Games and Simulations: Leadership Development for Distributed Teams

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 3.16.26 PM


Leadership is a vast and difficult topic with multiple perspectives and definitions (Guthrie, Phelps, & Downey, 2011, Jang & Ryu, 2011).  Added to this complexity, is the fact that the world is becoming more distributed (Lisk, Kaplancali, & Riggio, 2012 p. 145) and globalized (Ee & Cho, 2012, p. 25). This has led to an increase of distributed teams in the global marketplace (Hinds & Bailey, 2003). As the world changes and teams become more distributed, new leadership skills are needed (Ee & Cho, 2012). These new skills include the ability to communicate with others who are geographically separated using technology assisted communication tools, and the ability to communicate effectively with little to no social cues (Ee & Cho, 2012, p. 25). This complexity, and the changing environment, makes it difficult to teach others leadership skills. Aldrich (2003) suggests that it is difficult to learn management and leadership skills well in a linear environment.  Many educational environments are structured in a linear fashion. When considering the complex dynamics of a leadership role, a linear structure might not be the best option for teaching leadership skills for distributed teams. The leadership skills needed in this distributed environment might be best met through an online gaming environment, where the players have the opportunity to develop and practice skills similar to the ones mentioned above (Ee & Cho, 2012).  In fact, Lisk et al. (2012), suggest that studying certain online games and the types of teams that exist within these games might be the best place to gain valuable insights into the needs of these new distributed teams.  This paper will present reasons why certain types of online games and simulations are useful to the development of leadership skills needed for distributed teams.

Distributed Teams Defined

As the concept of distributed teams might not be clear, a short discussion on distributed teams follows. Distributed teams are defined by Hinds and Bailey (2003), as teams that are geographically separated, a team whose members live in various continents, in different countries and cities. As the world becomes more interconnected, based on changes in the global economy, organizations are faced with several factors that are fueling the creation of distributed teams (Hinds & Bailey, 2003).  These factors include pressures to increase production, the expansion of business into the global marketplace and increased mergers and acquisitions (Hinds & Bailey, 2003). These types of teams, ones that are distributed, are the focus of this paper.

Learning Theories To Support Game Based Learning

Before discussing whether or not games and simulations can assist in the development of leadership skills for distributed teams, this paper will delve into the educational theories, which support the type of learning that occur in certain games. There are several learning theories that support the various types of learning occurring in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft (WOW). Social cognitive theory (Ee & Cho, 2012), situated learning, and experiential learning are a few of these theories (Guthrie et al., 2011).

Learning through observations is the basis for social cognitive theory. (Ee & Cho, 2012).  These observations usually take place within social interactions with others, where three factors are customarily in play: behavioral factors, environmental factors and personal factors (Ee & Cho, 2012).  Online gaming worlds, such as WOW, offer an environment where social skills are practiced through observations of and interaction with other players (Lisk et al., 2012).

Social interaction is also an extremely important part of situated learning where learning happens in response to action within a particular group (Guthrie et al., 2011). This group is much like a community of practice, where social interactions and collaboration assist in building knowledge (Guthrie, et. al, 2011).  Deeper exploration into virtual worlds reveals this type of community within guilds and other groups formed in the game (Guthrie et al., 2011).

In experiential learning, people learn as a part of a process where four levels exist. These levels include experimentation, examination, evaluation, and then planning of action. Experiential learning is a process of learning gained from experiences (Guthrie, Phelps, & Downey, 2011). The interactive and collaborative nature of the gaming environment allows players to engage in a process similar to the levels mentioned above (Guthrie et al., 2011).  In the learning theories discussed above, learning takes place because of social interaction and observation (Guthrie et al., 2011).  Online gaming worlds, such as WOW, offer players a chance to work in teams and solve problems. These open types of environments provide multiple ways to succeed and offer benefits for the development of distributed team leadership skills (Lisk et al., 2012).

Games Support Learning

In order to better understand how games can help to support the development of distributed leadership, game based learning and the educational environment that games can create will be explored.  Games and simulations are becoming more accepted as educationally viable ways in which to learn (Guthrie et al., 2011).  This is evident in the fact that many important organizations such as airlines, the military and Wall Street, all make use of simulations for training purposes (Aldrich, 2003).  Game based learning is effective because it spurs participation, is very interactive and provides timely feedback, all of which assist learners in retaining the information they have just learned (Lisk et al., 2012).  This feedback also provides participants the opportunity to analyze the situation deeper, make adjustments and then try new approaches or styles of leadership (Guthrie et al., 2011).  A problem with learning leadership in a typical educational setting is that most educational environments work in a linear fashion (Aldrich, 2003).  It has been suggested that one cannot learn management and leadership skills well in an environment that is only linear in nature (Aldrich, 2003).  In fact, Aldrich (2003) states that all three types of content, linear, cyclical and open-ended are needed.  He also suggests that games offer a learning environment where all three types of content exist (Aldrich, 2003).  Games create an open environment, which is structured enough to offer players a chance to practice using the newly gained knowledge in various ways (Lisk et al., 2012). This situation offers a safe environment to make errors and learn from those errors, without concern for the consequences those mistakes might create outside the game (Lisk et al., 2012).  In regards to improving on errors made during game play, games can also be replayed using different methods allowing for improvement on mistakes (Lisk et al., 2012). This safe practice environment provides the cyclical content mentioned by Aldrich (2003) and can strengthen the development of the skills being practiced.

Games, Simulations and Distributed Leadership

Simulations and online virtual worlds offer the opportunity to gain experience in leadership skills (Guthrie et al., 2011).  This experiential learning experience can assist in the development of leadership skill because participants can watch others in leadership roles and can also participate in leadership roles themselves (Guthrie et al., 2011).  Leadership is an important aspect in online gaming worlds such as WOW (Lisk et al., 2012).   These online game environments allow players the opportunity to participate in tasks, which are similar to those carried out in real life situations (Jang & Ryu, 2011). These tasks include searching for and gaining new members, motivational aspects for the maintenance of the team and other organizational duties (Jang & Ryu, 2011).  The research of Jung and Ryu (2011) showed that players within games who demonstrate a preference towards team playing had more chances to experience leadership within the game. This same study suggests that these game based leadership experiences might improve leadership outside the game (Jang & Ryu, 2011). According to Jang and Ryu (2011), the possibilities for gaining leadership skills and then transferring them to actual life situations are highest within MMORPGs.  However, the authors of this study also maintain that the level of transfer from the game to real life has yet to be researched at a deep enough level and suggest this for further studies.

As the world changes and teams become more distributed, it is clear that new skills will be needed (Ee & Cho, 2012).  These news skills include the ability to communicate with others who are geographically separated using technology assisted communication tools, and the ability to communicate effectively with little to no social cues (Ee & Cho, 2012). The leadership skills needed in the distributed teams might be best met by an online gaming environment, where the players have the opportunity to develop and practice skills similar to the ones needed for effective distributed teams (Ee & Cho, 2012).  One study suggests that studying certain online games and the types of teams that exist within these games, might be the best place to gain valuable insights into the needs of distributed teams (Lisk et al., 2012).

Issues and Concerns

While it appears that simulations and other online learning environments such as MMORPGs may offer greater insights into the leadership needs of distributed teams, there are other concerns which have been raised which might hinder their use for leadership skills development.  First, these types of online learning environments are complex and this complexity makes them difficult to learn (Lisk et al., 2012). This learning curve or inability to use the program may hinder usefulness of the simulation or game. In one study, a participant stated that they were unsuccessful at leading, not because they lacked leadership skills but because they lacked the ability to use the technology well enough (Lisk et al., 2012).

Another reason simulations and online games might not be considered for use in leadership training is that research on this topic, while trying to advocate its development and heralding the potential and applicability to real life situations, fails to examine the actual process of its development (Ee & Cho, 2012).  This is an overly generalized approach, which needs to be balanced by opposing views on the subject (Ee & Cho, 2012).

Finally, while games provide an environment where players can experience learning with all three content types, practice skills development in a safe place where it is okay to make mistakes and can gain experience in things similar to real life situations, there is no evidence that these skills will transfer in all situation (Lisk et al., 2012).  In fact, according to Jang and Ryu (2011), more research is needed to discover the level of transfer of leaderships skills developed in the game to real life leadership situations.


While it is clear from the limitations discussed above, that the use of games to assist in the development of leadership skills is not perfect, it is this author’s opinion that the positive aspects give strong enough weight to continue research in this area. Most of the areas of concern deal with transfer to real life situations. However, the purpose of this paper is to connect the use of online games to the development of the skills needed in distributed teams. There is a difference between distributed teams and the traditional face-to-face teams in the leadership skills needed (Lisk et al., 2012).  Ee and Cho (2012), suggest that as the world becomes increasingly distributed it is the leadership skills players experience in MMORPGs that might be the most similar to the skills needed in these new distributed teams. Therefore, in the area of leadership studies, the role of MMORPGs cannot be overlooked (Ee & Cho, 2012).


Aldrich, C. (2003). Simulations and the Future of Learning: An Innovative (and Perhaps Revolutionary) Approach to e-Learning (1 edition.). Pfeiffer.

Ee, A., & Cho, H. (2012). What Makes an MMORPG Leader? A social cognitive theory-based approach to understanding the formation of leadership capabilities in massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture, 6(1), 25–37.

Guthrie, K. L., Phelps, K., & Downey, S. (2011). Virtual worlds. Journal of Leadership Studies, 5(2), 6–13. doi:10.1002/jls.20214

Hinds, P. J., & Bailey, D. E. (2003). Out of sight, out of sync: Understanding conflict in distributed Teams. Organization Science, 14(6), 615–632.

Jang, Y., & Ryu, S. (2011). Exploring game experiences and game leadership in massively multiplayer online role-playing games. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42(4), 616–623. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2010.01064.x

Lisk, T. C., Kaplancali, U. T., & Riggio, R. E. (2012). Leadership in Multiplayer Online Gaming Environments. Simulation & Gaming, 43(1), 133–149. doi:10.1177/1046878110391975



Share and Enjoy

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Delicious
  • LinkedIn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *