A conversation with Dmitri Williams and Jake Vickers about World of Warcraft as a leadership laboratory

The genesis for this week’s ITConversations show was an offhand remark that Dmitri Williams made to Joi Ito at this year’s Social Computing Symposium. Both of these guys are avid World of Warcraft players who also think, write, and speak professionally about the emerging dynamics of collaborative online gameplay. Comparing notes on the difficulty of recruiting and retaining a capable raid leader, Dmitri mentioned how pleased he has been with his guild’s current occupant of that crucial role. “And the thing that amazes me,” Dmitri said, “is that Jake’s only seventeen.”

What amazed me was Dmitri’s amazement. Why should anyone be surprised that a competent online gamer is seventeen? But from Dmitri’s perspective, the role of raid leader demands qualities of judgment, tact, social skill, and grace under pressure that you’d normally expect to find only in a more mature and seasoned person.

At the symposium the next day, Joi Ito spoke about his use of World of Warcraft as a laboratory in which to, as Stanford management professor Bob Sutton puts it, prototype new organizational forms. On his blog, Bob Sutton writes:

Modern organizational life is increasingly an online game, but the modern organizational form hasn’t caught up yet.

Never having been an MMORPG player myself, I’m in no position to evaluate the extent to which these environments can help people develop real organizational and leadership skills. So I invited Dmitri Williams to discuss the proposition, and he in turn invited his raid leader, Jake, a.k.a George Vickers. Although neither makes extravagant claims for the real-world uses of in-world skills, it’s hard not to conclude that there’s value in an experience that requires the player to assess personalities, recruit talent, manage complex scheduling and logistics, resolve interpersonal conflict, and nurture long-term career development.


  1. One thing that you should never dismiss is how much easier it is to lead when all of your interactions are virtual. You naturally have a window between cause and effect to choose responses in an virtual setting that you don’t get in face-to-face interactions.

  2. “You naturally have a window between cause and effect to choose responses in an virtual setting that you don’t get in face-to-face interactions.”

    That’s true when interaction happens asynchronously, but I guess when it happens synchronously, in real or virtual space, there’s no such buffer.

  3. I was a guild leader a few years back in a MMORPG and you always have a buffer in virtual interactions, even on chat, and even on headsets. The lack of face-to-face is a buffer.

    Less visual clues to how someone is really feeling means that it’s much easier to keep your cool than in a real life office leadership setting.

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