Leadership Lessons from a Massively Multiplayer Online Game
It’s 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning and I am awake and online, waiting to “storm a castle” in the middle of the night. On a normal night, I’m sleepy by 9 and almost certainly out by 11. Tonight, I’m on a mission to “conquer Dragonia.” I’ve been assigned to the Blue Team, whose leader is an experienced goliath of a player named GrayFalcon. By the game’s strategy, the strongest player should be first to the turret…and so GrayFalcon will launch the first attack at our assigned target, the south turret. I watch as she initiates her march precisely at 0200 and start my march a few seconds later. At the same time, I see the telltale sign of an enemy march on the turret. This is an unexpected turn of events. I can see, as GrayFalcon surely does, that the enemy march will outpace hers by a few seconds. Her assault will be met with a significant, unexpected defense. The enemy march takes the turret seconds before GrayFalcon reaches it, where her troops meet a fierce defense and take heavy losses, failing to take the objective. My march, and the rest of those from the Blue Team, continue the initial assault with similar devastating results. The team questions in the chat window how to proceed; there is no response from our leader. Finally, word comes that GrayFalcon is devastated by the turn of events and has signed off abruptly following her initial failed attack. A few of us continue to assault, losing troops over and over, but we are weakened and without our strongest player. Eventually, we give up, knowing the enemy’s occupation of the south turret puts our allies in the other towers at risk. But leaderless, the Blue Team has fallen.
The leadership failure described in this experience from a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) is just one of many I have witnessed in a gaming environment. Those experiences underscore leadership principles that lead to success as a leader in any organization – trust, communication, and focus. Years ago, Robert Fulghum penned a book titled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. First published in 1986, the book of essays spawned spinoff essays, jokes, and television programming and provided some common sense recommendations for daily life. Similarly, what follows are some common sense leadership lessons illustrated in experiences from online gaming. It describes the leadership failures (and some successes) of leaders in an MMOG – leaders like GrayFalcon. It could be described as “All I Really Need to Know about Leading I Learned from Storming a Virtual Castle.”
Trust is Everything
Lack of trust is one of the biggest reasons for team failure in online games, and it reflects real-world team building challenges as well. It’s easy to fail in an anonymous online environment because trust is hard. Trust, according to a definition often used in academic studies, describes a “willingness to make oneself vulnerable to another person despite uncertainty regarding motive and prospective actions” . Trusting others is difficult for many of us in general. It’s even more of a challenge in an environment in which “knowing” others is significantly more difficult— like the virtual world of gaming. Actions that we take to encourage trust in real-world teams, like getting to know other members and understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses, are more difficult in a world where I can change my name, my avatar, or my communication style and portray an entirely different identity at will.
Even with those challenges, the components of building trust do not change. Using a model widely studied in academic and business circles, whether we trust a leader is based on three components– integrity, ability, and benevolence. The first two are readily observable in behaviors and actions, whether online or in real life. The integrity factor causes a loss of trust when we are lied to or when we observe someone behaving in an underhanded, unfair, or deceptive way, even when it’s not directed at us. In terms of ability, we generally don’t trust leaders we perceive as unskilled, incompetent, or incapable of managing, directing or guiding the team.
The third factor, benevolence, is the one most likely to be overlooked by leaders. However, the results of failure in the “benevolence” category are familiar to most of us. They can be summed up this way: self-interest doesn’t help team success. We make decisions about trust based on whether the other person has our best interests at heart. If the perception is that a leader has their own interests as their priority, we are less likely to trust and less willing to put our own self in a vulnerable position at their request.
As a leader, this third factor was GrayFalcon’s downfall. When faced with a huge loss on her initial assault, she was overwhelmed by her own self-interests. Rather than remaining calm, continuing to lead, and directing subsequent assaults, she spent a few minutes complaining about her own losses, despairing of the cost for rebuilding, etc., and then signed off for the night, leaving a team looking for leadership and ultimately failing in the overall mission. Her evident care for the welfare and success of subordinates was zero. And as a result, GrayFalcon was finished as a leader in the alliance. No one would trust her to lead again.
Leaders must demonstrate care for subordinates, and the best leaders are willing to show their own vulnerability to encourage trust. Expressing real care for the people who make up the team and prioritizing the team’s success over personal gains are key to building trust in any organization.
Leading is Communicating
The online gaming environment is especially challenging for communication, which is perhaps the most essential tool for effective leadership. The need for clear, timely, and consistent communication is complicated by both time zone and language differences. The challenges of communication are glaring in an environment where teammates span the globe. In one alliance in this MMOG, I counted seven different languages in a single chat conversation – English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Ukrainian, Russian and Italian. Other alliances I’ve played in had a mix of Asian languages as well. Watching arguments among several languages reminds me that we are so close and yet so far from the universal translator envisioned in science fiction movies.
For mission success, these challenges must be overcome, because leading is communicating and a lack of communication makes failure a likely outcome. In one game I played, the long range plans were aimed at moving the entire alliance to another kingdom to consolidate power. This was a complex move and a plan that was not widely known among the 100-member alliance. Leaders seemed to worry that the move would be unpopular or that discussing it would take up too much time and energy. As a result, without knowing or understanding that intent, members didn’t (couldn’t) work toward the goal, and made decisions and took actions that actually hindered that goal accomplishment. Leaders who hoard information or who fail to communicate intent may still reach a goal, but it’s not likely it will be the most efficient or effective path. Good communication keeps the left arm from working against the right arm, so to speak, and ensures unity within the organization.
Because no leader is present 24/7, communicating is essential to ensure common understanding of things like standards of conduct, critical information reporting requirements, and goal prioritization. Communicating often and clearly ensures that the leader is leading, even when not present or immediately available. That kind of understanding ensures work toward a common goal by all members of the team, and it doesn’t happen by accident. Leaders must communicate deliberately and communicate often. In my gaming environment, members of the same language and time zones often worked together during times most convenient for them, and as long as the intent of the leadership had been communicated clearly, the challenges of language and timing became part of the planning structure rather than obstacles to it.
Successful Leaders Aren’t Necessarily Good Leaders
I often ask students in leader development courses this question: “Who is the last person to know when an organization has a toxic leader in its chain of command?” In many organizations, the answer is “their boss.” Toxic leaders often look great from above. Their “numbers are good,” they accomplish the mission, they “are good at what they do.” The reality that is apparent to those who are subordinate to them is that they often achieve that success by standing on the necks of those who work under them in the organization. This may come in the form of real abuse, or in neglecting subordinates’ needs and failing to commit to growing future leaders.
My first alliance leader in the dragon-slaying game was GrumpyPete, one of the top players in the kingdom. We all rode his coattails through competitions. He spoke little to us. He taught us nothing about how to achieve success. He loved being the “big cheese” and dominating the kingdom. Most of us stayed with his alliance just long enough to take advantage of this dominance until we could stand on our own. It wasn’t long, though, before we deserted his team for one that had what experts would call a “growth mentality.” The new alliance had archives of information on strategy for growth, improvement, and how to become the best player we could be. The leader, SigmaMonkey, was an unassuming one – friendly and helpful, but not even the strongest player on the team. Ultimately, the alliance he built could wipe my first one off the map. The combined strength of multiple players was a formidable asset that GrumpyPete couldn’t grasp, couldn’t build, and didn’t care to. By any measure on an evaluation report, GrumpyPete was a producer with excellent results. And unless that measure includes “grow the organization for the future,” that might often be the case.
There’s a difference between a successful leader and a good one, but one that often isn’t readily apparent in the short term. In the military, that’s the challenge. The current “boss” sees positive results and doesn’t want to sacrifice those results because that success contributes to his or her own. But the enduring results of counterproductive leader behaviors are costly to the organization in the long term— poor morale, attrition through the loss of valuable team members, and most importantly, the impact of that behavior on future leaders who learn by example. A leader can be successful “on paper” and ultimately create or contribute to a decay in the overall organization that is difficult to fix in a single or even two or three generations of leaders. Further contributing to the challenges of eliminating counterproductive leadership in the military is the fact that leaders change regularly. By the time the toxicity of an organization comes to light, the leadership has moved on to another assignment, often to start the cycle of toxic behavior again.
Good leaders are as concerned (or more so) about how they look from below as they are about how they are viewed from above. They gauge much of their success by the quality of subordinate leaders they are developing, by the overall morale of the organization, and by the team’s commitment to a common goal. The unfortunate truth, of course, is that not all good leaders are successful, at least not when success is measured by promotion rates or an evaluation report. Still, I heard one three star General say that while the Army generally adheres to the “Mission first, People always” philosophy, he found that if he took care of the people first, the mission was always taken care of. This is almost certain when considering the long term health and growth of the organization as a central piece of the mission.
Leadership challenges differ by organization and mission. But whether leading a military organization, a sports team, or even an online alliance storming a virtual castle, the foundations of good leadership remain the same. Establishing a culture where both today’s results and the growth of future leaders are valued is the path that leaders must take to build healthy organizations in the long-term.
 Werbel, J.D., & Henriques, P.L. (2009). Different views of trust and relational leadership: Supervisor and subordinate perspectives. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 24, 780-796. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/02683940910996798
 Mayer, R.C., Davis, J.H., & Schoorman, F.D. (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. Academy of Management Review, 20, 709-734. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/258792
Dr. Lisa Brown is a career Army Civilian with over 22 years of experience in training and leader development. She currently serves as Technical Director, US Army Engineer School Directorate of Training & Leader Development at the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence. She holds a Doctor of Education from the University of Illinois. Her research interests focus on trust development between leaders and subordinates and storytelling as an instructional technique.
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