statistics on personal performance. Real work is quite a bit more complex than the game world and I have yet to see a workplace that does this better than a video game.

In these games “the key to achievement is teamwork” according to the authors. It is true that these video games are designed with specific roles that people must play in order to win. In life in general it is true that teamwork is necessary in order to have a full set of skills and strengths to meet challenges in life. This is no different for a player of team sports, a player in a bluegrass band or a player organizing a picnic with friends. What makes me skeptical is the claim that these gamer disposition actually helps in the modern workplace where, unlike in sports, positions and roles are not clear cut, balanced, fair and stable. For the gamer to be a player in the modern workplace, work must be structured so that the only way to succeed is through cross-functional teams. This requires clear rules and coworkers who respect them and play as a team.

The “thriving on change” attribute is interesting because entire premise of many games is that the players are part of a narrative. The ultimate goal is to be strong enough and skilled enough to “beat the boss”. The storyline can be linear or non-linear and branching with variable outcomes, but in essence it is a book that has already been written. The gamer is only turning the pages. The players have power over the world in that as one progresses, the gamer is able to unlock parts of the game thereby changing how the game narrative progresses or what landscapes become available. The irony of this phrase should not be lost. In reality, the online game is far more stable than the average workplace in its day to day chaos. Very little changes in the online game, when compared to the real world.

For this gamer disposition to allow people to thrive in the real workplace requires a stable environment in which the player has the ability to progress deeper into the narrative of the business, whether it be serving customers, meeting personal goals or beating the boss.

The authors claim that gamers are disposed to “see learning as fun” and that the reward is converting knowledge into the ability to do more things in the games, to solve other challenges and beat bigger bosses. This seems naive. Much of the online game experience seems to be mindless repetition of the same actions in order to obtain money, reputation or other items which are necessary to acquire a sufficient level of brute strength to progress in the narrative. This fits the business model of the companies that sell subscriptions to these games; the more you play, the more you pay. If it was possible to “learn” one’s way to beating the boss, these game companies would not be making the billions that they are. Ironically this may be the point missed by the authors, that the multi-player online game uniquely builds in players a tolerance for the mindless daily grind necessary to get ahead in the modern workplace.

What does it mean to “marinate on the edge”? Marinate means to soak or immerse a food item in a sauce for a period of time in order to give it flavor. The authors explain that gamers often “explore radical alternatives and innovative strategies for completing tasks” in order to gain deeper understanding of the game. One important point to remember is that video games allow you to die and come back to life many times with minimal cost other than lost time. The trade off between the low cost of failure and the high benefits of learning something potentially useful (will doing this kill me?) makes it easy for this common human quality of curiosity to come out in gamers. I don’t believe it is a “gamer disposition” as such, merely a human one. Applied to setting up these gamers for success in the modern workplace, the lesson is that we need to make failure a safe part of the system.

I’m skeptical about the conclusions of this article, in part because one of the major factors motivating gamers to play is mentioned early in the article but not further explored for its implications on the modern workplace:

Today’s multiplayer online games are large, complex, constantly evolving social systems. Their perpetual newness is what makes them enticing to players.

Gamers play because games aren’t boring. Games are new, fun, challenging, and social due to their multi-player online nature. How many of us can say that our workplace offers a high degree of desirable newness? Once these workers with the gamer disposition find out that the modern workplace is not so new or fun, may or may not be challenging and offers less socially than their Facebook account, I am afraid these five dispositions will not show their advantage.

There is a modern urban English expression, “don’t hate the player, hate the game”. This means we should not fault someone who succeeds in exploiting the rules of a flawed system but instead we should find fault the system itself. Another way to phrase it is that we should not condemn someone for their actions without understanding the situation that led to the actions. Dr. Deming was saying “don’t hate the player” when he spoke out against placing blame on the workforce which he claimed was only responsible for 15% of problems while the system designed by management is responsible for 85% of the problems.

Gamers may well make great performers in the modern workplace. But if Deming is to be believed we have far greater leverage in designing or choosing good systems than we have in choosing good people to work within our flawed systems. If the workplace system provides the environment that allows the gamers to take advantage of their five dispositions, we have a good fit in hiring gamers. However my experience in helping modern organizations (and some less-than-modern ones) become more effective leads me to believe that the majority of them do not offer systems in which the gamer can thrive as a player. We need to design the game, hire the players, and then teach them what Deming called the theory of knowledge, the rules of the game and how it is played.


  1. John Santomer

    March 14, 2011 - 11:43 pm

    Dear Jon,
    I couldn’t agree with you more. Reverberating in the halls of TW; don’t place the blame on the person-focus on the gaps in the process! (5 Whys)
    But what if the person who finds these gaps does not have the authority to effect the change required? Even if this means it doesn’t need to be the same one who finds these gaps? And what if, the same person who “harps” the gaps gets all the “heat” because all the other “gamers” in real life gets all the “privileges” outside the “flawed” rules of the game? This sounds like Neo doing a remake of The Matrix…Rude awakenings yeah? Time to get offline and live in the “real world” [do the genchi genbutsu] with Morpheus(a.k.a. Sensei Jeff Liker).

  2. Robert Drescher

    March 16, 2011 - 9:48 am

    Good Comments Jon
    I see some additional problems with the gamer mentality, winning often means finding holes in the rules of the game to exploit. What happens if this self centered gamer decides that the hole he finds he could exploit to make himself richer without the business he works for. In the gamer world allies change with the wind, and jumping ship to another group is acceptable, as is stabbing your partners in the back if it can gain you an advantage. What do those traits do in the real world?
    The gamer mentality is the same as the mega corporation executive mentality, money and status count over everything else. So instead of creating a long-term solution to truly solve a problem and create sustainability for the company we will get more short-term minded quick buck results. And like in the game they will go down in flames sooner or later, only in real life they take a lot of others with them.
    Truly great companies stand for definable values, and they never need to tell us what they are, their actions reveal them constantly.
    Plodding companies like Honda may not create much excitement, but they are there year after year. Warren Buffet doesn’t care much about flash and excitement he simply plods along focussing on the long-term. Both these example have proven overtime to outperform the flasher winner take all types, many of whom have in the same time frame disappeared or fallen far from their peaks.
    We all should open their eyes and look at history; long term success comes from the farmer mentality. Plant seeds; create good products and services that meet consumer needs. Feed and nurture the crop, means look after your consumers and build a relationship with them that lasts. Let the crop grow to maturity, keep working on the relationship and let it grow, never try to pick it early just for a quick buck (your yield drops). Lastly harvest it on time, do business with them when they need you, do not ignore them wait till you feel like it.

  3. John G.

    March 16, 2011 - 2:02 pm

    I find it more than a little disturbing that a couple of folks that I have to assume are lean advocates are deciding how a group of people behave and think. Cheaters, self centered, back stabbers, mindless repetition, brute force, etc. Sounds like you’ve made up your minds on this topic. You may be right and the work being done between gaming and work and gaming and problem solving is all bullcrap, or you’re doing exactly what lean opponents do – make stuff up to disprove something you don’t want to be true.

  4. Jon Miller

    March 16, 2011 - 3:31 pm

    Hi John G,
    Thanks for your comment.
    I am not deciding how others think. I am speaking from first hand experience. I game.
    I don’t mind at all if this notion of gamers as successful workers is true. It would be a good thing for tens of millions of young people.
    Nothing was made up in an attempt to disprove how people behave or think. I remain skeptical that the modern workplace is structured to allow gamers to thrive to the degree that Brown, Thomas and others assert.
    Thus the title.
    Have a nice day.

  5. John Santomer

    March 17, 2011 - 12:38 am

    Dear Jon,
    Everybody in this world has free will to choose and decide for himself. This is also evident in the gaming world. What would be good to put out in the market is a game that would clearly outline those sets of values that would benefit the youth in the business world in the future. Let’s face it; in the cutting edge industry of game development; aside from the clear crisp resolution (almost life-like), fast action, multi-player live or strategic games that sell like crazy-was there many that focused on a value driven core and made it to the top shelf?
    Similarly on your analogy of a game and the real world of business today, everyone is entitled to his or her own interpretation. Its the only few things left in this world that are free. You even have to pay to take a whif of oxygen now in the city. Should I put it in bottles now and sell these as well? I saw it used in a tv ad for an air freshener spray…Blimey!

  6. Marcus Chaves

    March 17, 2011 - 9:10 am

    Amusing at the most and educational into Jon’s personality. I personally would not hire someone like Jon for my associates to learn from. There’s some insight into the disposition of a top manager.

  7. Joseph

    March 17, 2011 - 2:07 pm

    Many thanks for posting this blog. It puts many recent events in the stock market and Wall Street into perspective. They take many people from Harvard Business School.
    When Harvard Business School’s name is associated with comments like, computer gamers make good employees I can understand how the financial markets are motivated.
    I am hoping to win £80,000,000 on the Euro Lottery this week and have no intention of putting my winnings into a bank were the CEO’s qualifications are that he is a good Gamer or if he has studs in his face and tattoos all over his face and body. Call me old fashioned but there will be more people that would agree with me than the people that say openly that I am a bigot but would not themselves put their hard earned cash in hands of people that have made such poor choices in life as to spend their days and in most cases nights chasing pixels around a computer screen and thinking that it is a valued life skill.
    If this article represents the Best of American Brain power then may God help you in the future.
    Marcus. When you put into question the personality of a MAN LIKE Jon Miller then you lower your own case. He is one of the most intelligent well ballanced people that I have ever had the good fortune to observe. Instead of trying to make the case for fringe groups like Gamers read some of Jon’s 900 + blogs and see the light.
    You say, “I personally would not hire someone like Jon for my associates to learn from”. Then hire someone that is a Gamer to teach your associates but just pray that your closest competitor does not hire Jon. I know who I would back to come out best.
    Have a nice day.

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