In late 2004, Stephen Gillett was in the running for a
choice job at Yahoo! – a senior management position in engineering. He
was a strong contender. Gillett had been responsible for CNET’s
backend, and he had helped launch a number of successful startups. But
he had an additional qualification his prospective employer wasn’t
aware of, one that gave him a decisive edge: He was one of the top
guild masters in the online role-playing game World of Warcraft.

Gaming tends to be regarded as a harmless diversion at best, a vile
corruptor of youth at worst. But the usual critiques fail to recognize
its potential for experiential learning. Unlike education acquired
through textbooks, lectures, and classroom instruction, what takes
place in massively multiplayer online games is what we call accidental
learning. It’s learning to be – a natural byproduct of adjusting to a new culture – as opposed to learning about.
Where traditional learning is based on the execution of carefully
graded challenges, accidental learning relies on failure. Virtual
environments are safe platforms for trial and error. The chance of
failure is high, but the cost is low and the lessons learned are
immediate.The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Simulation games have proven excellent tools for training people in manual skills; for example, X-Plane,
a flight simulator that runs on home computers, has been certified by
the Federal Aviation Administration. But accidental learning transcends
intentional training. When role-playing gamers team up to undertake a
quest, they often need to attempt particularly difficult challenges
repeatedly until they find a blend of skills, talents, and actions that
allows them to succeed. This process brings about a profound shift in
how they perceive and react to the world around them. They become more
flexible in their thinking and more sensitive to social cues. The fact
that they don’t think of gameplay as training is crucial. Once the
experience is explicitly educational, it becomes about developing
compartmentalized skills and loses its power to permeate the player’s
behavior patterns and worldview.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.In this way, the process of becoming an effective World of Warcraft
guild master amounts to a total-immersion course in leadership. A guild
is a collection of players who come together to share knowledge,
resources, and manpower. To run a large one, a guild master must be
adept at many skills: attracting, evaluating, and recruiting new
members; creating apprenticeship programs; orchestrating group
strategy; and adjudicating disputes. Guilds routinely splinter over
petty squabbles and other basic failures of management; the master must
resolve them without losing valuable members, who can easily quit and
join a rival guild. Never mind the virtual surroundings; these
conditions provide real-world training a manager can apply directly in
the workplace.

And that’s exactly what Gillett is doing. He accepted Yahoo!’s offer
and now works there as senior director of engineering operations. "I
used to worry about not having what I needed to get a job done," he
says. "Now I think of it like a quest; by being willing to improvise, I
can usually find the people and resources I need to accomplish the
task." His story – translating experience in the virtual world into
success in the real one – is bound to become more common as the gaming
audience explodes and gameplay becomes more sophisticated. The day may
not be far off when companies receive résumés that include a line
reading "level 60 tauren shaman in World of Warcraft."

The savviest employers will get the message.

By John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas