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Millennials: What Video Games Teach Us About the New Workforce

One of the perks of my job is that I am expected to research and understand the latest trends and issues impacting the business world. By keeping a finger on the pulse, we are able to offer training that helps people stay cutting edge. It means I get to meet and work with some really interesting thought leaders. One of the areas we are exploring right now is the impact that the Millennial Generation (also known as Gen Y) will have on the workforce.
It has been fascinating researching this topic as it specifically applies to me as a member of the Millennial Generation. It’s a topic I have become passionate about, as it has really forced to do some self-reflection.

The Reset Generation: What Video Games Teach Us About the Next Gen WorkforceMeet Alexander Macris, co-founder, president & CEO of The Themis Group and his presentation, “The Reset Generation: What Video Games Teach Us About the Next Gen Workforce.” I have embedded a video of his presentation at the NC State Fidelity Investments “Leadership in Technology” Executive Speakers Series, as well as posted his slides from the event (see the bottom of this post).  I’m really excited to have an upcoming meeting at the Themis Group’s office with Alexander to talk more with him about the topic.

In his presentation, Alexander brings up the fact that 99% of males and 94% of females in the Millennial Generation play video games. Because of this high figure, he believes video games are a great metaphor to understand the generation as a whole. Here is my feeble attempt at quickly summarizing his presentation. He believes:

What Video Games Have Taught Gen Y:

  1. You Are the Hero: In books, you empathize with the main character/protagonist and are as he puts it “along for the ride.” With video games you are the hero. You are the main character.
  2. Your Avatar is Customizable: Video games have taught us that there is extra value in customizing your character. In life, this translates to how we dress and the fact that Millennials prefer to stand out or look unique and rebel from strict corporate dress codes. This means as managers, flexible dress codes can be seen as an added value or benefit used to attract Millennial employees.
  3. Difficulty Can Be Adjusted: Many video games allow you to choose what level of difficulty to face. Some of this same expectation can translate to issues with facing difficulty in the real world or the office, but I have my opinions about this that I will present later.
  4. Feedback is Constant: In video games you get constant updates about your score, how much time is left, etc. You always receive feedback about how you are performing. For managers, this translates into an increased importance for Millennial employees in regards to performance reviews. Annual reviews will not suffice for much of this new workforce. To retain good talent companies will have to adjust accordingly.
  5. Everything is an Achievement: Video games offer seemingly endless goals in the form of levels, power ups and bonus points as players complete various stages of the game. This has made them very goal- and achievement-oriented. In regards to the office, these employees will desire a similar work environment (think weekly recognition and company awards/challenges).
  6. There is No Failure…Only Reset: If you make a mistake while playing, you can simply hit reset or start over. There is little accountability or consequence to your action. This he aligns to the Millennial Generation’s high percentage of employee turnover. Some studies show the average employee working an average of only 18 months at their prospective jobs before bouncing to their next employer. Again, I have my own opinion which I’ll present now.

Surprise. Surprise. JT disagrees.

Video Games Taught Us: Problem Solving 

Now, I’m not a gamer. Never really have been, but I have a completely different stance in regards to the impact of video games on the Millennial Generation. The gamers I know are actually some of the most critically analytical people I know. I think video games actually had huge influence on our generation’s problem solving ability. Think about it…

Video games essentially put everyone on a common playing field. The character always has the same capabilities, the buttons always do the same thing and the game you buy is no different than the game I buy. What makes the individual better at the game is the practice and time they have put in at trying to solve the problem (or level) of that game. We may take completely different approaches, but we both saw the problem and figured out a way around it. One person’s way may be more efficient or better, and I think video games actually gave us (as a member of the Millennial Generation I will use this pronoun throughout much of this post) a way to benchmark how good we were at solving the problem. How many points did you get versus how many I got? Did it take me two lives and you just one?

Video Games Taught Us: Risk vs. Return

I think they also affected us on a standpoint of balancing risk and reward. Is it worth me taking the time to get those extra points or extra life, or is it just going to cost me more in the long run?

I think sports have had, and continue to have, a similar impact on all generations. They force you to look at problems and find a solution, as well as judge risk and reward. The extra value in team sports is that it actually forces you to look at the strengths and weaknesses of those around you to find the best possible solution. They teach you to play up strengths of the collective while mitigating the weaknesses.

That being said, I actually love the fact that online gaming can give these same life lessons. Where sports actually loses out is in the commitment and negativity that often come with it. Very few parents sit and watch and critique their kids as they play video games. Instead they leave them there to figure it out on their own. On the flip side, sports are often shoved on kids and it becomes hard for many parents to accept that their kid may not the best. That parenting fault of previous generations probably has more to do with the ego and entitlement issues that many associate with the Millennial Generation. I think video games actually offer a lot of the same values as sports, while avoiding some of the unnecessary stress, pressure and self-esteem issues associated with sports. Video games provide a safe environment where you can learn some of these life lessons (critical thinking, problem solving, risk vs. return) through trial and error.

Video Games Taught Us: Persistence

My biggest disagreement though comes from the interpretation of the Reset Generation piece. I love the analogy, but actually think it points to a completely different characteristic of the generation. Saying that hitting reset made us quitters is completely in accurate. We didn’t hit the power button. We hit reset. We didn’t give up. We didn’t change games. Instead we started over from scratch and tried again. And again. And again.

I think the lesson to take away from that is actually that video games may have had an impact on the perfectionist attitude that a lot of us have. We hit reset because we weren’t happy with making a mistake. We wanted a perfect score. We kept trying until we got it exactly right…better than what anyone wanted us or expected us to do. It was the challenge of beating the computer instead of being scared of it like previous generations.  We didn’t switch games, like the characteristic of changing jobs might imply. We started from the last point and tried again until we got something we were happy with.

Game designers have realized this. Look at Angry Birds for instance. Why do you think they have the Bronze, Silver and Gold awards at each level. It’s because they know that there is an innate human instinct that we have to get the best score. You don’t just go on to the next level. You keep playing and trying new things until you get that damn tower to fall with just one bird. We can all relate to that feeling of accomplishment of seeing that level full of all gold stars, even though we’d already successfully beat the whole level. It didn’t mean anything until all those gold stars.

Two other lessons I think we got from video games:

  1. Nothing is Permanent. If we really want, we can hack into things and make them what we want. Look at the changes to IT. My generation doesn’t want to be locked down or be told we can’t do something on ‘our’ computer. We will find a way around it. We will jailbreak our iPhones. We will use our smartphones to access social media if you restrict the internet access to our computer. We are far more tech savvy then previous generations. We will find a way.
  2. There is a Solution. Every game has an end, and no matter how long you make me play to reach it, it is possible. I know a lot of people, myself included, that can’t stand to start a game without finishing it. It kills us to not know what’s at the end. It kills us not to be the best or finish something. I know far more of my friends pulled more all-nighters playing video games than they did for studying. It was being the first one to do something or knowing something that somebody else didn’t. It was bragging rights. It was accomplishing something.

So while many people struggle with the evolving workplace and how the Millennial Generation will impact it, managers should not fear the impending (and unavoidable) change. Change is not bad. It means we are moving forward. Accept it. Embrace it. I think Alexander has some really interesting thoughts, and his idea of using video games as a metaphor for understanding the Millennial Generation can help managers and companies with these new members of the workforce.

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