What Video Games Can Teach You About Running A Successful Start-Up

Want to craft a lean, efficient business? What you do in your downtime can help with the skills you need

Are videogames the guiltiest pleasure? It’s easy enough to rationalise away your Twitter habit ‘I’m staying connected’, film addiction ‘I’m keeping culturally informed,’ and Facebook dependency ‘hey, family is important,’ but gaming can feel like a waste of time. Sure, a quick thrash on GTA V works fine for stress relief, and there’s some evidence that games can improve hand-eye coordination or stave off mental decline, but are you really getting anything beyond the basic physical benefits that exercise does better? And, if you’re investing hours a day in your gaming habit, can you get anything back?



Well, yes: if you play it smart. Modern gaming requires a basket of skills, from resource management to calculated risk-taking, that are vital in the fast-paced, always-on world of the start-up. And, with self-employment skyrocketing, and the gig economy gathering pace, there’s never been a better time to upgrade your skillset. Choose your games wisely, and you’ll build start-up skills from the moment you press ‘Play’. Here’s what you can learn:


Chunk Big Goals Into Small Ones (Like Mario)

Start with a big, vague goal – whether that’s finding clients for a new business, rescuing Princess Daisy from Bowser’s clutches or freeing Far Cry 4’s Kyrat island from the clutches of dictator Pagan Min – and you’ll dither, unless you can split the problem into chunks. ‘To some extent, games do this for you, by giving you lots of small goals that make up a larger one,’ productivity expert Lee Garrett told RISING.


‘But in real life, breaking big goals into the smallest possible tasks will allow for small dopamine hits whenever an action is completed, which is far better than waiting for that big hit you get when completing a whole project. Dopamine has a greater impact on productivity than people realise – it actually motivates us to take action towards goals, needs and desires, by giving us a surge of pleasure. Self doubt and procrastination can be linked with low levels of dopamine.’


It’s also important to ensure that you have your next goals clearly defined before you complete the current ones – another thing games do well, by giving you several different mini-objectives to consider at once. ‘Having a clear list of mini-tasks means that the dopamine hits you receive can continue to cycle and build up,’ says Garrett. ‘This helps to prevent getting a dopamine hangover, and keeps you on track.’ Remember: one Koopa alone doesn’t seem like much, but they all get you closer to the castle.


‘Cooperating in an online military training game might improve teamwork during the actual missions’


Identify Inefficiencies Like A Starcraft Pro

Lean, hungry startups compete best with monolithic corporations when they’re operating at high efficiency; eliminating waste and installing procedures that are easy to scale. For players of real-time strategy games, that’s basic stuff. Games like Starcraft and Supreme Commander are based around managing resources and time better than the other team.  


Elite-level players plan a ‘build order’ before they start a match: a strategy of production, research, and resource management designed like a chess opening, to allow rapid production of spider-tanks and megabots. Any smart business should do the same; looking at other startups to see what opening moves are best, but being prepared to be fluid as you get feedback.


Split-Test Your Methods To Avoid Being Eaten

You’ve heard of this, of course: it’s what happens when companies show half of their customers one version of a web page, email signup sheet or order form, the other half a differently-designed version, and see which harvests the most clicks. It’s also what gamers do to find the optimal strategy in games like Zachtronics’ Infinifactory, which quickly punishes even the smallest misuse of resources as you optimise assembly lines for your alien overlords.


In games, liberal use of the ‘Restart’ button makes A/B testing easy: in real life, the goal is to minimise variables so that you don’t waste time. ‘The key is to change one thing at once, so that you can see what makes a difference,’ says UX designer Rachel Littlefair. In cartoon survive-em-up Don’t Starve, for instance, you might try building your campfire in different spots to protect yourself from wild shadow beasts, or make wood-chopping more efficient: in real life, you might change an approach email’s subject line or call to action, but not both. ‘That way, you minimise the noise, and see what actually makes a difference,’ says Littlefair. Test small, and then scale it up; if you get it wrong, you can always reset.


Use Call of Duty to play better with others

Building a new business from the ground up means being able to work well with anyone: from suppliers and manufacturers to clients and new hires. So how do you improve your people skills and keep everyone on-message? By playing Call Of Duty: Black Ops, apparently. In a study published by Brock University, gamers who played together in the games zombie-killing mode improved their impressions of each other and saw prejudices diminish. ‘If allied American and British or Canadian forces are training together for an upcoming mission, cooperating in an online military training game before the mission may reduce intergroup bias and improve teamwork during the actual mission,’ the researchers wrote in the journal Psychology of Violence. PS4 for the breakroom? It’s mission-critical.


‘If you have a large number of projects with undefined end dates, split them up and give yourself aggressive deadlines’


Get More Addicted To Work Than You Are To Candy Crush

Candy Crush might be a waste of time, but look at it this way: it’s a flawlessly-made one, precision-engineered to keep you hooked on flipping rows of tiny sweets. Can you get that same neat, sweet addictive rush from the hustle you need to succeed as a startup? Absolutely. ‘One thing Candy Crush uses well is time limits, by forcing you to wait, or pay, once all your lives are gone,’ says Garrett. ‘Use the same effect in real life by giving yourself clear objectives. If you have a large number of projects with undefined end dates, then you know they will be on your task lists for a long time: instead, split them into small, quantifiable goals and give yourself aggressive deadlines.


Report due in four weeks but will take two hours to complete? No problem, I’ll allow myself a ‘Power Hour’ one day next week and knock it out. This means that in that short time frame, I have to focus on that task at hand in order to complete it.’ On an even smaller scale, use the Pomodoro technique for instant addiction: ‘Choose a task, and work on the task for 25 minutes solidly,’ says Garrett. ‘Take a five-minute break, repeat four times, then reward yourself with a 15-30 minute break as you see fit. I use the 30-minute sessions like ‘lives’ in Candy Crush, get eight done in a day and spend the rest of the day with my daughters.’ Definitely a better reward than getting to the Sugary Shire.



WHAT NEXT? Write down a big, vague goal, then work out the smallest step you can take towards finishing (or starting) it today: think of it as firing up Tutorial Mode. Do that today, and let the dopamine flow.