Friday, July 9, 2010

WoW as a model for 21st century work

Ok, I know this sounds over the top geeky, but hear me out. WoW (World of Warcraft) may actually provide a valuable model for how to run a post scarcity economy. After having watched and LOVED Jane McGonigal's TED talk, I realized how much those of us in the new economics world have to learn from WoW. I have never actually played WoW (no interest in goblins, ogres, or wizards), but I have talked to many who have and have learned quite a bit about how the WoW "workplace" is constructed. Here are some important parallels to the new economy.

Much like the real economy, WoW provides a series of tasks that can only be accomplished with a team. The difference is that there is no "employer." Teams spontaneously self assemble with the skill sets needed to accomplish the task. In the real world, we call these skills "core competencies," but in WoW each player has a special set of skills appropriate to their player class (healers heal people, wizards cast spells, etc).

The interesting part is that each mission requires a slightly different configuration of skills. One mission may favor fighters, and another may favor healers, and so on. This is quite similar to real life as different tasks in the real world require different sets of core competencies on the team. However, in WoW rather than being assigned tasks by a boss, teams self assemble based on prior experience, reputation, and a set of transparent metrics (currencies) about each player. WoW allows players to "level up," meaning that they get better, faster, stronger the more they play. More difficult missions require teams comprised of players at a higher level. What level you are on is transparent to those around you, so others know whether or not you would be an appropriate member of a given team. This transparency is what allows teams to self-assemble. It also allows for new comers to feel welcomed into the fold since people at lower levels can seek each other out for missions.

Also, in WoW there is NEVER a shortage of tasks to accomplish. This is of course true in the real world as well, but we have tricked ourselves into thinking there is a shortage of work (due to the chronic shortage of federal money). WoW does not have this limitation so there is always something VERY IMPORTANT to do with a team.

Even more importantly, in WoW the primary motivation for players is to "level their characters." The higher a level you attain, the more likely it is you will be asked to join a team for a really interesting mission. This is important because WoW is NOT about climbing a corporate ladder. It is about improving one's skills so as to get the most out of the experience. Think for a moment how radically awesome that is. Is this not exactly the kind of intrinsic motivation that spurs people to their highest potential in the real world?

To recap, in WoW, you don't need an employer because there is always work to be done, people can always connect with the right people to do the work, and the real motivation is in developing one's own skill set. And if you think this is too pie-in-the-sky to work outside the context of a video game, just remember how many young people are playing games like this for hours on end. They are in the midst of learning the skills for the new economy. Go future!

What platforms do you know about (and want to share) that are about taking this logic into the real world? How can we start building buildings this way? How can we start doing industry this way? I want to hear your thoughts.


  1. Great post.
    Besides the flowplace ( ) i do not know any.
    Anyhow here is a very good paper "Virtual Institution" from Levent Orman (Cornell university) that underlines this need for a new model...


  2. Hum... you should definitely try WoW out as many mechanics you describe are not exactly correct. I am currently researching parallels of behaviour between virtual and real worlds/communities and having joined WoW for research I must say you really should play it yourself if you want to use analogies with it as a basis.

    It is not such a pure model as you make it be... for instance what reall drives players is loot, meaning the collection of better weapons, armours, etc.

    Also there is always new stuff to do because Blizzard (the game company) constantly adds new content and to some extent they are the ones who choose which missions to code into the game, so they can be thought of as the Boss.

    Much of the content takes place at the max level and more often than not other players are scorned. Also if you do not have the precise skill set that is universally deemed "perfect" for your build then you get a lot of discrimination.

    I could go on and on about stuff that is not coded ideally for what you are trying to say. Your points are important and we should always aspire to those utopias, but you come from some inaccurate assumptions which is quite common when basing theories in hear-say instead of self-tested facts.

  3. It seems that the WoW example sketches a promising direction but perhaps stops short of engaging an even larger feedback loop of meaning. As humans, it seems we achieve our highest pinnacles of achievement when we are working together and learning together while engaged in a mission or quest of higher meaning and service often based on an ideal. The personal leveling up isn’t the goal itself but rather a result of the powerful focus on contributing to the meaningful ideal encompassed by the mission or quest. The open source software concept seems to illustrate this with the contribution to the open source community through well-written code resulting in a meritorious feedback loop from the community/peers and a leveling up of one’s reputation. The focus on the higher meaning of contributing something worthy to the community seems to be key. Perhaps a form of service-learning, offering team participation based on passion/gifts/Calling, lubricated by alternative currency - gets us close to the ideal for 21st century work.

    There is a powerful side benefit, seen often in holistic service-learning engagements, that goes beyond the personal learning that occurs - namely new relationships are formed and existing relationships are deepened. Needs of participants are discovered organically and addressed organically without ever having been the focus of the engagement through these heightened relationships. This organic relationship building process can be observed to be a powerful transitional means for moving us from an untrusted state of relationship requiring transactions/exchanges in national currency as a proxy for relationship, to a gift economy based on intimate trusted relationships. It’s a vehicle for re-weaving and re-grounding community. We level up in the process.

  4. I'd like to chat/convo more with Ix. I'd love to get his opinions and ideas on the social drivers and interactions of WoW players.

    One social pressure of interest to me is the "fit matching" and selection for inclusion in mission groups. Ix mentions discrimination against characters that aren't built well; does this have to do with built-in limits of the game, the facility of players (what is the age range?) to flexibly apply skills in coordinated action, or simply the drive to maximize chances of success and keep the mission as short and efficient as possible?

    More importantly, are players choosing to simply skip the mission if they don't get the "perfect skill set" on the team and from each member? Or are they choosing to risk the mission and try it with a "good enough" set of members?

    Is "discrimination" a way of saying that players with excellent skill mixes and highly developed characters are always in high demand? Are they always preferred to lesser development and skilled characters? And how would that be inappropriate? (Don't get me wrong; I can imagine that lower-level characters can really feel discriminated against, left out, beat-up and bullied in WoW... but is that really a reflection on how in-game teams are coordinating to get things done?)

    Certainly Blizzard has a huge influence over these kinds of decisions... how long missions take, how complex they are, how much loot and level-up opportunity is in the mission, are one-shot specific skills required for success (only one way to beat some aspect required to complete the mission), etc., and thus Blizzard influences what sets of decision skills and decision-patterns will be practiced into the players.

    What fascinates me, though, is the completely different models of leadership and group organization that are now "normal" and are showing up all over the place, from online games (likw WoW) to presidential elections to Open Source development to the operations of non-profit companies... and how very different they are from the 20th-century standard hierarchical command-and-control structure of leadership and group management. The ability for millions of people to practice these new kinds of networked-group-action rapidly and repeatedly with varying groups of people from all over the world is an incredible learning and development advancement. It is something we never had before, and I believe the effects on society will be profound.

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  6. I am sure WoW is full of all kinds of community dysfunction of various types. And yes, Blizzard is in a fairly authoritarian type role. One of the follow-up inquiries I have been in is how we might construct a social game like this without the authority who decides what is a valid mission, and how valuable that mission is. I suspect there are many innovative possibilities.

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