What Can a PM Learn From Gaming?

What Can a PM Learn From Gaming?

While Product Management might be my career of choice, my primary hobby of choice has to be gaming.  I’ve been playing games in one form or another for as long as I can remember — tabletop games, video games, role-playing games…you name it, I’ve played some permutation of it in my life.  As I’ve grown older and more experienced, though, I’ve begun to see the benefits that come to people who play such games on a regular basis.  The best games, after all, are based in some fundamental way on reality — and the lessons that we learn from gaming can easily translate into skills, knowledge, and talents that you can use in your everyday life as a Product Manager…

Note: The links below go to Steam where the game is available online or Amazon for the board games mentioned; The Clever PM makes no commission on any purchases through these links.

Computer Role-Playing Games

Probably my biggest love of them all, a good RPG consists of so many moving parts, all of which have to hit on the right cylinders to make an effective and engaging experience.  The game system has to work in a predictable and reliable way; the characters that you control have to be engaging and well-defined, but not confining; the game world has to feel “real” when you’re exploring it and interacting with it; and the story that the game tells has to move you forward and keep you invested.  The classics like the Ultima series, Baldur’s Gate I & II, and more modern entrants like Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin are all great examples of what makes a good CRPG.

Aside from being textbook case studies into the design, development, and release of incredibly complicated products (something every Product Manager can relate to), CRPGs deliver on some of the most core capabilities that we use every single day:

  • How to build empathy with imaginary people, with their own independent needs and motivations (aka: Personas).
  • How to leverage the strengths of the team that you have put together (or had given to you) and minimize their weaknesses to solve problems and move the story forward.
  • How to make difficult decisions based on opportunity costs that balance out the present needs of your party and the future problems you may (or may not) face.

Computer Strategy Games

Second to RPGs, my computer gaming mistress would probably be strategy games — both real-time (RTS) and turn-based (TBS).  From the classics like Starcraft, Age of Empires, and Command & Conquer, all the way to the more modern entries like X-Com: Enemy Unknown and the Total War series, the excitement and unpredictability built into these games makes them a hotbed of learnings for Product Managers as well as others.  While there are some differences in the tactical needs to compete in these games — RTS games have a strong “twitch” component, while TBS games can be very strongly influenced by your ability to predict and project what will happen three turns away.

Strategy games, as their name would imply, help us to build our abilities as Product Managers in several key ways:

  • How to manage limited resources and maximize their use to move things forward and achieve the goals that you have set for you.
  • How to make difficult decisions balancing opportunity and current costs to move your strategic goal forward.
  • How to guess what your competition is doing and react accordingly to limit their options and increase your own.

Computer Simulators

Leaving out games like Surgeon Simulator or Goat Simulator — which are more playgrounds than simulators — I’ve got a long-standing love for games that take complex systems and allow you to exert control over them as though you had “ultimate” power.  From classics like SimCity, The Sims, Civilization to more modern entries like Tropico or Cities: Skylines, the best simulators have one thing in common:  complexity; the more complex, usually the better!

The very nature of simulators and the manner in which they function allow us as Product Managers to focus on these skills:

  • How to understand large, complex systems and break them into the necessary component parts to make them more manageable.
  • How to delegate to knowledgable assistants to make decisions on our behalf.
  • How to introduce and guide our own users from simple tasks to complex processes in an approachable and easily understood way.

Tabletop Games


While there are certainly tabletop versions of all of the above, what we can learn and takeaway from the more social and interactive means that we use to play these games opens up a lot more learning opportunities for us as people and as Product Managers.  Ranging from such pencil & paper role-playing games as Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, to strategy games like Settlers of Catan or Dominion, all the way to more creative games like Dixit or Mysterium — each of these games has some similar learnings that we can take from our encounters with them:

  • How to work in groups of people to determine the direction of the team or the group.
  • How to handle changing conditions in high-stress situations, while balancing a variety of needs and goals.
  • How to interpret and apply conflicting or contradictory information and work with others to apply it appropriately.

There’s nothing like games to broaden our skills and abilities, as we engage with them in ways that we don’t commonly do so in the real world.

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