Building Leaders with Gaming

18 mins read

When I first started thinking about this idea, I hesitated.

Whether I like to admit it or not, gaming as a tool for real-world skill development is still a stretch for many. I’ve long held that multiplayer games have a deep opportunity to practice strategy and communication. Tabletop role-playing games let us share the experiences of another person and play out what might happen in make-believe scenarios that have actual-if-imaginary consequences. Telling somebody with years in the field that there are measurable outcomes from playing War Thunder can be intimidating. Building leaders with gaming is a new way of thinking about an old problem – how do we drill leadership?

I was somewhat surprised, I might add, to find that the US military has been using video games for quite some time to cross train specific skill sets. I wouldn’t be so fast to include ‘digital strategy and communication specializations’ on my resume, but a number of things I’ve personally experienced really do seem to cross over between the pixelated worlds of Battlefield and the different places I frequent in meatspace.

Action as entertainment – not just a spectator

Of course, gaming accounts for the largest share of the entertainment industry by a long shot, outpacing movies and music combined. In 2020, the gaming industry grew by a whopping 27%, tallying in over 56 billion in revenue. I can only speak for myself, but when it comes to recreation, I much prefer to have an active role. In gaming, I can participate instead of just spectate.

When I’m participating, it’s almost like there’s two different types of experiences I can chase. In one, I can build simple cities in Banished or click my way through a story in Life is Strange. In another, I’m trying to manage three separate radio channels, coordinate artillery and ensure logistics is delivering supplies to the right map coordinates for engineers to construct resources. All of that, while each one of those elements are controlled by human players. In a conversation separate from the realm of gaming, I’m sure almost anybody would see the link between the careful balancing act of commanding a company in Hell Let Loose and operations in the real world.

Even I can feel the stigma swell now when I type about it. For some reason, I’ve got this thing locked up in my mind about it being a game and therefore lesser than.

Building leaders with games like Hell Let Loose

Gaming as a vector for growth

So, I ventured out to Google-Land and queried the all-knowing internet for proof. The further into this idea I searched, the more I could convince myself that real-world skill could somehow cross over from gaming. Building leaders from the same tests we would train for in a more formal atmosphere, staged from the spare bedroom in my basement.

Influence of gaming on leadership skills – a study

What I was feeling would require data. The first bit of evidence I stumbled into was a study conducted in 2017.

According to result of investigation 89% of gamers demonstrated organizational skills; 75% of respondents expressed the knowledge of the rules of organizational work. 66% of gamers impact others thinking and behavior. 75% of respondents has the ability to control oneself. 68% of gamers demonstrate personal leadership and tenacity of purpose 89% of gamers has ability to manage the group (55%). 67% of gamers are able to apply creative approach to solve the problems. We made the conclusion that playing digital games impact positively the formation and development of leadership skills.

Mariia Rubtcova, Oleg Pavencov. Influence of Digital Video Games on Leadership Skills: Experience of Psychological Research.

What’s in a leader?

A question that has been beaten to a pulp – what qualities make up a person with strong leadership?

I mainly turn to two sources for my take on this. It’s an important thing to consider, because the argument I’m trying to pose is predicated on the idea that these traits can be actively improved with training.

For a lot of people, Jocko Willink is a great place to start. He believes that building leaders means fortifying the traits that make for reliable, efficient action. Aggressive, calm, confident, brave, competitive, attentive, strong, humble and probably most importantly, Jocko sees a good leader as somebody who is close to their subordinates. Of course, he’s quick to point out the dichotomy involved. Where a good leader is aggressive, they can’t be overbearing, for example.

If you don’t already have a copy of Extreme Ownership, Jocko’s book – click here – this is crucial reading.

I don’t necessarily believe that it’s a type of person, either. These qualities are not an x-factor that a person is either blessed with or is doomed to chase with futility. To the contrary, I believe these skills can be trained.

Adaptive leadership in a rapidly changing scenario

A study published in 2016 outlines ‘adaptive leadership’ as “Leadership that is capable of tackling and solving complex problems and issues, with collective, collaborative, timely, effective, and innovative solutions.”. Bridging off of Jocko’s traits, an adaptive leader must be flexible. The authors describe this by saying “adaptive problems require individuals in leadership positions to abandon the original thinking that they had to have the answer to any particular situation and embrace the concept that all the members of the organization must become involved in finding a solution to the problem at hand.”

Another message pulled from the study brings this idea back to the online gaming community.

The multiple possible paths a player may take in playing a video game helps the players develop a base of knowledge, which can be applied to any number of real word situations.

Koster, R. (2005). A theory of fun for game design. Scottsdale, AZ: Paraglyph Press.

Multiple paths. Sounds a lot like being ‘adaptive’. Building leaders from the online wargaming community has immediate links built between skills developed in-game and their use in the field.

Command, this is lima squad lead, we’re moving to foxtrot 3, keypad 8.

This is where I’m careful to clearly explain what I’m talking about.

Leadership has a few baked-in problems. Building leaders means navigating these problems. Of course, this spans the spectrum between screaming 12-year-olds on Call of Duty and the deliberate, cautious milsim crowd.

Where measurable leadership is concerned, I believe there are a couple core components that can be practiced in games; communication and confidence.

In a simulation game like Hell Let Loose, there are different voice channels you can use to communicate. There’s a proximity chat that you can use to chat with people who are physically near to you. Think of it like your ‘voice’. Then, there’s radio channels for your squad and a separate radio channel for command staff. At times of higher engagement, all three of these sources pour into one sensor array. It’s the same one you use in the field – your ears. Especially at times where the digital gunfire (or the sounds of the fireground) begin to override the amount of data you’re able to process, engaging in a strategic game helps to parse that information for critical needs.

Colin MacKenzie, moderator

I contacted Colin to discuss some of what I’m getting after in this article. I wanted to pry at somebody closer to the development of a high-impact game. Hell Let Loose (HLL), as mentioned above, is a first-person shooter themed in the era of World War 2. The basis of this article is predicated on my experiences in the game – learning how to get a bunch of gamers to work together and capture ground in a cyber battlefield.

Colin helps the development team (Black Matter) by volunteering as a moderator on Reddit and Discord. When he’s not streaming gameplay of HLL, he’s helping new gamers understand the nuances of the game. Where most players first encounter HLL as a shooter, the more experienced players will eventually begin to weigh troop movements and the physical location of built bases to see the game more as a real-time strategy title.

In-game skill to real-world leadership

I asked a few questions about the different roles in the game. In a team of 50 players, groups are divided with set Squad Leaders and one Commander for the whole team. Communication channels are divided too – regular players can’t communicate on the Command Channel. Many of the risks and rewards of leadership positions follow these formal in-game roles. The Commander makes strategic decisions to move forward the fighting line while Squad Leaders charge ahead with tactical choices in the heat of internet gun fights.

The Commander role is the role that takes the most flak. If your team loses, the Commander is the first to be blamed, especially by the general infantry. A person with confidence, good communication skills, quick thinking, and outside-the-box thinking makes for a good Commander.

Colin MacKenzie, Moderation team for Hell Let Loose

An investment of time

So, building leaders in a game like HLL is no easy feat. Players must face decisions that can impact the outcome of a game. While it’s nowhere close to the same type of life-and-death choices made by leaders in the field, it does have a specific weight that creates a real sense of urgency. Where it may take half an hour to setup a reasonable strategy in the game, a leader in HLL has asked his team for their time. In an activity that is purely recreational, that is an investment from other players that does actually create a desire to win. It’s a prime tool for the blossoming leader to practice confidence and communication in a no-risk environment with consequence that matters.

Here’s a challenge for you – the reader.

Listen through the video above. From a little-known YouTuber, there’s a handful of tips for the fledgling HLL Squad Leader. Most of what you will hear are leadership axioms. Be approachable. Give your team structure. Know the bigger picture. Flank the objective if the straight-ahead approach isn’t working. Provide information for the ‘why’. Tell other leaders what you see. Keep your information on the radio concise and specific. Give the Commander reliable information.

Instead of just reading about leadership tactics, you can put those ideas to work on the digital front. The lessons are the same.

Confidence in-game translates

As a result of my time in-game, I can speak to the Squad Leader role as a vehicle for building leadership skills. Not to assume that I’m some vector for established leaders to learn from. On the contrary, I like to think I’m actively looking for opportunities to train. In some ways, those instances are cloaked in other activities. In other words, I think we can pull meaningful experience from things that aren’t strictly measured in industry textbooks.

One marker for leadership I’ve read about in countless ways is the trait of confidence. During a game of HLL, a Squad Leader is tasked to make a number of tactical decisions. That responsibility escalates when faced with the strategic decision making of a Commander role. Consequently, the leadership roles in the game force circumstances that require rapid adaptation.

Making decisions

For example, we’ll say that you (the reader) and I are in a squad. We’re working toward an objective marker to capture territory for our team. In doing so, we’re caught off guard by a surprise flanking attack. As Squad Leader, you would have to do a number of things quickly if we’re to survive the engagement. You’ll need to communicate this contact to the rest of the team so supporting units can help. We’ll need to move to cover. With the presence to make it happen, we can set a base of fire and move aggressively toward the attackers. Similarly, you may need to reverse a decision and pull back.

Sound familiar?

So, it turns out there’s a reason the military has been using video games to train decision making.

On the way!

Specifically, I wanted to know about how Colin might see HLL as a team-building tool. He was quick to make the distinction that he’s not from the first responder world. I suspect he made this note to make his intention clear while speaking on the matter.

I don’t know much about being a first responder since I’m not one, but I can say that Hell Let Loose will certainly bond friends together, especially if they play in tank crews, because of the communication and chemistry necessary to win the game. If you want a good chemistry-building exercise, take 3 guys and put them in a tank crew for a month. They’ll struggle at first, driving a large vehicle and figuring out how tanks work. But after a month of hardcore gaming, learning their tank seat positions, and working as one unit to take out other units, you’ll find they’ll be bonded in ways you wouldn’t expect.

Colin MacKenzie, Moderation team for Hell Let Loose

In conclusion

Building leaders with a gaming-focused activity is a different method. Video games might be an under-used addition to the toolset of today’s training cadre. However, there are obstacles to using games as a teaching tool. Least of all, the cost of spinning up multiple consoles where they don’t already exist. That said, teams that already own gaming hardware could easily (and informally) train the skills of leadership, confidence and communication just by sharing an offensive push on St. Mere Eglise.

In summary, video games are a new technology as far as leadership training is concerned. That gives you a shiny new (and exciting) tool to use if conditions allow.

Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.

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