World of Workcraft: Learning Real-Life Skills From Role-Playing Games

Marconius, a level 18 paladin, chips away at a vein of iron ore in a fantastical forest. The gamer, Marc, wonders to himself, “Why am I doing these repetitive tasks? Is there any point to this?” In real life, Marc is an accountant. On most days, he sits in his cubicle and works through piles of financial data, wondering much the same thing as when he’s living his paladin life – what is the point?

The point, in both cases, is the skills and lessons Marc learns.

Many people view playing video games as a waste of time – especially role-playing games (RPGs), as they demand a larger investment of time and effort. However, there is more to these games than meets the eye. Dr. David Whitebread, of the University of Cambridge, believes that the experience of playing has been an important characteristic of human evolution. Play is practice for real life; we play games in environments that have rules and boundaries to learn what type of behavior results in success. However, when we see children running around in a playground, we think they’re just being kids – not that they are fine-tuning their motor skills, spatial awareness, and creative aptitude.

What, then, can be said about an adult’s version of a virtual playground – for example, playing RPGs?

First, let’s define this type of gaming. RPGs are a subgenre of video games that have gamers assume the role of a central character or hero within a fictionalized virtual world. They are characterized by the underlying principle that in order for the game to be won, the gamer needs to develop their character by gaining “experience.” This principle is analogous to that of real-life work experience; we are (presumably) rewarded for the amount of time and effort we put into our work.

This analogy, while interesting, doesn’t really tell us much. To learn something from it, we have to look at the process of gaining experience in RPGs and discover its relevance to the real working world.

Let’s look at three common gameplay elements from RPGs and their parallels to our everyday work lives. We might learn something new – or maybe even change some of our perceptions about work.


Grinding is an important aspect of RPGs that has been utilized for decades. This term refers to characters completing repetitive tasks or actions to acquire materials for growth-related purposes. For instance, if a character wanted to craft a steel weapon, they would need to find the right materials: metals to be smelted, wood and leather for the handle, and so on. These materials often don’t come easily – they need to be acquired by defeating enemies carrying such items, or by exploring a dungeon where they may be harvested, for just a couple examples. You may need a certain amount of a certain material, meaning that multiple enemies need to be defeated, while other items might be exceedingly rare.

The interesting point about grinding, though, is that it usually isn’t necessary for actually completing the storyline. Your perseverance, however, can yield beneficial results that make the game more enjoyable. With better weapons, you can kill enemies faster and defeat optional superbosses – if for nothing more than bragging rights and glory.

While work may not consist of crafting your own swords, it does undoubtedly involve activities that are repetitive and monotonous. Most of the time, we are quick to complain about how these tasks have no benefit to our development. But what if we’re wrong? Maybe we’re just looking at grinding at work the wrong way. What if we viewed it as a manifestation of our work ethic or a chance to flex our perseverance and hone certain skills, like concentration? And what if we acknowledged that repetition is necessary when it comes to becoming an expert at something? Perhaps then, when faced with laborious tasks, we could revel at our tenacity for “grinding it out,” much like gamers do.


Many RPGs are played within online environments with other players. These online virtual worlds (or massively multiplayer online role-playing games – MMORPGs) are actually complex social environments comprising thousands of different types of players. Structured within MMORPGs are tasks, usually called quests, which need to be completed by groups of players. Central to these quests being performed effectively is the assignment of “roles” to different players, based on their character type. Healers ensure other party members don’t die in combat, and tanks are strongly armored heavy hitters that take the bulk of hits from opponents, while archers can inflict damage from a safer position.

While roles vary from game to game, their importance is the same: In order for the team to be successful, each player must perform their individual role. If you fail in your role, the team fails. While the value of teamwork is clearly important in the workplace, what RPGs teach us is that, sometimes, not all roles get the same public recognition. A healer usually doesn’t receive the same positive feedback as a tank does because, optically, the tank was the center of attention. While the success of the group is the sum of its parts, a single presence isn’t always noticed – but the absence most certainly would be, as it would if a healer failed to keep the tank from falling in battle.

Even though team cohesion is important, not all contributions are that obvious. Sometimes, it’s important to let go of the need for recognition to serve the greater good. In the workplace, this is very common in situations where managers get all the credit for the success of a group they manage. As a team member, it is important to know that, in spite of your recognition (or lack thereof), your efforts were integral to the win.

Leveling Up

Gaining levels is central to progressing in an RPG. By gaining experience, your character becomes stronger, but the game also gets harder. The more you play the game, the better you become at it, and your experience culminates to prepare you for new challenges and the acquisition of new skills. Interwoven into the narrative of RPGs is the idea that the character isn’t expected to be a hero when they start the game, but over time they evolve into such a character. Most senior leaders would agree with this; their careers are a manifestation of their previous successes, but as they have ascended in stature, their job has gotten harder and they have required new skills in order to be successful.

Psychologist Dr. Joseph L. Henderson believed that the hero myth is deeply rooted in human psychology, and that pride is an inherent obstacle to human progress. The common saying “pride comes before the fall” refers to the hero becoming too confident in their ability, resulting in their fallibility. This relates particularly well to RPGs because, regardless of how you may perceive your own ability, the game will quickly let you know whether or not your character is ready to progress. If you try to take on a monster before you’re ready, you will surely pay the price with that dreaded “game over” screen.

Likewise, the working world also lets you know when you’re not ready to take something on. The problem is, sometimes we are offered a project or promotion that we aren’t ready for – but we very seldom turn it down. The lesson we can take away from RPGs is the need for critical self-assessment in order to understand if we are “strong enough” to take on a new and tempting challenge, especially when failure could be career suicide. While a superior or organization may think you’re ready, you know yourself best – and sometimes it’s better to acknowledge that you need to keep leveling up before you’re ready to fight.

Time to Play

Dr. Bowen F. White, a founding board member of the National Institute for Play, believes that play is “deeply ingrained in terms of our own evolutionary drive to survive.” Our ability to play is not an evolutionary accident; it’s critical to our development. Psychologist Dr. Anthony D. Pellegrini has concluded that playing instead of working enables individuals to focus on means instead of ends. In other words, we focus better on what we can learn when we are playing.

RPGs offer us expansive virtual worlds to learn from. By engaging in these magical worlds, we can make better sense of the many roles we play within our everyday lives. It’s time to dust off that controller and get ready for the grind.

the author

Ian Foster

Ian Foster is an innovation strategist at Idea Couture.