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Making Work More Like EVE Online

IBM ponders how enterprises can be rewired to be more like games, particularly massively multiplayer online games like fantasy-themed World of Warcraft.

Thomas Claburn

June 29, 2007

5 Min Read

In Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining, writer Jack Torrance hammers home the need for recreation. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," he types and types and types, as if to underscore his need for some rest and relaxation.

This assumes that work is soul-crushing tedium and play is liberating pleasure. It's a generalization, no doubt, but one that reflects the mundane, rote nature of many workplace activities.

Recently, IBM and collaboration software maker Seriosity issued a study that ponders how enterprises can be rewired to be more like games, particularly massively multiplayer online games (MMOG) such as fantasy-themed World of Warcraft or sci-fi themed EVE Online.

The reason to even consider such a thing is that games are engaging, unlike, say, cold calling sales leads or corporate meetings.

Some even believe games are beneficial. A recent survey of IBM's internal gaming community, which includes more than 200 gamers, found that nearly half believe game playing is improving their leadership ability in the real world and that four in 10 say they've applied MMOG leadership techniques to be lead more effectively at work.

(For IBM, it's no doubt a relief to find that its game-related technology, which powers games like EVE Online, is making better managers out of the gamers employed by its corporate customers. The alternative, that IBM is distributing weapons of mass distraction to game companies and ruining worker productivity, wouldn't do much for sales.)

"One hundred million Americans played a computer or video game last week," the study points out. It notes that in games, the "hours fly by for people engaged in online interactions, stealing time from relationships, television, and work, and providing alternative environments to meet people, learn a skill, and even get paid. Could real work ever be as much fun?"

Despite the evident subtext that games are "stealing time" from supposedly more legitimate activities like staring glassy-eyed into the TV, the question is a fair one: Can work be play?

"It may need to be," the report suggests. "Young people entering the workforce may show greatest interest in experiences that allow serious interactions to parallel playful ones."

The study argues that games can teach lessons about organizational leadership and how to manage distributed workforces, even as it acknowledges that "we should be cautious about the applicability of games to serious work."

Jason Schripsema, CEO of SolarBOS and a player of EVE Online, is similarly circumspect in his assessment of the lessons that games can teach workers. "I don't know if there are a lot of direct takeaways," he said. "There's some stuff you can learn from the game. The biggest one would be maximizing the use of your time and your money." Schripsema observed that while EVE Online is "a game first and foremost," it can be instructive in terms of teaching the value of delegation and outsourcing. "For example, the market within Eve is pretty sophisticated," he said. "You can, instead of hauling materials and goods around the universe, you can actually create buy and sell orders. And you can actually get other people to move them around for you."

As Schripsema sees it, the main value of EVE Online to businesses is that the game can be used as a business simulator. "It would be a really good tool for business students," he said. "Because of the way the markets are set up, you can find huge differences in prices between goods in different regions of the Eve universe. ...You can make game money that way."

Yet in many online games, game money can be converted into real money, perhaps indicating that game worlds and the business world aren't that far apart after all.

While companies like IBM and Seriosity, not to mention individuals like Schripsema, may be cautious in drawing parallels between the business world and the gaming world, CCP, the maker of EVE Online, shows no sign of wanting to maintain the distinction between work and play.

That may be because CCP's business is games. But so, too, CCP's game is business: The Reykjavik, Iceland-based company just hired a real-life economics Ph.D. to oversee its virtual world.

Professor Eyjolfur Guomundsson left Iceland's University of Akureyri to join CCP. His job, he explained in an e-mail, will be to analyze the economy and markets within EVE Online and to produce quarterly reports detailing economic trends for the players. "I will also provide ongoing analysis of economic indicators, such as economic growth," he said. "This research will be designed to provide all players with equal access to high quality information necessary to make strategic decisions within the game."

For Guomundsson, EVE Online isn't so much a place to hone business skills in an entertaining environment as a game that benefits from business experience. "To manage a large corporation or an alliance within EVE Online, the player needs a certain amount of business skill and life experience," he said. "EVE Online's 'smart gaming' concept requires strategic thinking and planning, and offers an interesting alternative to those games that tailor more to a very casual gaming experience."

EVE Online players have the chance to manage in-game corporations with potentially thousands of members. They have to deal with "production, motivation, warfare, logistics and other often pressing strategic concepts," explained Guomundsson. "Time management and delegation skills are very important. Each corporation includes all levels of players from novice to expert. Like a company in the real world, the corporation needs a well-balanced hierarchy to function efficiently."

In short, managing a corporation in EVE Online can be a full-time job. The only question is: Does it pay to play?

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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