Every generation in the workforce complains about the last. In many ways, the generational war at work is a final frontier in diversity and inclusion because it seems to make millennials more of a punchline than a problem: “Those millennials are ruining it! They expect a trophy or a gold ribbon for everything they do!”
While it is true that millennials in general do need immediate and regular affirmation, and expect to move up as soon as they master their current job, the big “duh!” moment comes when you consider it isn’t trophies and ribbons they need. It’s red hearts, gold coins, and treasure chests.
That’s right: We need to look to video games to understand millennial motivation. Moreover, this video game mindset has given millennials a distinct advantage in the workforce — one we can all look to make part of our own games!
Millennials entered the workforce from the golden age of gaming. Nintendo, Playstation, and Xbox weaned them, and as a result, they have a distinct perspective about the workforce and their place in it. More than any generation currently at work, millennials passionately care about the work they do and the companies they work for. That is a fact to remember and a quality to actively seek.
But to attract millennials, you have to speak their language — or rather, play their game.
While studies show that children’s brains are 90-95 percent of adult size by age six, the most intense brain development happens during the teenage years. Although I am no millennial, I can tell you that my teenage years were spent playing a lot of video games. The same goes for the majority of millennials, so it should be no surprise that the millennial mindset has embraced the concept of frequent rewards (hearts, coins, power-ups) along the way.
Role-playing games are some of the most popular among millennials. In these games, you build a character, go out on adventures, earn experience, and when you pass a certain threshold of experience, your character “levels up,” gaining new skills, abilities, and powers — including, in many cases, the ability to use cooler armor and weapons!
Professional development is really not that different from a role-playing game. We know that millennials ask for development early and often, and after getting coaching and training, they follow up and ask how far they are from a promotion. In a video game, you can always see exactly how far into each level you are and how much experience you need to get there.
Why on earth should we fault millenials for asking for this development and promotion when they are crystal clear they intend to work for it?
They do expect clear conversation and feedback so they can see their experience bars. Isn’t that the best kind of coaching relationship a manager could ask for: Someone who is asking, “How do I get better?” and then tracking themselves against the criteria set forth by the answer?
Managing the Game
So, what does the widespread gaming mindset mean for managers? It means we need to be much better at providing ongoing, consistent, and direct feedback. The worst games are those that offer unclear or confusing progression. The same can be said for development conversations. If you are managing a software engineer who has expressed interest in being a senior software engineer, you should know the expectations for the senior role, and you should be able to articulate to your employee how to get there.
Being able to collaborate cross-functionally with product leads? Twenty experience points.
Being able to lead a technical project while driving for results with all collaborators? Twenty-five experience points.
One lesson gamers learn from especially challenging games (I am looking at you, Hollow Knight!) is that you need to play a lot in order to master your skills. After a while of falling on spikes, getting rammed by a rhino-like bug, and falling to your death because your jumping skills need work, you get ever-so-slightly better. Soon, you can bypass all the rhino-bugs and fly over those spikes with ease. Plus, you have honed your reflexes to master the spin jump. What happens then? You unlock the secret door with — wait for it — more challenging skills to develop!
This formula has engaged a generation of gamers, and with the right mindset, it can give you an edge at managing your team and unlocking their abilities.
Power-Ups Along the Way
Game developers have been tossing us power-ups for years — those mushrooms in Super Mario Bros. that increase your size, speed, and strength; coins and hearts that add extra life, health, and stamina. What power-ups have you provided to your employees to improve their leveling experience?
For starters, you could try:
- Creative benefits like yoga in the workplace to help employees de-stress
- Access to online learning platforms so they can hone and learn new skills on their own time
- Regular feedback conversations where the topic is career development
- Stretch assignments to introduce new work
The cool thing about power-ups in video games is they can be hidden anywhere, and it is really engaging to find them. Help your employees find the power-ups at your company, and give them incentive to stay engaged.
The Gamification Mindset
Every single one of us, regardless of generation, should learn from millennials. We should all adopt the gaming mindset. As an HR leader, I routinely ask for feedback now, and I deliver ongoing feedback to my teams so they can save their games often. When you consider there are people now making money just playing video games, it’s obvious they are here to stay. And like millennials, video games will have an increasing impact on how we work as time goes on.
When I was a kid back in the ’80s, I played computer games all the time. I also played on an Atari and Colecovision. Yep, dawn-of-the-gaming-era-type stuff! I wasn’t really into sports, so I never went outside to play, and I can recall mom yelling at me, “Those video games will rot your brain!”
A few years back, while I was at Zynga, I bought my mom a new TV and computer. It brought me an insane amount of joy to tell her that gaming paid for those gifts.
Matt Frassica is HR and people leader at Discord.