The Future of Work is Play: Gamification and Entrepreneurs


We all played games when we were young. And while the names, forms, and formats have changed over the generations, whether it was Monopoly, Super Mario Brothers, or Call of Duty, game playing has helped all of us build a certain foundational skill set since childhood. Immersed in interactive media since the beginning of their lives, Millennials have had unprecedented access to sheer quantity of gaming options. Quite a few, like me, played more than 10,000 hours of games over the course of our childhoods. Gaming has instilled in us the assets and traits that make us well-prepared to succeed as entrepreneurs.

So why do we have so many more gamers than entrepreneurs?

In his bestselling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses The 10,000 Hour Rule. According to Gladwell, research indicates it requires at least 10,000 hours of practice to master any skill. Given how many Millennials have surpassed that number when it comes to gaming, let’s examine the primary abilities they mastered along the way and discuss how employing them via gamification might impact their likely success in entrepreneurial endeavors.

First of all, what is gamification? “Gamification is the application of game elements and digital game design techniques to non-game problems, such as business and social impact challenges,” says Professor Kevin Werbach, who teaches at Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. Werbach says “Gamification is about understanding what it is that makes games engaging and what game designers do to create a great experience in games, and taking those learnings and applying them to other contexts.”

What, specifically, has gaming taught us? Clara Huet, who works at gamifying diabetes management at app-developer mySugr, cites the four basic tenets of game development, which can all come to bear on work in startups:

(1) Satisfying work:

Make sure you give yourself some short-term objectives to reward you along the way to your final goal (aka the big boss in gaming).

(2) Hope of being successful:

It is necessary to find people who take a critical view on what you do; but make sure that you have a partner, a friend, a family member… someone to cheer you up when you need it most.

(3) Social connection:

The social fabric of life is as essential for you individually as it is for your business! Network, make sure you find people to connect with who will give you a new perspective on what you do and keep you aware of what’s going on outside of your own sphere.

(4) Last but not least — Meaning:

Make sure that you do what you do because it means something for you. And the bigger the meaning is, the more chance you have to stick with it! Epic meaning is the new thing in the gaming industry, so maybe you don’t plan to save the world with your startup, but find a goal you can look forward to. There’s no better feeling than the one of contributing to something bigger than yourself…

In addition to these broader themes, the nuts and bolts of gameplay contribute skills as well. Neuropsychologists at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany found that:

participants who self-reported heavy video game play were better in analyzing a situation quickly, to generate new knowledge and to categorize facts — especially in situations with high uncertainties.

How better to describe an ideal entrepreneur?

And much of gaming is about navigating risk and exploration-based challenges while testing your limits and trying to move beyond them, time and time again. This echoes the experience of the entrepreneur; in addition to the desire for challenge and reward, few traits are as important as resilience, the ability to persevere against a succession of obstacles.

Do you have the tenacity to die 200 times without rescuing the princess before you finally do on your 201st try? Then maybe you have what it takes to get 200s nos in a row, still cold-call a billionaire, and score $1.2M in funding. Maybe, but this is the major difference between gaming and entrepreneurship.

One isn’t real. Unless you’re playing in a high-stakes esports final, the cost of repeated failure is time spent and intermittent frustration. The ability to simply get up and walk away is always there. Had enough? Stop playing and that world disappears in an instant. As soon as you choose to quit, the ramifications of your recent gaming decisions cease to have much, if any, real-world impact. Getting told “no” 200 times in a row by another human being about your business idea takes a heavier emotional toll than failing to set a personal record at Mario Kart 200 times in a row.

Starting a new venture in the business world is as real it gets. Stakes are incredibly high. The stresses and burdens of startup life are not easy to turn off or walk away from. Bradley Smith, CEO of Rescue One Financial, recalls the difficulty of dealing with early struggles: “I’d wake up at 4 in the morning with my mind racing, thinking about this and that, not being able to shut it off, wondering, when is this thing going to turn?”

If this seems daunting to you, you’re not alone. Millennials have not shown the same enthusiasm for entrepreneurship as their generational predecessors.

“According to a new Small Business Administration report, Millennials are the least entrepreneurial generation in recent history. At age 30, less than four percent of Millennials reported self­ employment as their primary job, compared to 5.4 percent at that age for Generation Xers and 6.7 percent for Baby Boomers,” said John Lettieri, Senior Director for Policy and Strategy at the Economic Innovation Group, in testimony before the Senate entitled “America Without Entrepreneurs: The Consequences of Dwindling Startup Activity.” And a Wall Street Journal analysis of Federal Reserve data found that “The share of people under 30 who own a business has fallen by 65 percent since the 1980s and is now at a quarter-century low.”

The chasm between the no-to-low stakes world of gaming and the all-or-nothing world of the startup seems to be too wide and deep to many Millennials, the risk/reward ratio too low. What if there were were a simple mechanism, already in place, that could provide safe harbor between the two, dramatically increasing the odds of success and offering support and structure during the most difficult, earliest days?

Enter the incubator. Experienced mentors, and the valuable networks they possess. The day-to-day operational headaches of running a business, solved. A mutually supportive atmosphere with other like-minded people. The overall benefits, according to Forbes, add up to a meaningful statistical advantage:”the survival rate for incubated companies, after five years, is 87 percent, compared with 44 percent for companies that didn’t launch from incubators.”

As the name suggests, an incubator offers a sheltered, nurturing environment in which fledging entrepreneurs can hone and sharpen their skills and develop their business without immediately entering the more hostile waters of the wider marketplace before they are ready. It’s an enduring relationship; industry leader Y Combinator, which has incubated such household names as Reddit and DropBox, explains, “We and the YC alumni network continue to help founders for the life of their company, and beyond.”

Patrick Collison, Founder of Stripe, explains the benefit of Y Combinator to his startup in no uncertain terms: “I doubt that Stripe would have worked without YC. It’s that simple. Acquiring early customers, figuring out who to hire, closing deals with banks, raising money — YC’s partners were closely involved and crucially helpful.”

So can we take what so many of us have learned from gaming and put it to work in our career lives to foster entrepreneurship? The accumulated strengths and talents that yield success in one correlate strongly with the other, but making the transition can seem overwhelming. Recognizing the value of learning to crawl before you compete in a marathon, incubators offer transitional assistance during the period of highest startup vulnerability, and the ability to make unavoidable, learning-based mistakes under the watchful eyes and benevolent hands of seasoned industry leaders. There is a significant amount of overlap between the skills learned by gamers and those that make successful entrepreneurs. With assistance, it is likely they will find a reservoir of ability within themselves.