Three Strategy Lessons from Computer Games

Strategy is strategy is strategy, and strategic thinking can be applied in a variety of contexts. That’s why there was a whole decade of executives pretending to have read the copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War they left lying casually around their offices. And who could forget the political lessons of the Cold War that are repeated in every book on business strategy ever?

But there is a far more accessible source of instruction in strategic thinking for the dapper modern strategist: computer games. Yes, the hard-learned lessons of empire building in the Civilisation series, Zerg-killing in Starcraft and terrorist zealotry in Command & Conquer can be put to good use.

That was time well spent.

I must remember to tell my parents that.

So, here they are – three real-world strategy lessons from strategy computer games.

1. Spaceships Don’t Win Cultural Victories

This one’s from the Civilisation series of games, which have the strategy-teaching advantage of having multiple paths to victory. There are four main ways to beat your competition and win the game:

  • Dominate militarily – by taking control of a certain amount of the world’s territory
  • Win the space race – by advancing scientifically and building a spaceship to the stars
  • Be a shining beacon of cultural light – by investing in art, music, theatre, etc.
  • Be elected world leader for life – a diplomatic victory through the United Nations

What’s important here is that you have to decide early on which victory you’re aiming for. Each of these victories requires a focus of your scarce resources on a single objective. If you pursue more than one goal, you will achieve none of them, because efforts that further one set of goals either negatively impact your progress towards others or are just resources wasted. Declaring war on Napoleon to gain control of his oil resources makes sense for a military victory, but it won’t win his friendship for a diplomatic victory.

The same goes for business strategy. You must have a clear understanding of what constitutes success and what your path to that success will be. “Growth” is not an informative objective, any more than “winning the game” is an informative objective in Civilisation. “Winning the game by controlling two-thirds of the world’s territory” is a more informative objective, as is “growth through getting 30% of all existing customers to invite a friend to trial our product”. They make it possible to start understanding the obstacles in the way and start planning the steps to take towards success.

2. Never Bring a Zergling to a Dogfight

In Starcraft, different units and vehicles have different strengths and weaknesses. Zerglings, while devastating to buildings en masse, are earthbound and helpless in the face of any flying enemy. Or, for example, spearmen in Civilisation have a massive advantage when fighting mounted cavalry. How do you know which tools/units to send to tackle your competition’s forces? You pay attention to your competition and environment and respond appropriately.

In these kinds of confrontations, the advantage always goes to whichever army has the best intel and adapts quickest.

 

In business, there are things you want to achieve, things you can’t affect, and things you can affect. The more you know about the things you can’t affect (audience desires and behaviours, the regulatory environment, the behaviour of competitors, the limits and capabilities of technology, etc.), the more effectively you can change things you can affect (choice of marketing channels, brand positioning, front-line staff processes, etc.) to achieve those things you want to achieve.

And these days, the things you can’t affect can change pretty quickly.

3. The Path to Victory Can Be Boring

Good strategy is effective. It’s not there to be pretty, or exciting, or fun. Years ago, my friend Dylan and I played a game called Empire Earth against each other – neither of us had played before. He spent his resources on a beautifully crafted series of walls and turrets protecting his city, intricate and symmetrical. It looked really great. I spent my resources setting up undefended settlements next to any resources I could mine. They weren’t pretty, and I barely looked at them once they were up and running, because I was moving on to setting up the next one.

I won the game, of course. It wasn’t a sculpture competition, Dylan! The objective wasn’t to be pretty! It was to destroy, which was my goal, which is why I dropped that nuclear bomb on your very pretty fortress.

It’s understandable that people want to work on fun projects. It’s understandable that they’re thinking about advertising awards and creative case studies they can present at creative conferences with creative people giving each other creative high-fives. But what is most fun is not always what is most effective, and what is most effective is sometimes quite boring and prosaic.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and I myself find effectiveness an attractive quality in a strategy. Also, the look on Dylan’s face was priceless.

So, there you have it. My excuse for playing Starcraft during work hours Three lessons from strategy computer games that can be applied in your business and digital strategy. Enjoy.

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