The Great Entrepreneurship Game
Levelling up, multiplayer, beating bosses and having fun. Just like a video game, but better.
I used to love playing video games.
As a kid, I got an Xbox for Christmas. Pure bliss. To my further delight, the IT-dude who lived next door had put a mod chip inside it. This meant it could play pirated games, which may or may not have been downloaded illegally by some 12-year old I knew 👀
Thousands of hours of fun ensued. The snowboard game SSX. James Bond Nightfire. Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. And of course Red Card 2003, an utterly ridiculous soccer game where you could play as a team of penguins, do crazy trick shots, and ruthlessly beat up other players on the football field (the fascination for pengus clearly never waned).
Then I stopped.
Today, video games have almost no appeal to me whatsoever.
Why? Is it only because I grew older and found other interests? That’s probably one part of it. But the other explaining factor is far more interesting – I found a better kind of game.
That game, as I alluded to in last week’s post, is entrepreneurship. As it turns out, the entrepreneurial journey and a great video game have striking similarities. Let’s consider a few of them.
Always a new challenge around the corner
In video games, there’s always the next world to explore, the next level to complete, the next “boss” to defeat - all while not running out of health points.
In entrepreneurship, there’s the next project to deliver, the next customer to serve, the next product to launch - all while not running out of money and energy.
It’s the same thing. The same feeling. The same anticipation for what comes next.
Leveling up takes time
Practice makes perfect. Levelling up in games take time and effort, so too in entrepreneurship.
The causal link between developing skills and reaching a new “level” in entrepreneurship is obscured, though – you don’t have clear progress bars that show you when you’ll level up. If you can stomach the uncertainty, this makes it even more interesting than the predictable up-levelling in the video game world.
Variable rewards keep you hooked
We know from psychology that variable rewards are extremely addictive both for humans and for many animals.
The infamous psychologist B.F. Skinner demonstrated this in the 1950s using mice, a lever, and treats that mice dig. When a mice hit the lever, they’d get a treat. In one experiment, they’d get the same treat every time they hit the lever. In another experiement, they’d sometimes get a big treat, sometimes a small one, and often no treat at all. The mice in the first experiment quickly got bored, but the mice in the second experiment went bananas. They pulled the lever like crazy, over and over and over again. The suspense and the surprise of the variable rewards got them completely addicted.
Video game makers know this, so video games are full of variable reward mechanisms. You walk around looking for Pokémons, for example – most of the time, you find nothing. Sometimes, you find basic creatures you’ve seen a hundred times before. But then, once in a while, you find a rare one, just like Skinner’s mice once in a while would get a huge treat. So you keep playing and playing, tapping the levers again and again, because maybe the next one is the rare one..
Entrepreneurs’ professional lives are similar. Most of your ideas fail. Most projects don’t work very well at all. Most potential prospects never become customers. But sometimes they do. Sometimes it works. Sometimes you sell something, or raise some money, which gives you just enough runway/cash/oxygen to continue playing the entrepreneurship game, to continue pulling levers, to continue looking for the big win.
And once in a while, you actually hit it. You sign a huge client contract, you convince an extremely talented person to join your team, you achieve a technical breakthrough in your product. You get the big treat. So you keep playing..
It’s best with friends
The best video games are the social ones. Today, social gaming happens online, but when I was a kid, it happened with four people in front of the same TV playing James Bond Nightfire. In our house, the TV was a 28” box for a long time, so we’d sit on the floor with our noses practically touching the display. Good times.
Entrepreneurship is the same thing. For all the talk of “solo founders” these days, we must acknowledge that for most people, entrepreneurship is best with friends. Building a business is an inherently collaborative thing to do.
In Pokémon games, it’s no good having five identical Pikachus as you enter a battle. In football games, it’s no good having 11 goalkeepers make up your team. In World of Warcraft, it’s no good being a guild of only “druids” (or whatever they’re called – I’ve never actually played WoW).
Instead, you need different, complementary skills, characteristics and strengths to make up a strong team. When building a company, the same thing is true. A wide set of skills and strengths is required simply to operate, and doubly so if you’re hoping to make anything successful1.
Entrepreneurship is a Better Game
I could go on and on about similarities between video games and entrepreneurship, but I’ll stop there. The point has been made.
Let us instead return to my initial claim – that I’ve lost interest in video games because I’ve found a better game. How exactly is the entrepreneurship game better than a well-designed video game?
Video games have a fundamentally fakeness to them, because they take place in constructed, digital worlds (for the time being, I make the assumption that the offline world is more “real” than digital video game worlds – although the rise of the Metaverse might change this in the future!).
This unfortunate fact is at the back of gamers’ minds (unless they get so enmeshed in the game that they lose touch with reality, of course). This means gamers always know that the stakes in the game are also fake.
If you die in a video game, you can always start over, so there’s no real downside. You intuitively know that, which shapes your behaviour. You don’t care as much, you don’t put as much of your soul into it, because you can always just try again.
The money you earn and the valuable assets you accrue in the game are only valuable within it2, so there’s no real upside either. You know that too, you’re aware of the inherent meaninglessness and worthlessness of everything that happens inside the game, which also shapes your behaviour.
On the other hand, the stakes in entrepreneurship are very real indeed.
There is definitely real downside. If you go bankrupt, well, then you’re bankrupt (yes, technically you can start over again, of course, but not by a mere click of a button).
There is also, unquestionably, very real upside. If you’re profitable, you make actual money that can be spent in the real world. If your product or service works, you improve real, human lives by solving problems for customers.
This makes the entrepreneurship game much more engaging than most video games can ever become. Entrepreneurs have serious skin in the game.
Positive spillover effects on the rest of your life
Most of us still live most of our lives in the “real world”. Yes, digital worlds are becoming more and more real, VR is almost a serious thing by now, and the Metaverse will blur the lines further, but there is still a significant gap between “real life” and “video game life” for the vast majority of the human population.
It is therefore unfortunate for gamers that the skills, know-how, social status and track record they develop within video games are largely (note: not completely, but largely) irrelevant outside of said games.
Entrepreneurs are luckier. They spend their time in a game that has very positive spillover effects on the rest of their lives in the real world.
Most of the skills you learn through an entrepreneurial journey are extremely valuable outside of the narrow game of entrepreneurship – you can leverage them to get a better, “regular” job if your startup fails, for example. Your entrepreneurial track record, if somewhat successful, can give you access to lucrative investment opportunities, or to well-paid speaking gigs, or to valuable, closed social networks, and so on.
Right now, entrepreneurship is so hot in Western societies that even failed entrepreneurs are held in fairly high societal regard. In that sense, dabbling in entrepreneurship has almonst guaranteed upside: if you win, well, good for you – but if you lose, you still kind of win, because just making the attempt is seen as courageous and positive, which can boost your subsequent “normal career”.
It never ends
I wrote earlier that “In video games, there’s always the next world to explore, the next level to complete, the next “boss” to defeat”. That is true… until it isn’t anymore. Video games do come to an end eventually.
Entrepreneurship doesn’t have to end. Ever. There’s always another problem to solve, another way to add value, another idea to test. Always. As I wrote last week, it can truly be an infinite game if you want it to be.
As someone who enjoys playing the entrepreneurial game, that is good to know.
This is one reason why most entrepreneurship education is ineffective: courses are held within the business school, or within the engineering school, so all the students have similar skills. More on this in a later post, perhaps..
This is starting to change with “play-to-earn” games on the blockchain, like Axie Infinity. Here, you can play video games and earn real money that you can spend in the real world. This is blurring the lines between work and play. See this 15 minute documentary about players in the Philippines making a decent living this way - fascinating stuff!