Training Software Engineering Managers with Competitive Toxic Team Based Online Video Games
Mark, fantastic piece. It’s triggered some thoughts. I’ll write them down.
I played RuneScape and ran Australia’s best Capture the Flag Call of Duty team all throughout high school. I’d go to school 8-3, play sport 3-5 and then play computer games until midnight.
RuneScape taught me economics and how to use a keyboard. In game, there was a field you could stand in and buy items from other players around the world. That’s where I started my first (virtual) business. The idea was simple, trade other players, buy items low, sell for more. You’d often have to switch which item you were flipping to account for supply and demand of the game. And because your way of selling was through a keyboard, typing “Selling Obby Capes $250k – Trade 0 Crazy 0" over and over again, my fourteen year old fingers got fast at typing.
Running a Call of Duty team taught me organisational skills, leadership skills, communication skills, strategy skills. I was never the best player (my friend Nick was a freak, as in, freakishly good) but I was the best communicator by far. I’d get in touch with other teams around Australia and we’d organise matches with each other (playing other countries would be a disadvantage due to ping). I remember getting home from school on a Monday and spending hours planning out a strategy to run for the weekend’s upcoming match. Nick hold the middle, Matt and Will go down the right, Chris and I will hold the back and cut off the left flank. I’d run through it with the team on Tuesdays and then we’d spend the rest of the week practicing before the actual match.
The benefit of video games was: a fast feedback loop. Or another term I’ve just thought of: tinkering at scale.
If the items I was selling were overpriced, I’d have no buyers.
If the plans I’d made for the Call of Duty match didn’t work we’d get slayed in public games (games with random opponents usually of lower skill than actual teams) let alone in competition.
Of course, not all of the skills translate directly to the real-world. But the benefit of RuneScape and Call of Duty was that each digital player had an actual human on the other side. Which meant many of the social dynamics did transferred directly (as you’ve discussed).
My ears rang with people telling me video games were a waste of time whilst I was playing them. And while now I’d agree with them on some level (you don’t need video games but the real world needs you), they’ve been some of my greatest teachers.
I’d also argue a benefit for working any kind of role with a high flow of people, especially any kind of customer service.
Working at Apple Retail taught me how to view things from a customer’s point of view. Seeing a new customer every 10-minutes provided a grand opportunity to learn how to befriend (people like to buy things from their friends) and help someone solve their issues in a short period of time. Driving Uber gave similar opportunities, a new person every 10-minutes. You can read all the How to Win Friends and Influence People books you want but until you try what you’ve read 1000x, you’ll never know.
Now I work in tech, I’ve noticed a big disconnect between what an engineering team might think a person might want versus what they actually need.
I’m a big fan of bringing the value of what video games provide not only to software engineering teams but education as well.
I don’t quite know yet.
But something I do know: the best teachers are entertainers, education comes as a bonus. Curriculum designers could take some cues from game designers.
This is a very interesting post and it has inspired me to comment on conflict resolution in management or in life in general while also answering why is Dota so toxic?
You only touched lightly on that subject so it is a long comment but bear with me.
I view toxic antagonistic behavior towards the enemy team as part of the natural setup of the competitive war game. The purpose of the game is to win against the enemy team and therefore killing enemy heroes and destroying their buildings are expected destructive actions while the various toxic behaviors like hero taunts, all chats, voice lines etc are the expected destructive non-combat techniques (i.e. psychological warfare).
Total physical and psychological destruction of your enemy is expected in a "war" simulation exactly the same way as it occurs in real life.
Now the interesting part is understanding why Dota has toxic behavior among teammates in both forms (physical and psychological) with allies resorting to the same destructive behaviors meant to be directed at enemies. This is intriguing because it rarely occurs in real life and is also assumed to not have been added to the game by design by the developer Valve. My view is that this type of toxic self destructive behavior is a product of the inability of players to accomplish conflict resolution.
To elaborate, throughout the game teammates will face internal conflicts which are due to actions and performances from teammates that do not fit into the individual player's expectation of what is the winning condition. A simple example is a teammate playing the support role taking resources from a teammate playing the carry role (it is generally accepted that resources go to the carry hero).
A player not being able to resolve these types of conflicts will increasingly focus - in a subjective way - on how game losing these actions are especially given the the stressful competitive conditions set by the game, this will culminate in the player resorting to self destructive behavior as a stress relief (end my suffering by calling gg) similar to how suicide is the ultimate stress relief from the human condition.
Conflict resolution is such an essential concept that I have found that this understanding of Dota provides consistently good answers to questions about the game. Why is toxic behavior still prevalent at higher tiers (players get better at causing destruction but not at resolving conflicts). Why are team captains so important in the professional scene (Captain among other things takes care of conflict resolution while players focus on their own actions) why is it more enjoyable to play with friends as teammates (easier conflict resolution) etc...
This leads to my conclusion that Dota shows that conflict resolution is a very important skill for people and leaders but that it is notoriously difficult to achieve. In real life people actively avoid conflicts and will usually find ways to decline participation in an interaction that can lead to a conflict or at least agree that common ground is not achievable after debating their positions whereas in conflict resolution a single final state or outcome has to be achieved.
In Dota you cannot avoid conflict and outcomes are continually determined unless you stop playing the game, additionally we can note that by design a normal game of Dota is supposed to be correctly matchmade between random people in the sense that the game is balanced in terms of playing ability such that no team captain exists (unless playing captain mode) therefore it is impossible for any individual player to consistently establish himself as the group leader or captain.
Looking back at current and historical socio-economic interactions between humans we observe that the standard response is to create conflict instead of resolving it by simply transforming the counterpart into an enemy and making use of destructive actions to obtain what is sought after. A gaming analogy would be to escalate the interaction with an NPC as designed by the game and simply killing the NPC (the destructive action) to get the item needed to complete the quest (what is sought after). Why go through the trouble of constructively interacting with someone and understanding their condition when they can be assimilated and pacified? This is especially prevalent behavior when physical or ideological dominance can be established.
In Dota since conflict within your team is an integral part of the game and given that players tend to naturally justify their dominance over random teammates (I am better and if I lose it is because of other's mistakes), Dota is simply very good at exposing the fact that the majority of people are terrible at resolving conflict but are good on average at being destructive.
The final question is why does this not occur in real life interactions such as war? In the specific case of war the answer for me is that individuals are not responsible for winning the war. This is the responsibility of the commander while the responsibility of each individual soldier is towards that commander. This eliminates the need for conflict resolution because a team member is expected to act in accordance to the commander's wishes with no direct expectations or obligations towards other soldiers (i.e. teammates) beyond what has been established by commanding officers. In fact soldiers are not taught to think they are taught to be efficient in combat and above all else to follow orders.
I never thought about DOTA and other one-time teams as a good breeding ground for managers. The nature of the relation makes it hard for teams to form up, especially since the goals of the players are often misaligned. E.g. one player might want to attempt to manage the other players to increase the probability of winning, but other players might just want to play the game without try-harding that much.
However, I think that games with guild systems are where the true manager might be born. EVE online, WoW, etc. have guilds with hundreds of members that need coordination in achieving their goals. I feel like they are much closer to how the real world teams look like (they are long-term, they have a hierarchy, they have various projects and they assume that different people might have different goals). It would be interesting to train managers in games like these to see how well they can handle various situations. You can also simulate various kinds of stress for them, e.g. by attacking their guild, by challenging their leadership etc.
"But that means you are going to make tons of mistakes which will make impact peoples lives until you get better."
"Self sacrifice is the most iconic form of building trust, no-one forgets it, even after thousands of years."
How can you write so much truth in one article?