Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Making Use of Wasted Time with Computer Games

There’s a fantastic cartoon from Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” that shows two adoring parents proudly watching their son play computer games and imagining job adverts in the future that require expert Mario players with hours and hours of video game experience. The world we live in today might be coming closer to that, but it’s still a long way off, however, computer games and employment are starting to nod to each other in vague recognition as they pass each other in the street. This article that I’ve stumbled upon is an interesting look at how principles from the World of Warcraft can be used to improve innovation in the work place. It’s a good principle and I’ve already seen that you can take elements of a game to make your work easier to do and talked about it in an earlier post about how I made a “quest log” of all the things that I had to do .

This made me wonder if I haven’t been wasting my time as much as I think by playing so many computer games in my spare time. There are undeniably some benefits that I have picked up as a result of hours and hours of my spare time sunk in to the digital addiction. However, just as a quick disclaimer, a lot of gaming is still a massive waste of time. If you already play games then this is the silver lining to your stormy cloud, but if you don’t, I wouldn’t recommend starting a forty-hour-a-week gaming habit in an attempt to gain some small perceived benefit. If you want to try, that’s great, but just remember, all things in moderation . Additionally, if you are going for a job interview or are talking to a particularly quick-to-judge boss, I wouldn’t recommend babbling on about how playing your level 78 Gnome Warlock has given you team management skills. Most of the time when people hear “spends a lot of time playing computer games” they still hear “wastes a lot of time” and in many ways they are right.

What follows is a list of skills that I think you can gain from games. For the purposes of the following, I’m really talking about the World of Warcraft, but some of the ideas will apply to other games as well. Feel free to skip to the end if you just want to know where I’m going with this


Undeniably, there is a lot of maths involved in games. Most of the time it’s hidden beneath the surface and obscured by the game engine, but for games like Warcraft, it’s very much at the forefront of being effective in the game. Balancing all of the numbers that go in to your character can drive people obsessive and is one of the driving forces behind acquiring more stuff and spending more time playing. Keeping track of which items stack on to which skills, and which skills give you a percentage bonus to which actions and all the associated intricacies that go with it frequently baffle me, but I’ve found a greater confidence in numbers and throwing them around since I’ve started playing the game. At the same time, this isn’t exactly calculus.

Problem Solving

Especially in the later part of Warcraft, some of the group activities require some very specific actions to get around certain problems. The earlier quests do also challenge you to a certain extent, but this rarely extends beyond some ambiguous directions and map reading problems which has frequently highlighted that I often muddle East and West. The only caveat that I’ll throw in here is that most of the problems are already solved for you. You often get directed by members of your group who have done it before in how to play, or told to go and look at the tactics filmed and posted on YouTube. I actually find this very frustrating, but the problem solving is still there on some level.

Team Work

Running on from the problem solving is the more obvious element of team work. Even being told how to do something, it takes a certain amount of skill and co-ordination to pull things off. Developing the efficiency of a team and finding out what works and what doesn’t work is easy to do in Warcraft and happens seamlessly the more you form groups with the same people. You could however argue that this is building the wrong kind of team work to transfer to the real world, unless you end up working somewhere that kills trolls as part of their business.

Social Skills and Team Management

Even if you successfully dismiss the problem solving and teamwork points, if you have gotten in to any of the social aspects of Warcraft, you can not deny that you will be building experience in resource management and efficient allocation of team members, not to mention a healthy amount of dispute resolution. Getting a group to work together at all is an effort, but getting them to work well together is almost a full time job in itself, and some people become very successful with social skills through Warcraft and gain a massive amount of confidence. If nothing else, the game can teach you a lot about people that you might not otherwise know.

Time Management

The very nature of Warcraft is the attainment of goals. Balancing what to do and where to go and working out how to do it effectively has pretty much become the game for me. I like planning our little expeditions that get as much done in as short an amount of time as possible and it’s made me very good at identifying what is and isn’t a good use of my time. This will sooner or later break in to real life, and for all I know, I’m using these skills already. I think in some ways this goes back to the “all things in moderation” argument as well; I’m very conscious of the fact that I could easily spend far too much time playing this game, so I try and get as much out of it as quickly as possible. As a result I also despise waiting around whilst other people mess about wasting time trying to get ready.

Hand Eye Co-ordination

This is probably pushing it, but I’ve often heard it argued that gaming greatly improves hand eye co-ordination. From personal experience, this is a lie. I still appear to have two left hands, which is a problem as I’m right handed, and I can’t help feeling you’re more likely to get carpal tunnel syndrome or RSI before any positive benefits.

Other Games of Note

As I’ve said, above I’m really talking about World of Warcraft and you can not apply these principles to all games because of the variable nature of differing gameplay. There are a few other examples of note however:

  • Eve Online is fantastic for the mathematics side of things and the game essentially trains you to become a stock broker or business manager.
  • Guild Wars was very good for the Team Work and Social Skills side of things in terms of finding the right skills, people and combinations to get through things.
  • Finally, something like LittleBigPlanet I have to mention for the sheer creativity of the Problem Solving included in the core gameplay.


Maybe it’s not that one can learn skills through a game, but maybe it’s that games have become so much more like work. The elements I’ve discussed above could easily be seen as an emulation of work activities rather than anything more abstract. Perhaps it’s our very nature to want to work and make efforts towards a larger goal; Warcraft is after all a hugely popular game with somewhere in the region of 11 million players, if one is to believe the official Blizzard figures. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that anything you do in life is bound to teach you something that you can transfer to something else and in gaming, there may be more than you think. In nature, young predatory mammals play-fight with each other to teach themselves to hunt, so maybe we are doing the same with our games.

Additional Notes:

I have a problem with my lefts and rights, my easts and wests, I also whilst playing occasionally miss enormous landmarks and walk off cliffs because I’m not looking where I’m going. This is a true and accurate representation of my directional skills in real life. I once took my girlfriend when I first met her to see Buckingham Palace and couldn’t find it. Buckingham Palace, as you probably realise, is not exactly inconspicuous, especially as it has a road leading up to it that is specifically designed so that you could land a plane on it.

Thinking about team work, it might also make management uncomfortable if you say that you are “used to working with a group of people to take down bosses”.

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