How to Succeed in Business by Playing Video Games: An XCOMedy of Learning

It’s no secret that I have a love-hate relationship with video games. On the one hand, games whisk you off to enchanted worlds optimized for fun. On the other hand, any sense of accomplishment is illusory at best: congratulations, you’ve learned how to press buttons better than before!

However, I’ve found that one particular game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, ended up teaching me some valuable lessons. The lessons are post-facto obvious in the way many lessons seem to be, but my system one needed something experiential, and it turns out that games are all about experience. First, I’ll explain the bare minimum of how XCOM works and a bit about the community surrounding it, then lay out the lessons I learned, and then talk about why this doesn’t change my ambivalence towards gaming.

I. The Review

If you like videos, then you can watch this walkthrough of XCOM’s tutorial mission, and then watch Beaglerush play a mission of the Long War mod. Or, keep reading…

Imagine: an alien force is invading earth, abducting humans and waging a shadow war against Earth’s militaries. You are the leader of the international anti-extraterrestrial task force, XCOM, and tasked with responding to alien threats around the globe. Outmanned and outgunned, you must uncover the alien’s secrets, take their technology for your own, and destroy them before the governments of Earth surrender to the aliens and shut down the XCOM project. Oorah.

So that’s the story. How does the game play?

You command a small squad of soldiers, giving them orders to move and shoot, and then allowing the aliens to move and shoot in turn. Most soldiers or aliens need to hide behind cover, or else the enemy can shoot at them with high chances to hit or even score a critical shot. Cover is directional, so moving units to the exposed flanks of enemies means shooting those exposed enemies becomes much easier. Overwatch is an ability that allows units to defer shooting at enemy units until they move during the enemy’s turn, which is useful for discouraging the enemy from moving, especially if the enemy can flank (and then kill) one of your soldiers. Outside of an individual battle, soldiers gain experience by killing aliens and participating in battles, and gain more perks as they gain more experience. Perks, you say? Yes, abilities like “Lightning Reflexes”, which means a soldier can’t be hit by alien overwatch shots, or “Double Tap”, which allows a soldier to shoot twice in a turn, or “Smoke Gernade”, which lays down a defensive smoke screen. Each soldier adopts a class, like a long range sniper or an explosives focused heavy weapons expert, which determines which perks are available.

So that’s vanilla XCOM, but there’s a incredible XCOM mod called Long War (LW). It’s partly incredible because XCOM was never meant to be modded, so the mod itself is technically impressive. The interesting part lies in LW’s design choices. Vanilla XCOM is geared towards a more casual crowd; players only have to make a few choices at any one time, and the flow of the game is straightforward. The LW modders stood back and asked themselves, “yes, XCOM is a pretty good game, but how can we take every element of the game and make it tactically deeper?” For example, vanilla has 5 main types of weapons across 3 technology tiers; LW has 10 weapon types across 5 tiers, with an attendant expansion of possible trade-offs. Vanilla has 4 soldier classes, each with 32 possible combinations of perks; LW has 8 classes with 729 combinations each. Then, there are additional strategic concerns like soldier fatigue, where soldiers have to rest after a mission. This prevents the Vanilla strategy of sending your best squad on every mission, putting the focus on leveling up all your soldiers. Then there’s the fact that the aliens are stronger, more devious, and scale up over time (sometimes literally — I’m looking at you, 2-story-tall chryssalid). And the modifications keep going. This all adds up to a tougher game, and for a certain person, a more engaging and fun game.

There’s one final ingredient that completes the XCOM picture for me. I’m not big on watching people play through games: if I wanted to watch something, then better a movie than watching someone else interact with some interactive media. However, I’ve made an exception for the Australian gaming streamer Beaglerush. He would play through XCOM campaigns, both in Vanilla and LW, and commentate while playing with humor and wit, breaking down his tactical analysis, all while playing on the toughest difficulty. This format neatly side steps the “fitting narratives to RNG outcomes” problem suffered by other sports, both physical and electronic: XCOM is not nearly as fast-paced as other games, so the players themselves can talk about their decisions instead of having commentators guess at their intentions. Pretty much all turn-based games meet this criteria, but XCOM also breaks up gameplay so chunks fit into a person’s attention span, unlike some games that take at least 8 hours to complete (looking at you, Civ). Even when I don’t credit him directly below, Beaglerush had a hand in how I thought about each concept.

Fair warning about Beaglerush, though. If you want to follow along with the furthest-along LW campaign, it is 100+ hours long. The mod is not kidding when it says it’s a Long War. If you do watch it, remember there’s a 2x speed option on YouTube.

II. The Lessons

So that’s enough of me fawning over the game, what are the lessons I learned?

First, I feel like I better understand why strategies, in business or otherwise, are allergic to risk. In the words of Beaglerush, you want a boring game[1]; you want to play to win, you want to stack the deck as far in your favor as the game will allow, you want to have won before fighting. This is counterintuitive in a gaming context, where boredom is the true enemy. However, a well designed game like LW has a way of upending the best laid plans, throwing unexpected curve balls on a regular basis, and that’s where things get uncomfortably exciting. Bringing a “best case-only plan” or no plan at all will get your squad killed, so it’s up to you to make your own luck instead of letting the game give you some ready-made luck[2].

In a business context, I wondered why my team leads would obsess about pinning down possible sources of variance. It only became clear after I had underestimated the difficulty of my first projects (even while taking Murphy into account): translating back to a gaming model, the team leads were managing an XCOM firefight, and wanted to guarantee each shot would connect, to have worst-case contingency plans laid down before committing. Now, no one is going to die if a deadline slips a month. There’s some room for risk and subsequent outsize reward, which I presume is the reasoning behind strategies like Google trying to make sure they meet only 70% of their goals. A different attitude to risk is apparent when people really can die, like the NASA software shops that have layers of review for each line of code. But coming from a loose attitude towards risk, XCOM was instructive in showing me how quickly things could go wrong to the little digital soldiers I had gotten emotionally invested in. And just as important, I would just as quickly have the chance to try again.

Second, XCOM taught me about the value of having a crack team of max-level soldiers for any mission. The A-team makes the easy missions easy, and the hard missions possible. However, LW then taught me about scarcity and the need to ration and stretch soldiers: you can’t take your A-team on every mission because of fatigue, so you need to weigh the downsides of taking less useful lower level soldiers on this mission against the upsides of having a greater number of experienced soldiers in later missions, as well as having more experienced troops ready if the game throws a string of really hard missions at you right after the current mission. Once I started thinking about my troop deployments this way, I then subconsciously started applying it to work: “ah, my manager wants me to take these lower level troopsdevelopers on this mission because she needs them to level up, but all the more experienced developers are fatiguedworking on more complicated projects. Welp, guess I better not screw this up.”[3] It’s one thing to know that businesses are profit optimization engines: it’s another to virtually lead a dead-alien optimization engine, and then come to work and have some empathy for your boss.

Third, having more skills is awesome. Sometimes it’s obvious: in LW, the scout soldier class gets the Concealment perk in the middle of their experience progression, and it changes the class from a mediocre jack-of-all-trades soldier to the only soldier you need to scout, ever. Or, the medic class can choose to specialize into a combat medic with Rapid Reaction, which turns the class from a “healing and shoot once in a while” class to “shoot everything all the time, and healing once in a while I guess”. It’s not clear which real-world skills map to these sorts of game-changing skills, but I can guess that learning to study effectively, becoming better at public speaking, writing concisely and clearly, or learning how to lead a team would be the sorts of skills that would lead to a bump in effectiveness and power, even if they are boring.

Fourth, what about combining those skills for an effect greater than the sum of their parts? You know… synergy? Yeah, that bullshit corporate-speak word. However, in-game the concept makes total sense, especially in LW: it made so much sense, I sat down and planned out builds for each soldier class, and then printed them out and put them on the wall next to my gaming computer, like a giant nerd. But it’s worth looking like a giant nerd if you can stack sniper perks until you can roll shots dealing over 40 damage (the starting assault rifle with no perks averages 4 damage), or if you design a combat medic that can shoot 4 times a turn, or if you design gunners that essentially shoot infinite mini shredder rockets.

However, it isn’t clear how to map synergy back to the real world. It seems that the technical/business startup duo works pretty well (Jobs/Woz, Gates/Allen), and having an expert writer and expert in anything else team can write fine books (for example, Peak was written in this way), but it’s unclear to me what else “synergy” can be generalized to without immediately stepping into pools of bullshit. I don’t think the concept is worthless, though. “Synergy” traded well enough in the idea marketplace that there was even a buzzword bubble to pop, and I’ve had the run ins with the concept (like this science fiction story) that can’t help but pique my interest. My bullshit-meter is still going off, but XCOM has convinced me that “synergy” might be something worth paying attention to.

This last idea is not directly related to management-like concepts like everything else, but I found it instructive. We know that people don’t have a good gut understanding of chance, partly because they seem to follow prospect theory and because numbers are hard. Given this, it’s quite the experience to play LW, because the modders took out all instances of cheating in the random number generator on behalf of the player. It doesn’t hit home that you also are subject to the gambler’s fallacy until you take a 75% chance to hit shot, miss, and say to yourself “surely this next 75% chance shot will connect!”, and miss again. At once I was enlightened: optimism is not a viable strategy. You could probably get the same experience with probabilities by working on calibrating yourself or betting in a prediction market, but it was helpful for me to get emotionally involved in the outcomes and receive lots of feedback in a tight loop.

III. Conclusion

This analysis might raise a question about whether video games are a waste of time by coming down hard on the side of “video games are not only fun, but educational”, and then just continually extract lessons from games. Unfortunately, I don’t think that works: as noted before, some games are all about twitching your way to victory, and others, like in the 4X genre, are so slow it becomes difficult to link mistakes and consequences together. Additionally, the ideas I got a better handle on within LW aren’t ideas I need to be reintroduced to. There might be another game that can clarify other ideas for me, but it seems any given game is unlikely to do so.

TLDR: XCOM is pretty good. You should try it if you’re going to play video games anyways; maybe you’ll also learn something.

[1] Unfortunately, I can’t find where Beaglerush says this: I have a sinking suspicion that it’s in one of his LW beta 14 videos on Twitch, which are saved for a short time but ultimately ephemeral. That, or it’s hidden in the middle of hundreds of hours of video and I just missed it. So unfortunately you’re just going to have to take my word that he said it.

[2] A particularly egregious example of ready-made luck served to the player on a silver platter: vanilla XCOM would invisibly adjust shot success probabilities upwards if you missed a couple times in a row, which allowed sitting in good cover and taking a bunch of low-probability shots at the enemy to be a workable strategy. Of course, LW removed this mechanic.

[3] Is this sort of approach to human resources dehumanizing? Probably!