Lessons Learned From Starcraft by Kevin McManus
First published in Industrial Engineer magazine January 2006
Do you play video or computer games in your spare time, or does the interactive challenge of Solitaire or Minesweeper satisfy your competitive on screen desires? Are you keeping up with technology, either at home or at work, or do you see tools like simulation software or personal data assistants more as nice to have or nuisance items? Can you see the possible benefits that a generation who grew up video games might be gaining in terms of mind speed and systems thinking, or are you more apt to view these toys as just that – games that keep the kids occupied in their idle time?
On one hand, we’re criticizing the negative influence that video and computer games are having on our children. On the other hand, we are seeing the significant impact that these ‘toys’ are having on auto racing for example. The successful NASCAR drivers continue to get younger, as their ability to obtain realistic off track training time has been greatly enhanced by the development of video game-based simulation tools. We are also seeing organizations in the health care, nuclear, and transportation arenas continue to improve their systems and reduce risk through the use of simulation tools that look a lot like video games to the casual observer. Could it be true? Are videos games and simulation tools that much different from each other? Could you actually be doing your homework while you play Halo 3?
I think these questions are worth considering. After all, I would bet that a significant percentage of the people in your workplace play video or computer games on a regular basis. Plus, I believe that there are significant benefits that can come from using certain digital toys on a consistent, planned, and managed basis. Personally, I have learned some important things about how systems work by playing games such as Roller Coaster Tycoon, Sim City, Red Alert, and Starcraft. Yeah, I know that I’m showing my old school roots by citing these particular examples, but playing these games has given me some new visual and logical models of how things work in the business world.
For example, in the game of Starcraft, you compete with other teams by evolving your home base and developing your team’s capability for success. Your ability to see what the other teams are doing is limited by your willingness to explore and remove the fog that currently blocks your view of your competition. You have to collect resources to achieve higher levels of functionality and competitiveness, and you have to continually mine and process these resources while also defending your base and at least provoking your enemies. At even the Beginner’s level, where there might be only one or two competitors developing their base as you are attempting to do the same, you learn to appreciate the fact that your systems will only give you what they are designed to give you, and that others will continue to change and improve, even if you are not aware of the changes and improvements they are making.
From my perspective, we don’t use simulation software enough in the business world to help us better understand the different systems we are trying to either improve or compete against. I don’t think this reluctance for one generation (the ones with the money) to embrace the potential of simulation is one of cost as much as it is one of ignorance – because most of our upper managers are Before Computers (BC) people, they struggle to appreciate how much lower in cost venturing into the world of simulation has become. In short, we are playing our daily business games in a perpetual fog while being all too hesitant to venture out into it and learn more about what our internal systems, let alone our competitors, are doing.
We are also hesitant to promote the use of something that we don’t really understand that well ourselves – to do so would be giving up some of the power that we think we have over the After Computers (AC) people. If we are failing to use all of the tools we can however to learn and improve in a technological age, how much power do we really have? If we BC people are struggling to master even the basics of Excel or PowerPoint, is it possible that there are other performance improvement tools out there that could really help us improve if we were only more aware and appreciative of them?
As human beings, we struggle to see and understand systems because we have become highly conditioned to respond more to events. We contribute to traffic flow problems by changing lanes when we shouldn’t. We wait for the heart attack before we change our eating habits. We wait until someone gets seriously hurt before we make a much needed work improvement. Playing games like Starcraft has helped me learn to see systems. These games helped me better understand how systems are continually producing results of one type or another whenever they are turned on, whether we can actually see the inner workings of those systems or not. Playing Starcraft has helped me gain a greater perspective on how resources must be managed and effectively allocated in order to keep a system in balance. Most importantly, this game and others have taught me that if I don’t do my best to use my resources wisely and continue to improve over time, my competition will end up destroying me.
I have never been fortunate enough to work for a company that was willing to invest money in business simulation tools. When I first entered the workplace, these tools were largely two dimensional (as opposed to three), slow to provide feedback, limited in the number of variables that could be in play, and very expensive. A lot has changed in twenty five years however. Today’s business simulation tools are becoming much more like the video and computer games we can buy for less than one hundred dollars. They may not actually be that low in cost yet, but they are capable of providing more vivid, real world pictures of our work worlds, considering a wide range of operational parameters, and giving us quick performance feedback. Unfortunately, while these tools can help those who know how to use them learn more about how to optimize the performance of a given system or set of systems, too many of us have yet to grasp the reality that our work systems are much more like living, breathing organisms than they are static, black and white snapshots that change only monthly when we get together to assess last month’s results.
Many of us still wait for the numbers to exceed the budgeted levels before we react. We don’t think we have a safety problem until our accident rates exceed those of the previous year or the industry average. Our daily behaviors seem to be grounded around the adage “No news is good news” at a time when we should be searching for more effective ways for understanding and improving the key processes each of us as leaders are responsible for. For those of us with old school roots however, it is hard enough to keep up with those technologies we can’t seem to avoid – why would we want to look for ways to bring more technology into our lives?
While I will easily admit that there are certain video games that don’t provide much, if any, social or educational benefit, I am also convinced that we are significantly missing out on opportunities to learn from these ‘toys’ if we simply choose to generally write them off as such. Instead of encouraging, if not forcing, the AC people we employ to work at our low tech level, we should be searching for ways to take advantage of the different ways of viewing the world and work that these people have. Because simulation tools have improved so much over recent years, they represent one key way that we can better utilize our younger human resources while also making our organizations more effective and capable of sustaining higher levels of performance.
What approaches do you use to increase your personal understanding of how different systems perform? How do you analyze your existing work systems in an effort to improve them? Could you gain a greater understanding of your work systems through the use of simple simulation tools? There are many systems out there producing a variety of results each day. Our inability to effectively see them in the fog however does not mean that their results aren’t currently, or may some day soon, be affecting us. Are there some lessons you could learn from playing Starcraft?
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“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates