A few years ago, I played a popular iPhone game called Virtual Villagers created by Last Day of Work. After several hours of playing this game, my business-focused mind could not help but notice the strong lessons one could learn from this simple, yet addicting, game. This is an older post of mine but it is worth sharing.
The premise of this game is that you have a village where your villagers, naturally, live. In this village there are different secrets or puzzles to unlock and solving these puzzles is important to the advancement of your civilization. However, these puzzles cannot be solved unless your villagers are old enough and are trained and knowledgeable enough to complete them. This means that they must be old enough to train, have the right skill set and be at the right skill level.
Puzzles might require skill sets such as researching, building or leading and your villagers’ expertise and skill level in these areas depends on how much effort and time you put into “training” each one in each area. The more you train, the greater their expertise and the better their skill level, or “title” (adept vs. master builder, adept vs. master researcher, etc.).
Another component of this game is that the more you train your villagers, the more “tech points” you earn until you reach the “master” level. Once a villager becomes a “master” in an area, they can no longer earn tech points for that area.
Here are the clear business lessons I learned from playing this game:
1) Teaches you the benefit of new employees. As mentioned above, in Virtual Villagers you attain something called “tech points” by improving in different skills like “research”. When a villager becomes a master in any skill, let us say a master researcher (and their progress bar for that skill is completely filled), the player cannot improve in that skill any longer. They have attained the highest expertise level for that field. In the game, if the villager can’t improve, the villager can’t earn you tech points.
We can think of tech points as money in the real world. So taking this analogy, no skill improvement means you cannot earn any more tech points, since tech points is money, no tech points means no money. Without money there is no room for growth for the company. The company is stagnant.
This is where new employees bring benefit. At first glance a new hire can seem like a waste of a company’s time. When you have all these other employees/villagers that can do the job, why would you want to spend time training someone and having them make mistakes? In Villager land, it is because there is no room for improvement with the master researchers. Sure, they are useful in areas where you need people with experience, but they do not draw in any additional revenue for you.
Similarly, in the real world, experienced employees do have their place, and a very important place at that. But when someone has been with the same company for years and has been doing the same thing day in and day out, they do not have a fresh perspective and there is a plateau to the number of ideas. And in the real world, ideas often mean money.
Individuals who have been in the same role or at the same company their entire careers do have very valuable experience, but they have not been exposed to as many varied experiences that could really help them launch new ideas. They have not seen how other companies do the same work and so they are not aware of other, possibly better, ways of producing results. If they have not worked in different fields they may not be aware of different ways of thinking about the same things.
Marketers and engineers can view the same product in two completely different ways. The marketing department is more aware of customers’ actual needs and so they see the product from that perspective. On the other hand, engineers are much more aware of the limitations as well as new opportunities that technology can bring and as such, they see it from that perspective. Think about what value someone who has worked in both areas and mindsets can bring to the table!
2) Benefit of the little people. In virtual villagers, the small people are the kids who can’t really contribute to the big work like building structures, doing research, clearing leaves, clearing rubble, or fixing a bath. But, they do have their place as well. Little by little they attain tech points, money, by picking up turtle shells and starfish and coral. And little by little, they accumulate mushrooms for food – often when the resources are dwindling and there is a high chance your villagers will die of starvation.
In the real world, the “little people” are those at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy. They can be the admin, sometimes even the janitors. They may even be non-staff employees. Whoever the little people are, they contribute in their small ways as well. For example, without the admin, where would companies be? They would be disorganized messes. Disorganized messes do not normally make money.
Even if a company is working on some crazy big idea, like a villager gaining tech points through research or solving a puzzle by clearing rubble, it does not do much good if they are near starvation and there is no food left. But that one mushroom, or that one money-saving idea that “lower-level” associate had, can make the difference between having just enough to get by till more food comes in, or saving enough money to counteract any unforeseen costs every crazy big idea has.
Even that new hire that seems to be wasting company resources because they can only do low-level menial work is actually contributing to the big picture. By taking over smaller tasks that used to encroach on, let us say, a manager’s time, the manager can now focus on bigger tasks, making the manager’s value to the company greater as well.
3) Benefit of wanting to keep your employees. In business school, they tell you that the loss of an employee to a company in monetary terms is double that employee’s salary – if not more. Often much, much more. That did not have much impact on me until I turned the game back on after 8 hours of sleep only to find my villagers dead – some of them village elders that could have helped me solve a puzzle. And now I have to make a new baby, or train a youngster when they finally hit working age and wait for them to attain the same skill levels as my now deceased villagers. What a bummer.
Think about the same situation in the real world. An employer spends all this time and money training an employee and turning them into stars, like my elders were. Sure, in the game you get the benefit of earning tech points or money from your villagers while they are training and learning. But that does not make you feel any less bummed because you now have to start from scratch.
In the real world it is an even bigger bummer. You have to take the time to find candidates, interview them, hire them, train them, and wait for them to get enough experience. Then you can have them do bigger things your other employees would have done, but that you have had to put on hold while you were training the newbies. And all this time, you are paying your trainees.
Even if you are hiring experienced individuals for higher-level positions, these individuals still need to be vetted even more than someone who might come in lower on the totem pole. Not to mention that you will likely be paying the individual even more money than you were paying the person he/she is replacing. Why? Because you need to provide enough incentive to get your new individual to want to switch jobs and start somewhere brand new. Once you have them on board and working at your company, even though they are experienced, they still need to learn the ins and outs of your company’s business and culture which is not as quick and easy as it sounds.
4) Benefit of cross training. In virtual villagers, sometimes you know you can solve multiple puzzles at the same time. You can make significant breakthroughs. Each puzzle calls for something different; an adept builder, a master builder, the chief, master researcher, etc. But if you have villagers who each only know how to do one skill, you first of all will not benefit much because once your villagers become masters at a skill, there really isn’t any room for improvement (see lesson 1).
Secondly, when you could really use one person to help you solve one puzzle (ex: one that requires building) and you could use someone else to work on a completely different puzzle (ex: one that requires research), but both villagers have only been trained in the same skill (ex: building), you are a bit stuck. You need one person to complete a building puzzle and one to complete a research puzzle, but you have two people who can only solve a building puzzle.
Even if you have two villagers who have two separate skills (ex: one builder and one researcher), but those are the only skills they have, you can run into issues. If you need more than one adept or master to work on the same puzzle (ex: two builders) but you have one builder and one researcher, you now have to wait to train the researcher to become an adept or master builder. Training takes a lot of time while your puzzle, a chance to significantly advance your civilization, is sitting on the bench.
Had you cross trained everyone previously, you could easily move people around to fulfill the tasks you need completed and there would be no need to juggle one task over another one, or choose one puzzle over another puzzle.
In the working world, it is the same thing. There are multiple projects going on at all times. An even better example is when there are multiple mini projects that fall under one overall project, and the overall can only be completed once all the mini projects have been completed. If each of these mini projects run in parallel as opposed to one after another, would it be easier to have set people working on set things? It does seem like it at first. You could have your analysts working on crunching numbers piece, you could have your process information gatherers/documenters talking to clients and documenting processes, etc. all at the same time.
But what if someone gets sick during a crucial time on that mini project? Would you 1) sit and wait for the person to get better even though your deadline is fast approaching? Or 2) would it have been easier if you had utility players who could move back and forth across mini projects whenever you hit kinks in your project plan?
If one of your process-workers got sick and could not talk to a crucial client who had information, without which the overall project timeline would be significantly impacted, it would be highly advantageous to have one of your number-crunching analysts be comfortable picking up and interviewing and creating process flows. If you do not need to sacrifice cross-functionality for expertise, the second option is definitely better.
What other unlikely games have taught you lessons you could translate into the business world?