As the world around us fragments into endless niches populating a kaleidoscope of Long Tails winding their way around the world, where will economic value reside? Certainly there will be a lot of economic value within individual niches, but the real money will be made by those who can navigate across the edges of niches and help us to see and connect with resources deeply embedded in distant niches.
Put into more tangible terms for enterprises, they will need to become more specialized and carve out their own economic niches (although these niches can be very large) while at the same time continually appropriating and evolving new capabilities – something that JSB and I have called “dynamic specialization”. This in fact becomes a meta-capability, with its own perspectives, skills and practices. But where are firms going to look to help build this meta-capability within their own ranks? Well, look to the edge – in this case, video games.
Many years ago, I was a senior executive at Atari. Ever since, I have had a strong interest in video games. Despite their broad usage and economic scale (exceeding the sale of movie theater tickets in the US) and the valiant efforts of analysts like Steven Berlin Johnson, video games have always retained an “edge” identity, viewed with suspicion by “high culture”. My collaborator, JSB shares a similar fascination with the gaming world.
Recently, JSB has joined up with Douglas Thomas, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at USC and editor of Games and Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media, to explore some of the broader implications for learning of one particular form of video games – massive multiplayer online games (MMOGs) like World of Warcraft. Two products of this collaboration deserve particular attention – an article in Wired and a working paper at USC.
The article in Wired, entitled “You Play World of Warcraft? You’re Hired!”, has received a lot of attention, in part because it is written in such an accessible style. It highlights an important distinction between intentional learning and accidental learning:
Unlike education acquired through textbooks, lectures, and classroom instruction, what takes place in massively multiplayer online games is what we call accidental learning. It's learning to be - a natural byproduct of adjusting to a new culture - as opposed to learning about. Where traditional learning is based on the execution of carefully graded challenges, accidental learning relies on failure. Virtual environments are safe platforms for trial and error. The chance of failure is high, but the cost is low and the lessons learned are immediate.
JSB and Thomas focus in particular on the role of games like World of Warcraft in building leadership talent:
In this way, the process of becoming an effective World of Warcraft guild master amounts to a total-immersion course in leadership. A guild is a collection of players who come together to share knowledge, resources, and manpower. To run a large one, a guild master must be adept at many skills: attracting, evaluating, and recruiting new members; creating apprenticeship programs; orchestrating group strategy; and adjudicating disputes. Guilds routinely splinter over petty squabbles and other basic failures of management; the master must resolve them without losing valuable members, who can easily quit and join a rival guild. Never mind the virtual surroundings; these conditions provide real-world training a manager can apply directly in the workplace.
Unfortunately, this focus on leadership skills, while insightful and important, diminishes the real significance of MMOGs. JSB and Thomas hint at the real significance in the following passage:
The fact that [the game players] don't think of gameplay as training is crucial. Once the experience is explicitly educational, it becomes about developing compartmentalized skills and loses its power to permeate the player's behavior patterns and worldview.
The working paper by JSB and Douglas at USC, entitled “The Play of Imagination: Extending the Literary Mind”, explores the real significance of MMOGs much more deeply, although in a much denser, academic style that many business people may have trouble accessing. That’s a shame because the business implications are profound.
A key theme of the paper is learning across boundaries, as JSB and Douglas lay out early on:
While a traditional “game” remains at the core of MMOGs, the rich social fabric that the game produces blurs many of the boundaries that we tend to expect such as the distinction between the physical and the virtual, the difference between player and avatar, and the distinction between work and play. Further, we argue throughout the essay that the learning that happens in MMOGs is tied to practices, but those practices are not solely the practices of game play or even skills such as resource management. They are, instead, the skills of learning how to use one’s imagination to read across boundaries and be able to find points of convergence and divergence between different worlds to understand their relationships to one another.
JSB and Douglas set out to offer “a set of analytic categories designed to help us understand what virtual worlds do that is different from the typical learning environment.” In part, the paper builds on the notion of disposition in JSB and Paul Duguid's essay on “Stolen Knowledge” when they suggested that learning “is not simply a matter of acquiring information; it requires developing the disposition, demeanor and outlook of the practitioners.”
JSB and Douglas argue that gaming develops a disposition of play – “a way of thinking about more than what we know” – but that the player’s dispositions are continually shaped by the social network of the game itself.
As a result, players are forced to continually adjust and readjust their dispositional stances not only to the game world, but also to other players within the world. In doing so, players develop a correspondingly flexible attitude toward dispositions which is, as Sherry Turkle has described it, protean in nature.
At another point, JSB and Douglas discuss the way MMOGs promote a “vivid situational awareness that provides the opportunity for the player to live in a space of possibilities, which we see as a powerful training for innovative thinking.”
At the highest level of abstraction, the disposition of a gamer is one that recognizes the importance of situational awareness and develops practices to heighten and refine that disposition. What the gamer learns and what is transferred is not any particular skill set . . . , but the recognition that situational awareness itself is important. The game can tell you very little about how to be situationally aware in different contexts (such as work or home), but it can dispose one to behave with awareness regardless of the context or environment. While different contexts may require awareness of different things, they each require the same kind of imaginative thinking.
JSB and Douglas make a key distinction between the learning that occurs in MMOGs and in simulation-based training:
The learning that occurs in MMOGs is a kind of learning by metaphor, by which two radically different spaces (the virtual and the physical worlds) offer up a single points of experiential convergence (a trigger) which invite (or require) reflection and imagination to translate. Learning by analogy, the kind of learning that happens in simulations or simulation based games, focuses on creating spaces which are measured based on their convergence between the real and virtual worlds, and attempt to minimize divergence. The purpose is to remove imagination and reflection as requirements for learning, and provide a system of instruction and direct transfer of skills and knowledge from the virtual to the physical.
This leads them to emphasize the capability of “conceptual blending”, a concept introduced by Mark Turner in his book The Literary Mind. JSB and Douglas elaborate:
At its most basic level, conceptual blending is a system of projection, where we take a source image and project it upon a target image. Conceptual blending occurs when the two image schemas are able to align and not conflict. Turner’s example of such blending is the blend of the “talking animal” familiar to us from fables, stories, tall tales and the like. The blend occurs when we project speech onto an object such as a donkey. . . .
While a blended space must show some “conformity to its own logic,” it remains “free of the constraints that restrict its input spaces”. Blended spaces get all the richness of their input spaces, but only some of their constraints. . .
The ability to negotiate, manage, and make sense of this continual sense of blending, which is to say the agency a player develops within that world, are what we see as the tools for innovation for the 21st century.
In their conclusion, JSB and Douglas explore the implications of MMOGs for re-thinking the very meaning of education itself:
The model that virtual worlds provide offers a glimpse into the possibilities of what our classrooms might become: spaces where work and play, convergence and divergence, and reality and imagination intertwine in a dance where students grow to understand the importance of communities of practice and learn how to be the things they imagine.
But the implications are far broader than that. Educational institutions are becoming progressively marginalized as it becomes apparent that learning is a life-long undertaking and that the success of all of our institutions hinges on the ability to support learning activity. As the working paper makes clear, the most valuable learning is certainly not at the level of compartmentalized skills; it is much more about developing and evolving appropriate dispositions and the ability to integrate in new ways, as suggested by the notion of conceptual blending.
The irony, and the tragedy, is that MMOGs may promote this kind of learning far better than our educational institutions. These institutions may be so broken that it may be much more productive to design and deploy new institutional frameworks and practices to foster this different form of learning rather than trying to implant it into existing institutions.
Fostering these new forms of learning will be a key challenge, and opportunity, for firms if, as JSB and I have maintained, the rationale for the firm increasingly becomes the ability to accelerate talent development. In a world of proliferating and rapidly evolving niches, the ability to build and sustain economic scale will depend on integrative and adaptive dispositions, at least as much as individual skills.
As JSB and Douglas conclude their Wired article:
The day may not be far off when companies receive resumes that include a line reading “level 60 tauren shaman in World of Warcraft." The savviest employers will get the message.