Video games are more than just an entertaining time sink. Take them online and they can even teach us a few things about how to interact with other people. Here are some of the lessons I've learnt from online games about dealing with people in real life.
Picture: Edgar Pérez/Flickr
Knowing What You're Doing Is More Important Than Who You're Doing It With
We've talked at length before about how World of Warcraft can be a microcosm of real life. But there's one way in which it's very unrealistic — everyone shares a common, well-known goal. Dozens, in fact. But when you walk into a dungeon or a raid, everyone knows exactly who to kill and how to kill them. Or at least how to find out.
For those who may not be inclined to pay $15 a month for what could easily amount to a second job, here's the gist of how dungeons and raids work: you start out at the entrance to some structure and have to navigate from the beginning to the end, where a final boss waits for you. Along the way, you have to kill random bad guys, a couple of smaller bosses and finally the main one. Occasionally, there are secondary objectives, but for the most part, it's very straightforward. In the course of progressing through the game, players will often do the same dungeons or raids over and over again, to the point that it becomes routine.
Despite being an exercise in rote key stroking, it's still possible to fail. Not because people can't push buttons fast enough or because they need to practise their aim. The way the game mechanics work, if you're not aware of a particular move that a boss will throw at you, you can wipe in seconds. Know which brightly coloured bad stuff not to stand in, however, and you can make quick work of an enemy.
The one way this does reflect real life is that it's a lot easier for people to work together and accomplish stuff when they have the same goal. Of course, we don't always know exactly what that goal is. Some people spend years or decades trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Unfortunately, that's an entirely separate problem. What is clear is that, once you have a goal, who you work on it with isn't always as big of a deal as you might think.
You can do great work with an average team if you're all on the same page. Or you can do very poor work with the right people if you have no objective. That's not to say the people you surround yourself with don't matter — far from it. But before you try to team up with talented people for a goal you haven't really defined yet, define it. And then refine it.
I've been on a lot of teams before. The best ones are where we all have a goal in mind and know exactly what it is. The worst ones are where we're best friends with no idea what to pursue.
Clearly Defined Roles Are the Grease on a Team's Wheels
Here's a fun experiment: Find nine randomly selected strangers. Put them in a room together and tell them they have to complete a time-sensitive objective. They're only allowed to communicate with each other via text message and they have, at best, one minute before it's go time and texting each other becomes a luxury they don't have time for. Would you expect this to go very well? Most people wouldn't. Except that's exactly what games such as Team Fortress 2 demand.
Of course, everyone knows what the trick is. Team Fortress 2 has clearly defined roles for each character. You may not talk much with your teammates when you join a game, but you've already communicated what you plan to do the moment you step in the door. If you're a Heavy, you're going to shoot stuff and take damage. If you're a Medic, you're going to heal people and backup Heavies. If you're a Pyro, you're going to burn the crap out of stuff and laugh maniacally.
We can see the alternative any time you put a dozen people together in a room and tell them to brainstorm. Paralysis grips the room and no one has any idea how to go forward. It's the reason we have such a hard time having meetings that aren't a complete waste of time. Instead of bringing everyone into a room and asking them what to do, single out people for their talents and ask for their input on a specific task. Make it one person's job to design the layout, someone else the decorations, and another person to give it a name.
Whether you're a manager, a project lead or just a member of a team, working with others always involves a little bit of manipulating others. If your group isn't seeing movement towards your goal, start giving people specific things to do. Break down the goal into its smallest parts. Assign each task to a specific person and let them know what's expected of them. This is easier if you're in a position of authority, but you don't always have to be.
You Don't Always Have to Ask Permission to Help Out
"Excuse me, sir. It seems that someone is pointing a sniper rifle at your head. Would you like me to return fire?" Chances are if you heard someone ask you this in a game, it's the last thing you heard before your body hit the floor. When decisions are being made in split-second increments, there's no time left to ask for permission.
The terrible irony is, in real life we feel like we've got loads of time. Time to wait for someone to ask us to help. Time to politely ask our boss if he wants us to assist with a project (and potentially get turned down). Time to wait for someone to come along and give us the step-by-step instructions to follow for success. (And in the meantime, why not play video games and goof off?)
When you're in a group, it's natural to feel hesitant about stepping up and doing something. Video games often don't give that luxury. If you wait for your (possibly non-existent) "leader" to tell you who to shoot, the whole team could die. However, once you're exposed to that kind of environment, it becomes pretty clear that self-motivated action is better than being hesitant.
If you're waiting for something to happen at your job, take the initiative and start asking questions. Draw up a draft of a project you want to work on, or sketch out an idea you have. Don't worry about wasting effort; sometimes you may spend hours on a pitch and have it get rejected, but it will be worth it when one of your pitches gets accepted. In the meantime, you're practising — and living your own life. If you're waiting for someone else to come along and tell you how to get the most out of it, chances are you won't like how it turns out.
Communicating Now Will Save You Plenty of Trouble Later
One of the most frustrating things about playing games with strangers online is that you'll eventually get paired up with someone who's vastly less experienced than you (after first being the inexperienced person in the group, of course). In some games, that means you have a nice easy target, but if you're working together, like you are in Portal 2's co-op mode, playing with someone who doesn't know what they're doing can grind the action to a halt. So, why not take the time to teach them?
Portal 2 famously has a unique co-op mode that requires two players to work together and communicate with each other clearly before undertaking a challenge. Timing is everything when you're flinging yourself into space. The handy Ping tool is essential for letting your partner know where you want them to go and when you want them to do something. While some other games may simply say "Go!" and throw you into a war zone, Portal 2 demands that you plan things out.
This novel concept of communicating your intentions to others doesn't just help with other games, but it also helps when dealing with people in real life. Shocker, right? Most of us have a habit of assuming that other people know the same things we do or can divine our intentions. They can't. Don't expect someone to know what you plan to do. Point to it. Don't barrel through with a plan hoping people will keep up. Talk about it first.
Assumptions like this can ruin an otherwise smoothly functioning group. Whether you need to work with someone on a project, you're planning an event, or just dealing with basic relationship issues, a little precaution can go a long way. Ask the people you're working with if they understand what they're doing. If you're arguing with someone, establish a steel man argument to clear up miscommunication before proceeding. The best time to deal with communication problems is sooner rather than later.
There Is Always Someone Who's Better Than You
Starcraft was easily one of my favourite games growing up, and it's the only one mentioned here I'm going to gush about. So many hours were spent playing the original and Brood War levels over and over again. I got to a point where I was creating levels in the Starcraft level editor and writing stories about them. I say all this so you understand how devastating it was when I started playing Starcraft 2 against real people and got positively demolished.
Out of respect for his anonymity, I won't name the friend I played with who Zerg rushed my hopes and dreams, burned them in a funeral pyre, and delivered them to my doorstep in a fancy urn. It was devastating. No, I wasn't the best player in the world (as evidenced by the fact I've never played in a stadium in Korea), but I thought I knew this game. How could everything I knew be so wrong? After all the years I'd spent playing and practising against the computer, how could it turn that I'm so inexperienced and bad at this that someone could clean the floor with me so easily?
It's natural to want to be the best person in the room. The trouble is, if you stay in that room, you'll never really challenge yourself. What I learnt from that embarrassing defeat was that I wasn't actually very good at playing Starcraft against other people. I was just good at single-player games on a difficult level that matched my skill.
Even on games where that's not the case, I still routinely find myself getting thrashed by someone. It's inevitable. In Starcraft, my friend can routinely beat me because I suck. In Team Fortress 2, it doesn't matter how good I am with my trusty Pyro, getting blown up is part of the deal. In World of Warcraft, someone will always beat me on DPS charts. And, here in real life, someone else's article will get more views and better comments than mine. Someone's always better.
This is a cycle that never ends, but it can't ever mean defeat. The moment you stop trying to top the person who just bested you is the moment you decide your place on the charts forever. From then on, you'll be 111th (or whatever) and never climb higher. In fact, you'll go lower, because new people will crawl over you to get better and you'll stay exactly the same.
We keep talking about how important it is to move past failure because it's one of the most common and necessary parts of climbing that ladder. What we don't say as often is that even success is only partial. Even when you win, there's still someone else who has won even more than you. Until you're king or queen of the universe, you're going to keep coming across people who are better than you, luckier than you or more successful than you. Their success, however, doesn't mean anything about your current situation. It just means you still have more things you can do to get better, which should be an encouraging thought.