Leadership series (Part 3): Inculcating leadership skills through Role-Playing Games (RPGs)

This blog post is primarily dedicated to parents and educators who are interested in guiding their children (of an appropriate gaming age) on learning leadership skills through Role-Playing Games (RPGs).  In the world of IT-integrated education, gaming is often considered by some educators as an educational platform. I would go further in this article by arguing that the gaming platform can be used as an opportunity to inculcate leadership skills through what I would term as “Facilitative Gaming” sessions whereby parents and educators facilitate gaming sessions through asking relevant and self-reflective questions.

There are many parents and educators who are too focused academically that they often overlook the usefulness of the educational values of computer games. Granted, books (and now, to a certain degree, the Internet) are the primary sources of knowledge, and not all games have a strong educational value behind it, in the same way that not all movies have a strong message behind its storyline. However, it cannot be denied that there are indeed some games that educate and entertain at the same time.

For instance, Sid Meier’s Civilization is a well known strategy game that trains gamers how to think strategically and enables gamers to understand the consequences of their actions when they choose the areas where they will like to invest in as leaders of their nations. For instance, a heavy investment on knowledge has a different benefit from an investment in agriculture. Should such a choice be made, gamers will realise in due course that while their countries may prosper in terms of knowledge advancement, their nations will fall behind in terms of agricultural produce – thereby affecting their food production over time. Through the game, gamers will gradually understand that there will always be trade-offs in life and hence, they will learn how to make wise decisions early and thereby develop long term strategic management – a vital skill that is critical to one’s success in life. Since its first installation, Sid Meier’s Civilization has resulted in many sequels over the years, proving its popularity among gamers, probably due to its educational value.

Another notable example will be KOEI‘s “Romance of the Three Kingdom” series (based on one of China’s literature classics) that has won the hearts of fans throughout the world. Taking on the role of a warring general in the midst of numerous warring fractions in China, the goal of the game is to unite the whole of China, thereby bringing war to an ultimate end.  The Japanese’s equivalent is Nobunaga’s Ambition, where the primary focus is on Oda Nobunaga.

But for this blog post, I will be looking at a game genre that gamers engage in (instead of merely a game title) – Role-Playing Games (or RPGs, for short).  The Final Fantasy (FF) series is, by far, the most popular and well-known titles to hit the game market for the past decade.  While it was Final Fantasy VII that finally propels this gaming genre to fame, its predecessors might be considered to have played a determining role that leads to its success. However, more notably, I would say that it’s the fundamental and basic game play of RPGs that have won global fans for the past decades.

Some interesting questions:

  • Role-playing Games are known to be a genre which require a very heavy investment of time and effort on the part of the gamers. Why would gamers from all over the world (children and adults alike) be enthralled by it?
  • While strong on content and storyline, its combat and interaction systems are often similar and game play are usually repetitive. Why would such games mesmerise such a large following of spellbound gamers? 
  • The storyline of Role-playing games always go along the lines of good versus evil, with the triumph of the former over the latter in the end. Why does such a story line charm so many gamers?

The rest of this blog entry seeks to address the questions above.

When we explore role-playing games and seek to understand the allure of RPGs, we need to have an in-depth understanding of human nature and the human psyche.  This blog entry will draw parallels between the game formats of RPGs and leadership by exploring the various game plays of RPGs and how they align well with the inner workings of our minds (both emotionally and intellectually) for leadership development.

In addition, some questions to be posed to children (by parents) and students (by educationists) will be proposed to inculcate leadership skills among the learners while they are gaming.

Please note that for the sake of simplicity, the term “gamers” used below will be used to represent all children and students engaged in the facilitative gaming session.

Now, let us consider how the various aspects of role-playing game relate to leadership development:

1. Level-ups: In role-playing games, the lead character (controlled by the gamer) and supporting characters (usually controlled by the computers, unless it is played on an online multi-player platform) will “level up” after defeating multiple enemies. Gamers will then have an opportunity to attribute skill points to their character’s abilities such as “strength”, “intelligence”, “agility”, “intelligence”, “magic skill” and the like. At the point of each “leveling up”,  gamers often feel thrilled by the upgrading and augmentation of skills to their character that they are playing and these achievements supersedes the often repetitive and mundane combat system of most RPGs. This constant sense of accomplishment is proportional to the amount of time and effort put in by the gamers.

Some great questions that educators and parents are able to pose to the young gamers include:

“Wow! You have leveled up! Great! Your effort has paid off!”

(Note: praise effort, not talents! Ok, this is not a question. But it is still useful.)

“Good! You have leveled up! What do you think are the reasons for being able to level up?”

(Note: Allows gamers to think about the reasons for their success, which is a self-reflective ability, thereby increasing the gamers’  intrapersonal intelligence over time.  Great leaders often take time to self-reflect during the few sparse and quiet minutes that they have in the midst of their busy schedules.)

“Great that you have leveled up! What are the requirements for the next level? How do you think you can achieve that level and keep on leveling up?”

(Note: Direct the gamers’ focus to the requirements for the next level, which is akin to leaders planning resources for the next leap. A fallacy of leaders is to move faster than they plan, thereby failing fast! Great leaders often plan before they take action. It’s just that they often decide on a time frame for planning rather than planning indefinitely!)

It is important to note that what we are doing here is to lavish praise on the gamers’ efforts, enabling them to develop a habitual habit to self-reflect, and to engage in early planning before taking that next step. While most successful individuals are successful because they take action to realise their goals and dreams, it should be highlighted that careful prior planning and not brash action is the key to long term success.  However, one can’t plan forever.  We should rid ourselves of any perfectionistic streak and get things moving once everything – or most of the pieces – are in place. We should – in Seth Godin‘s term – “ship” out our plans once they are ready.

It is important that parents and educators indicate a stipulated time for gamers (1-2 hours would be good) and refrain from allowing the gamers to indulge in countless hours of gaming to learn leadership skills. This is especially so for RPGs, where the interesting and lengthy storyline would often get gamers heavily engaged. Inform gamers that there will be another opportunity for another gaming session another time once the time is up. Provide leadership gaming lessons through intervals, never in one go (Role-playing games can never be completed in one sitting, anyway!).

Note: If gamers game for hours, that’s not a leadership development course through gaming. That’s sheer gaming addiction, which should be avoided at all cost. 

2. Bosses:  –> In RPGs, there often exists a “boss” (big villain in the game) at the end of every level that gamers need to defeat before being allowed to proceed to the next level. Gamers are usually defeated for the first few rounds at this point prior to defeating the “boss”, such that they will need to invest in new equipment and weapons, as well as reaching a certain level before they are able to defeat the “boss”.  There is therefore a need for gamers to explore the various equipment available while engaging in constant training and toughening up of their game characters by defeating weaker enemies (which are usually the “boss’s” minions).

This is a great point to interject with questions by parents and educators, by asking:

–  “What can do you to defeat this ‘boss’?” (This encourages children and students to brainstorm and improve their creative and problem-solving skills. This question is exceptionally useful in certain RPG games whereby the gamers are required to develop certain magical prowess in specific elements such as fire or ice in order to defeat the “boss” as the “boss” is susceptible to certain elemental/ physical attacks and therefore takes more damage. It is interesting to discuss the techniques to be used with the gamers. In the real world, great leaders often analyse the various differential advantages they or their organisations have over their competitors and brainstorm on the ways to leverage on them.)

“What augmentations to your game character’s equipment can you expand on to increase the chances of defeating the ‘boss’?” (This will encourage gamers to think through the current equipment that they have (existing resources) while exploring the option of acquiring new ones (purchasing new resources). In the real world, great leaders often explore industries to penetrate rather than staying in existing ones. This is especially so in recent years, where some companies have chosen not to stay in their area(s) of specialisation but adopt a cross-disciplinary approach by manufacturing products that are in demand instead. The expanding e-book market is one example).

– If gamers fail to defeat the boss on the first attempt or after several attempts, it would be an opportune time to ask them this question: “Do you think that you should consider a change in technique to defeat this ‘boss’? Or is there is a way to circumnavigate the current challenges that you face?” (Usually, the ‘boss’ at the end of each stage of the game requires a certain approach before it can be defeated. This is a great time to encourage gamers to think long and hard, as well as creatively to solve this problem. In real life, leaders have to be creative to solve problems and issues. In addition, they need to think out of the box as well. RPGs can help gamers develop the analytical skills required. Although increasing one’s analytical skills might not solve every single problem that comes one’s way, a strength in this area is definitely beneficial in a world where statistics and measurements are crucial in successful persuasion and negotiation. One thing that is absent in RPG games is the decision to step back or to circumnavigate (the closest scenario that I can think of is the “Inferno” Stage in Blizzard Entertainment‘s “Diablo III“, players are restrained from playing this stage until they have attained the satisfactory levels that ensures their competency in completing the “Inferno” level) . Parents and educators should create an awareness in gamers that in life, one can take a step back, choose a detour or simply stay stationary (and not procrastinating) for a while  before making the next move. There is no need to charge forward every time.  )

3.  Rewards after defeating the “boss”: There are usually great rewards after a gamer defeats the “boss” of a level/stage. This can come in the form of money, equipment, experience points and/or level-ups – and the amount of rewards is considered immense as compared to the usual awards received after every typical combat with typical and mediocre enemies.  Sometimes, the game characters received a better rank after every progression (such as “Soldier”, “Sergeant”, “Officer”, “General” etc), which reminds me of the ranking system that Nike uses for the free iPhone app “Nike Training Club”, where iPhone users are able to progress from one rank to another based on the number of training hours that they put in, with intervals of 30 minutes per session – from the first rank of “Contender” right till the last rank of “Young Gun”.  Cool huh?

 At the juncture when the gamers have defeated the boss, it would be good to ask the following questions to inculcate leadership skills:

“So, what is the point of defeating the ‘boss’ in the game?” (If gamers reply that they will get to progress to the next stage in the game, acknowledge and agree with their reply while stating that in life, we move on to the next stage only after we have solved the problems at the moment. And if we don’t, we might get to progress to the next phase but we will almost always meet with the same lessons – until we really learn them. When gamers mentioned that they get better rewards, educate them by telling them that the amount of rewards received often commensurate with their efforts put in. However, let the gamers know that there may be times when rewards may be small while the efforts to be undertaken is immense. Nevertheless, this will enable them to build up perseverance. At the same time, remind them that extrinsic rewards pale in comparison with intrinsic rewards. It’s when one really wants to do something positive for others, a desire that arises from their own volition, that one will really succeed. Zig Ziglar once said that “You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.”)

“How do you feel at this point?” (When gamers reply that they feel a sense of accomplishment, congratulate them but more importantly, create an awareness in them that they did not overcome this hurdle in just a while. They have to level up for a period of time before they are able to defeat the “boss”.  Similarly, in life, we have to take incremental small steps and achieve small goals that lead to a primary life goal – so that it is sustainable, achievable, workable and measurable. It i important for the gamers to know that in order to succeed in doing so, the small steps taken have to be self-directed and focused – not scattered and diffused. While the game has a fixed structure in which gamers are “directed” , there is no such direction in real life. Each of us has to find our own purpose in life and find ways to contribute positively to society. Encourage gamers to find their life purposes early in life. Despite having said that, inculcate patience in the gamers and tell them that it might take a while before they find their life purposes. And never despair or feel despondent. If they put in a consistent effort, they will surely find it.)

4. Identifying clues for the next challenge: At certain points in the game, gamers would have to talk to secondary characters in various regions and worlds, so as to identify clues to proceed to the next stage. While some RPGs are rather straightforward, the rest requires a certain degree of astuteness on the part of the gamers to identify clues to proceed to the next stage of the game. This segment may prove to be interesting to history fans (since such interactions and dialogues lead to a greater discovery of the background story of the game) but it might prove to be exasperating to gamers who simply want to get on with the game. It will be great to pose some questions to gamers during these times:

Can you describe/update the story of the game to me in a few sentences, to the best of your knowledge? “[This question has the advantage of training children/students in summarising what they know in a concise and succinct manner. This is a very important skill to master, since leaders are often responsible to communicate with their stakeholders in organisations. Let the children/students know that providing a “to-the-point” response to a question is important in engaging their listeners.  In addition, create awareness in them that knowledge is gained not only through consistent and in-depth reading but through interactions with other people as well – just like in the game. Most great leaders get a feel of things by interacting and communicating with as many people as possible, and not just by reading. This is especially so when the leaders are new in an organisation and they need to know its history, corporate culture and how things work, often within a short  period of time.]

What is the missing clue to proceed to the next phase in the game?” [Gamers need to know where to go to in the game. Similarly, leaders need to know where to go from here to there, from A to B. To that, strategic decision is needed. While gamers might be moving around in a fixed environment confined within the imaginations of the game designers, leaders have room to maneuver (but still, it’s precisely this vastness of space that often proves daunting). Nevertheless, the gaming environment for RPGs prove to be a fertile ground to train leaders to make decisions based on the responses they get from the secondary and background game characters, in the same way that leaders gets insights and ideas from the people they seek advice from, and from the happenings around them. Inform them that most entrepreneurs are leaders and most entrepreneurial endeavours start with knowing where to start and which direction to head towards. ]

5.  Living the life of the hero/heroine: Deep within the human psyche, there is a strong desire to change things for the better, to make the world a better place to live in. However, not many of us are able to make such a drastic difference due to life circumstances, lack of courage or severe constraints. However, every one of us is able to defeat the bad guys in the game and save the day in role-playing games! This is one of the primary factors that have enticed and mesmerised gamers in almost every game genres. However, this is especially so for role-playing games, even though the story is often very lengthy and detailed while the goals of the game characters extremely noble. In the game, characters can get killed and start all over again (i.e., no risk and no trade-offs), the task to win the game is noble and achievable (which adheres to the human desire to be benevolent and kind), a closure and resolution is given at the conclusion and most importantly, any gamer can live as a legend. This is why role-playing games are often so enticing! Therefore, some great questions to ask when gamers complete the game:

1. “Having completed the game, are there any ways in which you feel that you can do better?” [Gamers would usually feel a great sense of satisfaction upon completing the game and this would be a great time to ask for an assessment of the efforts put in, as well as if there is any ways that lessons that can be drawn. Greater leaders often have debriefing sessions with their team members to see if any lessons can be drawn so that they all do better. And more importantly, they often engage in self-reflective sessions as well. While great decisions should be praised, mistakes should also be learnt so that they are not repeated. Inform gamers that there are always ways to do better and self-reflection practices should be exercised regularly in their journey towards fulfilling their life goals.]

2. “Are there any qualities in the main and secondary game characters that you admire?” [This is a great question to ask gamers upon the completion of the game as that will make them focus on the desirable and positive attributes of the characters that they can learn from.  Parents and educators can encourage gamers to put these positive attributes into practice in their daily lives and over time, they will develop a better aspect of their selves. Great leaders often exemplify positive qualities that almost promise results but what many people do not know is that most of these positive qualities that they exude are often not innate but learned! In the same way, great leaders have the ability to identify the talents and strengths of their various teammates and the initiative to utilise them, while working towards their shared goal, thereby enabling their teams to go from strength to strength.]

To conclude this blog post, I would like to emphasise on the point that while role-playing games is one of the game genres that provides an ideal platform for learning leadership and life, it is also a genre that gamers easily get addicted to, due to its lengthy game play and engaging storyline. Therefore, parents and educators should put in the effort to split the gaming sessions into various intervals and ensure that learning takes place through these facilitative gaming sessions. Only then will the lessons be truly effective.

 If you are interested in reading my subsequent blog posts on leadership, education and psychology, kindly provide your email address on the right frame of the main page of my blog (under “Email Subscription”) and my subsequent blog posts will be sent to you.

I hope that my blog post has been useful to you.

Till the next blog post!

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