Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Sunday Sermon: Are our gaming skills transferable?

A thoroughly depressing and demoralising experience if ever there was one!

I've often wandered whether my wargaming, and indeed boardgaming skills were in anyway transferable into the real world. No I don't mean could I take my love of toy soldiers and open a shop or write my own game. That's not what I mean. No I mean has my obsessive love of toy soldiers and stuff taught me things, skills if you will that can help me in the workplace? It seemed unlikely at first glance when I first asked myself this question years ago when I left university. I was trying to work out what I should put down in my CV, you besides saying I like reading books, sleeping and going on holiday. Do I mention I love comic books, toy soldiers and one day think the zombie apocalypse will happen? I went with no at first. Simply put, I know I'm a nerd and I wasn't sure how it would go over with prospective employers. I'm still not.

I watch it for the deep political and social commentary... honest I do!!!

However, I am far more comfortable telling people that yes I am a nerd. I do think Battlestar Galactica is awesome, yes I read comics and like a man in spandex, and I also play with toy soldiers. In the past I've actually had some interesting and positive responses to some of my more geeky admissions. I once had a really long chat on the phone with someone about a job and I made quite a geeky reference to Firefly, I can't quite remember what it was now... but the chap at the other end of the phone got it instantly and we had a good geek out. He made sure I had an interview, but sadly wasn't on the panel, so I didn't get the position. In my first job after university I had a line manager glance at me with a resigned look on his face and tell me "in the grim darkness of the council there was only bureaucracy". The fact that I instantly got the reference and we had a good laugh about it led to us both knowing we were wargames geeks. 

How to spot a fellow nerd at work.
Turns out in my line of work  there are more of us than you'd normally expect in a representative sample of the population. Over the years I have earned many of my work colleagues are nerds, I'm not just talking about catching a glimpse of the latest Sandman comic in my colleagues man-bags either, nope, I'm talking for of wargames geek. People coming up to me and asking is that  Battlefoam bag under my desk and are they any good. That sort of thing. I don't know what it is about public policy, strategy and research work that attracts nerds in the way that it does, but for me it's the fact that much of it at times feels strangely like participating in one giant big wargame, trust me it really does. You have to formulate strategies, understand systems, measure the risk and reward, and above all else have a great grasp of probability and statistics. All skills I started to develop as a young child playing boardgames and wargames. Not that I life of wargaming set me up as a researcher you understand, being an inquisitive bugger sent me down that path. But there are clearly valuable skill-sets that a good wargamer needs, that might actually help one perform better in the cruel harsh glare of the workplace. So what are they?

Number one has to be risk management. I've said it time and time again that the best wargamers aren't those who necessarily write the best lists, or can guess ranges down to the nanometer, no it's usually those who can understand the risk and reward mechanics at the heart of any gaming system. It those amongst our number who can work out the probability of multiple things happening and the potential loss to reward ration of each and every possibility quickly that more often than not come out on top in their tussles. As a wee nipper I was a definite risk taker, I'd throw things forward with a scant regard for the consequences all in the name of glory... and normally gruesome death and crushing defeat. But, I learned. I got better at knowing when to take risks and when to play it safe, but conversely I also got damn good at assessing the risks in my opponents battle-lines to my own plans, and eliminating  them mercilessly. This ability to understand the environment rapidly and to asses things quickly and to formulate multiple responses on the basis of what my opponent might do next has genuinely led me to be better at predicting the real world environment and preparing for all possibilities. I still like to take the odd gamble, but I do so now as educated guesses as opposed to blind leaps of faith.

Now tell me this isn't what we do every time we play a wargame!

Being able to understand the risk and reward at the core of policy and strategy work is important, especially when you are dealing with public resources. Companies can take punts and have risks, that's what capitalists do. But a public sector worker needs to know that if you are going to try a new intervention, if you are going to mix things up that you have a damn good idea as the why you are doing it and what the potential economic or service delivery benefits are likely to be, because if you spend public money badly heads will roll and political careers can be ended. This is where meticulous planning and research comes in. I know an awful lot of colleagues I've had down the years have been borderline OCD, I know I am. This meticulous research started in me in wargaming. I kid you not. I wanted to learn everything I could about every army, for this I needed research methods and ways of conducting experiments to formulate optimum strategies... yeah I'm talking mathhammer. I really am one of those people, the guys that sit there working out every synergy there could be, not just for my faction but yours as well... and probably every other faction too. It has led to what I think is a quite healthy attitude in the workplace, and that is I want to know as much information as I can before making a decision.

The applications of statistics and the understanding I have of probability helps me in this greatly. I first developed my love of statistics and probability from scouring pages of rulebooks and comparing and contrasting profiles. I was one of those people who instantly realised that although there is always an element of luck in wargames, normally provided by dice, that part of winning at games involved the careful application of maths, and in particular statistics and probability, to stack things in your favour. I guess this point links in with the whole risk reward point I made earlier on, you can't really understand the risks of a wargame, and indeed the following rewards, if you don't have a good grasp of probability and statistics. I often hear people saying that wargames teach kids math skills, and they're right, they most certainly do. Unfortunately people seem to focus in on the simple arithmetic of compiling army lists, but lets be blunt, if you can't add up by the time you start playing wargames you're probably way behind the developmental curve any way. No its the understand of probability and statistics in a real and demonstrable way that is the important skill wargames teaches us. It also lead to a fascination with inferential statistics for me, although granted not everyone is as sad a geek as I am!!!

Ok, so I've mentioned list building, and actually I had a conversation with a former colleague a few months back where they expressed a concern that they were starting to view their team building activities with the same sort of meticulous planning they viewed building their army lists. We had a good chuckle about it, but I actually don't think that it is a bad thing. He was saying he was assessing his colleagues strengths, skills and weaknesses and working out where his team needed to be changed. What skills needed to be learned and by whom, and what tasks needed to be given to which staff. He started to look at his budget and decide where he could trim costs to increase resources to the things he felt his team needed to address. He was for want of a better phrase, building an army list and applying the exact resource management skills we as wargamers learn oh so keenly as we hone our toy soldier fighting machines. Yeah we probably don't think of it as pure resource management, and I guess it isn't, but it is damn close and it gives you an appreciation for working within budgets and maximizing what you have. All thing prospective employers will want to see in employees.

Then there are the soft skills that playing wargames tends to teach us as individuals. Or maybe having met some of the more socially awkward amongst our number, should have taught us. I was told by my grandmother that I was a gregarious child, true I really enjoyed the company of others and was never really afraid to make friends. I'm sure some people found my outgoing ways sodding annoying at times, but whereas being part of wargaming communities taught me to reign myself in, I know wargaming has also taught many of my friend the skills, and indeed instill the confidence in them to come more and more out of their shells. Many of us when we start down the path of playing wargames are shy and introverted individuals, which is a problem, because playing wargames is a sociable hobby. Not for everyone granted, but the majority of us do at least play wargames partly for the social aspect of the hobby. We learn appropriate behaviour in highly competitive environments. We learn to trust our opponents not to cheat, we learn to effectively communicate with people. We learn the importance of being a nice person and also sometimes standing up to dickheads.

Part of this comes from learning to read people and body language. We can often tell the emotional state of our opponents when playing wargames simply by glancing across the table at them. For me the face that looks back at me normally has despair and dejection written all over it... that's because I'm awesome. But learning to read others is an important skill in the workplace. As a manager being able to spot frosty relations between team members, or the tell tale signs of stress have been invaluable to me. Also learning to control my own body language and tailor how I present myself to other is something that without wargaming I don't think I'd be half as good at. Certainly working in the real world has taught me so much more, but wargaming has undoubtedly given me a leg up in this respect. I have been told on many occasions that I am a highly effective communicator who has a great ability to articulate my message in an audience appropriate way, this has undoubtedly come from playing gamers of varying skill. Genuinely. When playing a top gamer I'll communicate very differently to when I'm running an intro game for somebody who is new to the hobby. What is that if not adapting my message to suit my audience?

I'm not so sure this is healthy competition, but kudos for giving it a go lad!

The final thing though that I think wargaming teaches us, that will stand us well in the workplace is a healthy sense of competition, while being cooperative at the same time. When we play our games, none of us rock up to the table planning to lose. No, we want to win, but we also want to have a good time and have fun with our opponents. Wargaming might be competitive, but without the opponent over the other side of the table we wouldn't even have a game, so it is strangely a co-operative team sport as well. We both have to live up to certain ideals, be that painting armies, playing hard but fair, and respecting the other persons opinion. A good wargamer is quite frankly a good team player, because they should have a healthy sense of competition and drive, while understanding that without the support of those around them they'll achieve bugger all! It also teaches us to be gracious in defeat and magnanimous in victory, you win some and you lose some. You learn from both and try harder next time, wargaming prepares your for the fact that in life not everything always goes your way, sure it'd be nice if it did, but we can't all win all of the time.

So would I now include that I play wargames on my CV and application forms? I have done in the past, but I don't always, because I don't think everyone has a good understanding of what our hobby actually entails, and what it teaches us. But I do now have a greater sense of what it is wargaming has given me as a person, and how these skills have helped me in the workplace, and hopefully will help me in the workplace again, hopefully sometime soon. So next time you start thinking about what your hobby has done for you, remember you have learned skills other than drybrushing and pinning from playing wargames. It has probably most certainly given you skills that you'll be able to apply to many other things in your life, not least your professional careers. So perhaps we shouldn't be so nervous about letting people know we're wargamers, perhaps we should just get a bit better at explaining the skills we've all learned from a hobby. Now, if anyone has a job they'd like to offer me you can consider this a list of only a small fraction of my skills. Peace out!

PS. You may have noticed a slight change to my Blogs theme today, hopefully over the coming Halloween week the reason for the change in decor will become apparent!


  1. An interesting view on things. Good stuff!

    In theory, I think you can learn important skills from just about anywhere. Especially the soft skills you learn from social hobbies as these are more difficult to teach in the standard classroom. But also fine motor skills and improved reaction time you can get from video games. I say in theory because it can depend on the individual itself to 'see' the link between his hobby and his job (like your ex-colleague with the team building). But this same problem can occur with expensive trainings.

    But as you say, I wouldn't include it on every CV. Only when you have a link with the job at hand. Especially if you live in a country where there can be a bit of a stigma around the hobby.

    1. Of course you are right, any hobby can teach you skills, it's just that many of the skills that make wargamers good, are actually specifically transferable to the workplace. I really do genuinely believe that. Would I let everyone know I was a wargamer at interview? Probably not, but I've had no problem when in work letting people know.

  2. I've learned some valuable things from wargaming, the biggest of which is patience. Our society offers a lot of instant gratification and tends to downplay the value of practice. When I was ten and wanted a WHFB army I had to spend massive amounts of time painting and waiting for the paint to dry. There were some important lessons about delayed gratification that did help me out later in life.

    On the other hand, I think a lot of the 'skills' of the wargamer that I can apply professionally are less things I learned wargaming then they are the same personality trait manifesting in different ways. I'm I obsessive and mildly ODC? Certainly. Am I obsessive and ODC about toy soldiers? Yes. Does being obsessive and ODC make me a good accountant? For sure. Maybe wargaming helps teach people how to channel their obsessiveness, but for the most part I think it simply attracts meticulous people.

    Wargaming has helped me in my life. Therapeutically if nothing else. I doubt I'd ever put it on a resume, not enough people know about it and I have enough trouble keeping my resume down to one page without listing what I get up to off duty.

    1. I agree that part of the discussion about whether those who are attracted to certain activities are also likely to have skills that make them suitable for certain roles very well. However, hobbies like wargaming allow us all to practice and perfect certain skills. I just thought it'd be interesting to see what others thought, and whether they'd noticed things in there hobby that have also helped them in the workplace.

  3. As I may have indicated in the past, I think there's an incredible overlap between teaching and gaming. I'd go so far as to say that I learned at least as much about teaching from running RPGs for all these years as I ever did from formal teacher training...

    After all, with one of the things I do, you're encouraging people to participate in an activity that requires a lot of soft skills, quick thinking and on-the-spot calculation, more than a little forward planning, and interaction with complex texts and processes. It has a high buy-in, and people are leery of being embarrassed by 'doing it wrong'. They often need to be patiently walked through things several times, and gently encouraged to just do something and see if it works, by someone with the patience of a saint and boundless capacity to improvise...

    ... and the other one's roleplaying.

    1. Ah, I had actually read those series of 'gaming curriculum' articles. I actually quite enjoyed them. They're well worth a read by the way if you lot haven't read them.

      As for linkages between teaching, the other half is now lecturing at one of the local universities, and I find it quite interesting that some of the things she's most nervous about, are the exact thing that as you put it GMs have to be good at. Again there's a chicken an the egg thing going on, but many of the GMs I know are highly effective communicators and a couple of them actually work in marketing and advertising and are damn good at it.

      As always thanks for stopping by! :)

  4. Roleplaying and wargaming actually helped me get my current job as an Online Content Editor. Back in the 90's I had a couple of gaming-related Geocities sites, which I used as a way to teach myself the basics of HTML. When I applied for the job I was asked to provide writing examples, so I handed over a couple of short freelance writing projects. A week later, I had the job.