Scott Novis

Games and Leadership: People Helping People Grow

When I first got into the video game industry, I was the vice president of Rainbow Studios engineering.  I did not want “video games” on my business card. I was pretty buttoned up, and I would come to our windowless building on 7th street and sit in my windowless office next to the bathroom and try to figure out what the heck I was supposed to do.  I had come out of Motorola’s management training (then called Motorola University) and I was excited to help the development team at Rainbow Succeed. I had been a manager of a very diverse team at Motorola for several years. I had people reporting to me in Austin Texas as well as Phoenix Arizona and we supported customers all over the world.  Everyone who reported to me had an MBA (I do not).  Not everyone had an engineering degree (I have two).  I considered that a fair trade.


But at Rainbow it was different.  Everyone in the company was crammed into these tiny offices, desks on top of each other slamming away making magic happen.  It was a long time before I relaxed enough to actually play a game at work.  When I did (the game was Age of Empires published by Microsoft) the team came out of their offices to cheer me.  I had become one of them. I let me guard down and I was hooked.


Over the next 7 years I would play lots of games at work.  I also learned that making games is more fun than playing them most of the time.  It’s more challenging, more interesting, and more rewarding. However, I also learned something about video games from working at the studio.  We had everything at the studio.  Every console, the most powerful computers with the best graphics cards.  We could play anything we wanted. I can’t tell you how weird it was the first time I went to GameStop and bought video games with my company credit card.  I was like, “I really get to do this?”


And what I learned was that playing games with people, in the same room was absolutely magic.  It was our favorite way of playing. No matter what we played, as long as we played it together it was awesome.  Playing online with people we could not see paled in comparison.


That memory stuck with me when I formed GameTruck.  Playing together really trumped playing alone. And that’s what we set out to do, help people play together.  Of course it turned out to be mostly kids that played together, but over and over again getting kids in the same space had this unbelievable energizing effect on them.  I knew it from the studio. When we can see each other, it’s not just a little more fun, it is exponentially more fun.


That sense of fun has sustained our business for more than a decade.  However, something interesting has started to happen with video games.  Well, not the games but the people. When I worked in the studio, the only people who knew more about the games than the players worked in the studios. The game makers themselves.  And those players? Mostly kids.


A few years ago however we started to see a shift.  More and more adult players were getting into the games as much, or more than the kids.  We started to find coaches who were experts in video games, not just fans, but genuine top shelf competitors.  Then we heard the word esports.


The gradual rise of adult video experts felt like watching ice melt… nothing, nothing, nothing then bang water everywhere.  There really is a cultural turning point.


If you were at least 13 years old when the Atari came out in the late 1970’s you probably played with one. You also probably learned that videogames are kind of fun, but ultimately not very interesting. Let’s face it Pong could only hold your interest for so long. Those early consoles defined the expectations for a generation.  Players learned games were fun, but not very interesting… or important.


This period of time falls into what technologists call “the valley of disappointment.”  We are exposed to technology but it does not live up to our expectations so we get bored with it.  But technology does not stop. It keeps developing. And that is what happened to video games.


What most of those adults could not have projected was the unimaginable rate of growth in sophistication of video games. Video games became incomprehensibly sophisticated, and tremendously important to children who grew up playing them.


The book “Got Game” by John C Beck documented how a wave of kids entered the workforce in the 1990’s and built the dot-com bubble. They created massive companies, not only with no experience, but without the feeling that they needed any.


Beck wrote that players who grew up with video games, just a decade later, believed that no one older knew anything about the subjects important to them.  (Such as technology and videogames). Beck argued that they ran their companies like an avatar dropped into a videogame level. “I wouldn’t be here unless I could figure it out,” seemed to be their montra.  Turning to someone older would be pointless.


The rise of gen-Y masked some of this trend, but not all of it. Kids still believed only kids knew about video games. It was the same kind of attitude.  The: “you have to figure out for yourself” mindset. Imagine a world where no one could teach you how to play baseball, or basketball or football because, “no one older than you knew anything”.


Kind of hard to imagine right?  What a train wreck that would be!


And yet, welcome to the video game industry.  For decades games have been like that.


As we close in on the year 2020 however, the world is changing. Videogames technology play mechanics have plateaued to a certain degree.  While the experiences and underlying technology continue to develop exponentially, the controls and approaches have stabilized. There are innovations yes, but at a vastly diminished rate. Play mechanics have largely solidified into something that has remained constant over years instead of months or weeks.  


As a result, what you find now is something that did not exist even 10 years ago. Adults who know more about video games than the kids they raise. For the first time in the industry, adults – not just developers – are able to mentor their children in video games.


That is a stunning shift, and one that has been a long time in coming.


I am convinced we are now entering an era where adults can once again assume a leadership role in helping children grow in areas that are important to the kids themselves. Yes I’m talking about videogames. This is exciting!  It means we have the opportunity to reconnect with kids so that we have people helping people improve, not technology teaching people.


Perhaps for the first time, I think it is possible to have role models for videogamers, who are themselves, videogamers.  Believe it or not, I think the time has come to have videogame mentors.


And that matters, because we all need someone to look up to.  Especially our kids.