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Your gaming skills can help you shape your career

Harvard Business Review

Harvard Business Review

Your Gaming Skills Can Help You Shape Your Career

Growing up in the golden age of video games, it was hard not to feel like you were living two lives at once.

There was the everyday world of 1980s America – for me, that was life as a teenager, newly immigrated from Belarus to Wichita, Kansas with my music teacher parents. Then, there was my parallel world — a world whose bounds were larger and more porous. The world of video games.

My parents would occasionally notice or comment on the amount of time I spent playing Galaga, Space Invaders, and Pac-Man, first at the arcade, then on my Commodore 64. But at the time, they couldn’t know the way gaming would help sculpt my brain, life, and future career.

Now, when my own kids play video games, I encourage them. There’s increasingly compelling evidence that video games are actually good for our brains. Numerous peer-reviewed studies have shown the benefits of gaming — whether it’s better spatial awareness, faster cognitive processing, or improved mental health, social skills, and decision-making capabilities. On a more personal level, I also believe that immersing myself in the world of video games (initially as a player and then, in one of my first jobs as a game developer) prepared me in unique and important ways for my subsequent career at the intersection of technology and high finance.

Here are some of the key lessons that my transition from one career to another taught me, and suggestions for how you too can harness the unique skills and lessons gaming has taught you to shape your future working life.

1. Don’t settle

Video games are fast-moving, dynamic, and anything but static. Your career should be too.

I’ve made many transitions in my career, constantly searching for a place to work that really recognized the value of my skills – many of which I gained by playing video games. I became a video game programmer at the age of 17 after responding to an ad in a local newspaper. As excited as I was to turn my favorite hobby into a paying gig, I knew it wouldn’t be my career forever. After finishing my degree in computer science at the University of Texas, I segued from the world of video game design to the world of quantitative investing, but only after trying out a host of different careers and callings: a master’s degree, an MBA, some time in private equity, and a job at AT&T Bell Labs.

Don’t settle gaming skills

I was constantly trying to find a demand for my unique supply, and you should too. We tend to compartmentalize our lives too much, not seeing that the intricate skills that make us world-beaters at Elden Ring or Apex Legends are similar to the skills that are employed by hotshot programmers or exceptional leaders. Gamers have invaluable experience in solving fiendishly complex problems, staying cool under great pressure, and collaborating with others from diverse backgrounds. They have endless perseverance and a deep will to win.

Sure, every job requires some combination of problem-solving, strategy, and teamwork — just like every video game. But not every company you encounter will be as solutions-oriented, innovative, or collaborative as you might desire. One way to make sure you find an organization that will value you and your skills is to ask forward-looking questions during the interview process. Ask your interviewer:

  • Where do you see this business in five years’ time?
  • What was this organization like five years ago?
  • What skills do you think will be most valuable in this industry over the next five years?
  • Compare their answers to your personal skills and goals. If the organization seems eager to embrace change, you will likely be able to forge a space for yourself there – you’ll have the ability to make an impact.

2. Challenge your beliefs

How often have you written off a video game before even playing it? Maybe you see yourself as a “serious gamer” who only plays big-budget titles like Call of Duty. Or maybe you’re an Animal Crossing fan who tries to avoid “the stress” of PVP (player versus player) games at all costs.

We all have internal biases that can alter our perception of the world. The same is true for our careers — you likely have personal beliefs about certain companies, industries, and job titles. We can often be misled by the external presentation of a role or industry, thinking that it wouldn’t be a place for someone like us.

Challenge your beliefs

I encounter this regularly with recent graduates or early career technologists who have seen “Billions” or “Wolf of Wall Street” and think that finance isn’t for them. When I first moved from video game design to trading stocks and derivatives, I wasn’t totally convinced that I’d made the right decision. What I discovered, though, was an industry that was more thoughtful, more academic, quieter, and more considerate than I’d expected. I found a lot of people who thought about the world in interesting and different ways. By surrounding myself with these people, I helped shape my working life into a place where I was constantly challenged and consistently engaged.

So just like you shouldn’t judge a game by its popular presentation, you shouldn’t with jobs either. Instead, take the time to speak to people on the inside, and then look for like-minded souls and gravitate towards them. You probably won’t immediately land in the perfect home, but make sure you learn from each wrong move.

3. Try again. Fail again. Fail better

Many video games follow a familiar format. A character appears, they’re given a difficult task, they encounter roadblocks, they die, and they do it all over again. As a player, every time you fail, you learn from your mistakes, adjust, and move forward.

We’re often too afraid to fail in real life because we believe we won’t get a second chance. In some ways, that’s true — there are no extra lives here. But just like in video games, we can test hypotheses, experiment, process variables, and establish new ways of understanding our world.

Try again. Fail again. Fail better


When I was a game developer — sometimes working long stretches with little sleep — I often felt an extraordinary sense of control. You get to shape worlds when you’re designing games, narrowing from infinite possibilities down to a handful, picking your way along endlessly branching binomial trees. If one pathway didn’t fit just right, I’d move on to the next, and so on. Now, working in the vast and complex global financial markets, I design and run simulations that help me come closer to an understanding of the way the world works.

Our lives, and our careers, are defined by decisions we make through trial and error. If you’re not sure what you want to do as soon as you graduate college, reconnect with your gaming mindset. Try something. Test a hypothesis about a job or industry you think would fit your interests or values. If you don’t like it, or feel like it doesn’t fulfill your desire for purpose, try something else. Learn, adjust, and move forward.

4. Have patience

Video games can be repetitive. You might fight the same monsters again and again to level up. You might run around for hours collecting sticks just to build one weapon. You might make tons of progress, only to fail at the last moment and be sent back to square one. Games take patience.

The same can be said for work, and our lives in general — it can feel repetitive at times. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Think about it — if we didn’t enjoy the small, mundane moments of video games, what would be left? The patience and hard work are what make the glorious cut scenes, rare achievements, and final fights worth it. In your career, the work you put in now will pay off long-term, too. It might not feel like it as you trudge through boring daily tasks, or deal with frustrating co-workers. But the key is to be patient in the long term, and impatient in the short term.

Have patience

Be patient when it comes to pursuing your aspirations. You don’t want to keep changing your goals, flitting from one target to the next without ever really settling on a destination. But when it comes to short-term tasks that will help you reach those goals, be anything but patient. If one strategy isn’t working, try another. Be dynamic and innovative in your approach to problem-solving.

5. Think like a creator

As much as there is to be learned from playing video games, there’s also a lot we can gain by studying their creators.

In a 2018 paper, Professor Aaron Meskin of the University of Georgia wrote about the different types of creativity stimulated by video game design. He highlighted the use of exploratory creativity: the creativity of a gamer finding their way around a gamescape, or engaging with tasks and challenges in a gameworld. There is also combinatorial creativity: when a game designer takes elements of previous games and weaves them together into something new. (Think of the way Fortnite is an amalgam of its predecessors – Battleground, DayZ, Btooom.)

Think like a creator

Finally, there is transformational creativity: when designers, often drawing on leaps forward in technology, drive revolutionary changes in the entire video game ecosystem. Meskin cites “the development of text-based adventure games such as Colossal Cave Adventure in the 1970s, side-scrolling games in the early 1980s, open-world games in the mid-1980s, and movement-based games such as Dance Dance Revolution in the 1990s.”

It’s this latter, fully uninhibited and playful form of creativity that you should learn how to use.

One way of cultivating transformational creativity in your work life is to embrace adjacency. Just as in dim light you see better from the corners of your eyes, it’s often the case that the best way of solving problems and developing novel ideas is to look alongside, rather than directly at, the challenges that face you.

If you’re struggling to come up with new ideas or find yourself making the same errors when addressing a task, try thinking about how other, adjacent disciplines might approach a similar problem. What skills might the manager of a baseball team deploy? Or a firefighter? Or a cardiologist? Try, for instance, imagining that your job is a video game — how would the gamer in you tackle this problem?

It all comes back to the idea that the problems we have to overcome in order to succeed in our professions and lives are often, at a deep level, quite similar. Approaching tasks with a sense of play brings the freedom and imaginative stimulation that drive genuine creativity and powerful solutions.

Read more: Vietnam, Philippines see largest growth in spends on mobile games in SEA

Source: Harvard Business Review

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