The Working Player: Real Life Skills from Video Games

I don’t tell many people I game.  In meatspace, I mean.  People who know my flesh-name.  Here, on good old cyberspace, where I am the Aether, I talk about it all the time.  It’s not that I’m ashamed of my passion.  Far from it.  But there is a problem with the way a lot of people react to it, I’ve learned.  See, people who don’t play video games don’t understand videogames.  Go figure.  And people who don’t understand videogames put a lot of mental baggage on videogames, and that baggage doesn’t fit with the image of the hypercompetent supersexy professional I have to present to most of the world.

So yeah.  Most of the people in my life don’t know that I love video games.  All in the name of getting them to take me more seriously in my work.

Which, after some thinking I’ve been doing recently, seems real ironic.  As it turns out, I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten plenty of my professional skills from gaming.

I was talking with a group of clients recently, discussing the importance of doing a skills inventory on oneself.  Yes, this is boring work stuff, but hold on, we’ll be back to the fun gaming content you know and love soon.  In any case, as I often do, I just dove right into talking about myself, highlighting some of my most marketable skills.  The conversation turned to where those skills came from, and, well, while all of them I have actually spent time developing in the work place, there were some of these that, as I traced the path of where I built them up, seemed to have some definite roots in my life as a player.

And you know, that was really interesting to me.  Obviously that means it’s interesting to you, too.  So let’s take a look at some of the skills my secret superhero identity as a player has helped me with in my professional life.

Regulation/Policy Navigation

In my current job, I work in government, administering a program that ties in federal, state, and county level government actions.  And as you may well know, government loves it some red tape.

In my last job, for the record, I worked for a nonprofit, and a big chunk of it was in helping other people get through the good old bureaucracy as well.

Hell, even beyond just exterior government red tape, I’m great at both navigating and building those within the organization as well.  Building business plans, planning for contingencies, and most of all, keeping all the myriad policies and procedures in mind and calling them up at the appropriate situations, those are all things I’m quite fantastic at.

And I’m great at all of those.  Always have been, even while I was still in college and hadn’t yet entered the real world proper where you never have money or time but find yourself with a hell of a lot more responsibility.  I started my career better at this than people who’ve been working at it for years.

And that’s because it’s something I’ve been working at through gaming ever since I was a child.  Games, whether video or tabletop, are all about the rules.  Deeper games have more rules.  Many games have a lot of rules that only apply in specific situations.  Most have rules that can interplay in odd ways.  Many games, RPGs in particular, have special rules that you can impose on it yourself.

And if you’re going to get any good at these games, you’ll have to learn these rulesets.  Pokemon’s a great example of this.  17 types of Pokemon and attacks which form the foundation for success in the single player games, a deceptively complex system of stats and growth and impacts, and how many people do you know who have that all memorized?  And not just memorized, internalized, to the point they can build their critters just the way they want them and can always call up the right attack to use without even thinking about it?  It’s not just RPGs, either.  Any game, from the big brainiest puzzles to the dumbest of shootbangers have their own rulesets that understanding is absolutely vital to success.

And really, I’ve found that the parellels between understanding the ways a games rulesets work, and the ways an organization’s systems of established behaviours work, are quite strong.  You may not be able to predict the behavior of people based on gaming systems, but the behavior of entities actually go by similar metrics.  It’s all about setting bounds for people who are cooperating with you and within your authority to act within towards a desired overall goal you both share from different perspectives.  Really, from a game designer of a manager/government-crony, it’s all the same.


I’ve been mentioning it over her occasionally, so if you’ve been following us for a while, you know full well that I’d been looking for a new job for quite a while before I landed in my current one.  Over three years, specifically, more than most anyone you’ve ever heard of.  For a good long while, that was the main focus in my life, and I was just failing at that over and over and over and over again.

I stuck with it, however.  That’s a big problem with unemployment from an economic development perspective, that when people stay unemployed for long enough, most everyone will just give up looking for a job, and leave the workforce entirely.  Not me, however, I stuck with it, and eventually, it did work out for me.  My new job is helping people on welfare find jobs.

Yeah, the irony is not lost on me, either.  Turns out, though, I am absolutely fantastic at it.  And I attribute that all to the amount of time I spent failing at my own job search.  The three years I spent job hunting led me to see pretty much everything hirers have going on, and I am an expert of the hiring process like no other, simply because I have gained so much experience at it, through my failure.

I started gaming in an era where games hated you.  Limited tolerance for screw-ups and an abundance of cheap deaths meant if you wanted your fun, you were guaranteed to fail countless times before you made it work.  And games were not just hard, they were punishing.  You screwed up, and it was back to the beginning with you.  As the medium developed and started to become more, the punishment and cheap deaths started to fall away, while tolerance for minor screw-ups increased, but never to the point that failure is not a constant companion with games.  If games are too easy, after all, that starts to sap the fun of it.  And I’ve had a lot of practice picking myself up from my gaming failures.  You all watched me do that over and over again with my Dark Souls run.  Eating those failures, in life, at anything, learning from them, and getting up again, it’s not an easy thing.  And it’s really not an easy thing to be doing constantly.  I wonder if I would have been able to do that if I didn’t already have the years of experience from my gaming.

Also, this totally works for romance too, in case you were wondering.

Resource Management

Yeah, this one’s a relatively simple parallel.  Real world budgeting and resource management is way, way, way more complex than anything I’ve found in video games.  There is absolutely no way, no matter how good your 4X Strategy Empire is running, you can transfer that right over into managing a program budget without some additional education/experience.  But you know, it does at least give you the basic principles to use.  This is not one I’ve really mentally explored enough to explain, but I have found it kind of interesting that I take a similar approach to managing my time and my program’s resources as I do to financial management in plenty of the games I play.

Honestly, a lot of resource management is just fitting pieces of a puzzle together.  Most games that have a resource management aspect have you juggle a lot less puzzle pieces than do your given job, and the puzzles may be a lot more complex, but a lot of the foundation is still there.  Just a measure of learning the additional steps.

Stress Management

Yeah, so this may not so much be a skill as a result from gaming, but I thought I’d include it anyways.  I work in the welfare field.  I deal with people going through some of the worst times in their lives.  Burnout is a constant risk that my organization and many others are contributing a lot of time and energy to try and fight against.  And things aren’t always dandy there.  A good part of the reason my already slow rate of posting has gotten even slower is that there are some days where work has been so rough that I just get home and I cannot do anything productive anymore.

But I’ve found video games to be a great way of refreshing myself.  My clients often unload  an emotional weight on me, and I take that, because, well, that’s my job, and I’m a professional.  But that eats at you, and those emotions need to be worked out, and in a far shorter timeframe than actually solving those problems takes before they deliver harm.

And you know what, I’ve found video games to be invaluable for that.  It’s a little hokey and childish, maybe, but spending that time being absolutely immersed in something else, completely forgetting about myself and what I’m going through, that’s one of the biggest things keeping me refreshed and helping me manage the emotional burdens I find myself carrying.  Because of that, video games are just making me a better worker in general.

All told, with all those skills given, it seems like real life is just the rather disappointing sequel to your favorite video game.

14 responses to “The Working Player: Real Life Skills from Video Games

  1. I definitely agree that playing video games helps one develop good resource management skills. Whether it’s real life or in a game, I find I tend to be careful with my funds, always thinking that I’ll need it for something really important in the near future. It’s like how in the original Zelda where you could buy a potion for 40 rupees or you could save up and buy a 2nd potion for 68 rupees. Considering it’s two potions for less than price of two normal ones, it’s much more sensible to go for the latter. There are so many situations like this both in real life and in other games, and I think recognizing that is key to effective financial management.

    I also think video games can help players develop a sense of morality. There have been a lot of titles out there where you can choose to be good or bad, and the latter is almost always a trap, resulting in an experience that’s decidedly less fulfilling whether it’s because the more interesting sidequests become unavailable or the authors put a greater amount of effort into creating the good path. I remember one game in particular where if you choose to walk the evil path, you pay quite a dire price. It’s unlikely anyone would do it by accident either, so if you go through with it, the punishment is completely fair. I have a pretty good feeling you’ve played the game I’m talking about, and I have to say that for all the times I’ve complained about an abysmal ending ruining an otherwise fine experience, it was absolutely brilliant of this person to actually weaponize that very concept as a punishment for being bad.

    • Fun fact, one of the first professional things I did upon graduating college was working on an ill-fated pitch for a financial management ‘video game’. The idea was to put something together to teach high schoolers how to manage their money post-graduation in a fun way. Unfortunately, my area wasn’t exactly known for it’s booming programmer population, and as a result of that, we didn’t get the grant that would have funded it.

      In any case, that’s definitely true, games really do often instill the idea of making smart choices. In both many games and in real life, it’s pretty easy to look at money as a means of valuing time, and in games, if you don’t spend smartly, you’re going to be losing time later on.

      One of the big things I think I’ve picked up from games is a little more unique, but it comes down to using debt well. Business debt works a little differently than personal debt, where it can be a good idea to go into debt early on if you can leverage it to turn a continuous income, but that’s not something you get the chance to play with in our personal life without finding yourself on the way to financial ruin. There are some games out there that give you the chance to mess around with this, experience a bit of how this works before you have to deal with it in the real world. City management sims and 4X strategy games most readily come to mind.

      Yeah, honestly, morality is big one to pick up here. In fact, it’s probably one of the more important life skills to gain. It’s not just video games, either, you’ll pick up morality from most any story, but it seems a lot more real with games, because they bring you right into the twisted situations. I think I know which game you’re talking about, which, if I’ve got the right one, actually made it a lot harder on you if you took the evil path, only to give a really bleak ending leading right up to your downfall at the end. I remember Fallout seemed the first game I ever played where I really got the choice to be evil, and it seems like a world that would really encourage that, yet even so, all the evil choices ended up being really inferior in reward to the good ones. Kind of made me think, even then.

      • Now that I think about it, there was an Atari 8-bit game from 1983 called M.U.L.E., which was a turn-based strategy title meant to teach players about economics. Unlike in most multiplayer games, it’s actually possible for everyone to lose, as each colony needed to meet certain requirements to be considered successful. To be honest, I’ve never actually played it myself, but your idea of turning financial management into a video game kind of reminds me of M.U.L.E. I think it’s a viable idea, and with a team of capable designers, it could end up like Papers, Please where it turns a mundane concept into an enjoyable experience.

        If I remember correctly, most new businesses achieve a loss within their first year; only later on do they start making profits reliably. It’s pretty difficult to make a significant profit that quickly.

        You could conceivably develop morality from non-interactive mediums, but it seems less personal without an interactive element. I think Fallout was the first introduction I had to a moral system as well. I feel it’s even better to go the hero route in these games knowing that there is an evil option. Then again, if there’s only one way to proceed, it’s usually better to only have a good option. Only having an evil option isn’t a bad idea in of itself, but you can’t judge the player morally if you make a game that way. As I discovered with a certain games I’ve played over the years (such as Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us), it doesn’t work when a game chews you out for taking the one (evil) option available to you; it’s sort of like receiving, and getting blamed for, somebody else’s parking ticket.

        What’s really interesting about that one game’s evil path is how it tricks players into thinking that they have a free ride to the end by making the experience significantly shorter, yet there are two areas that are practically guaranteed to bring progress to a screeching halt. This means that even those who skip the dialogue are in for a decidedly bad time whether it’s because they feel awful about what they’re doing or they feel immense frustration courtesy of the deliberately unbalanced gameplay. I think it enforces the same point as Live A Live in that by choosing to be evil, you’ve eliminated any possible chance of you having a happy ending – and rightly so.

      • Ah, I had been thinking of a different game originally, but now I think I catch which one you’re talking about.

        I played Wall Street Kid once. An NES game about buying and selling stocks. It… wasn’t very fun. I think it would take a bit to make financial management fun. Don’t know how M.U.L.E. handles it, but making it a means to an end, and not the end itself, might be key there.

        With those types of games, where they set you on the bad path with no choices then hate you for it, developers often get into the habit of saying “Don’t like the way the game’s calling you out? Just turn it off! That’s your choice.” I remember that specifically with Spec Ops and a few other titles, and I think it may have cropped up with the Last of Us, too. Kind of an infuriating way of looking it at it, makes it seem like the developers look down on you just for playing the game they spent so much time on in the first place.

  2. There’s a real danger that I will get made redundant in the next few months. When updating my CV I will be sure to include a list of games I have completed. That will show those employers how skillful I am!

    Seriously though, there’s a bunch of stuff I have gleamed off games that I apply to work. Gaming’s interactive nature can be used to develop people unlike passive hobbies such as watching TV.

    • Well, even TV can give people something, but the learning’s just not as good when you’re passive in it. That’s part of why a lot of learning programs are turning to games to teach things, and ‘gamification’ is actually a word that came out of somebody’s mouth at some point. Most people learn more by doing than by watching or listening, and that ingrains it in you a lot better.

      • A big factor in effective learning is to stay motivated. Most video games give you a goal to strive for so I am not surprised that training programs and weight loss now incorporate gamification.

      • Heck, one of my favorite parts of the night class I’m taking is the stupid little game they give us as a homework assignment to make sure we understand it. It takes a lot of the boring parts of it and actually gives you a reason to be interested.

  3. Great post. I had a job interview the other day shortly after reading this post, and had I been asked to describe myself in three words or less almost certainly the words “hypercompetent supersexy professional” would’ve come tumbling out of my mouth. Good thing they didn’t ask.

    Certainly I think there are real world applications of skills you need in gaming, but I do wish there were more. Genres like the old point and click adventure games, for example, I always felt had so much potential to teach players about how to use and interact with things that exist in the real world. Most of the time however, all adventure games want is to teach the player how to use their own bizarre brand of “videogame logic”. For every puzzle that involves the correct use of plaster of paris to create and set a mould, there’s another that requires combining a balloon likeness of Robert Frost with some bread crumbs to frighten birds and steal their eggs.

    • Yeah, the idea calls to mind specifically the chemical puzzle in Resident Evil. Something like that, where you’re having to mix together different things to create a compound, could easily turn into a pretty interesting learning experience if you used actual chemistry with that. Adventure games seem like they’d be rife with that.

      But at the very least, I know if I’m ever confronted with an angry yeti, pies are what shall save me.

  4. Awesome post. There are definitely skills that are honed in video games that can be applied in the real world, but, I think sometimes those skills don’t always get applied to the “disappointing sequel” that is life, because… well… you’re not getting the same feedback.

    One thing games are great at is teaching us their rules, and we can extrapolate how to use them to our advantage, so I think if we want to see more of these skills transfer into the physical world, we’ll either need to be more vocal about the skills we’re learning in games, or we’ll need to be much more proactive about the “gamification” of certain mundane aspects of life.

    • That is true. You don’t exactly get the whole “Your Relationship Values Have Improved” deal when you crit your charisma check in real life.

      The rules are a lot softer in real life as well, assuming you have to deal with, you know, actual people. Rarely will doing something always produce exactly the same result, so life gets down to more a system of probabilities rather than the hard and fast stuff that most game rules are.

  5. Agreed, talking to non-gamers about gaming is not a conversation, rather an argument trying to prove video games are worthy (we all know they are). I LOVE video games. They are continuing to evolve and it’s glorious!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s