By Cliff Edwards
Who says you shouldn't mix business with pleasure? Not Ross Mayfield, chief executive officer of open-source software company Socialtext. He plays the hugely popular online game World of Warcraft at least 10 hours a week at home, at work, even during a few minutes of downtime in an airport. It's many a chief executive's secret dream to challenge a foe to a duel—and win much of the time.
But it's also serious business. Mayfield's sometime online nemesis is in real life a Socialtext board member, Joichi Ito, who is an executive at blog-indexing company Technorati. In between sparring and bloody mayhem, Mayfield and Ito chat online about pressing issues at the company. "World of Warcraft is the new golf," Mayfield says. "It's competitive and social at the same time."
Once upon a time, nine holes or a game of chess or poker kept the cobwebs out. Nowadays, for hypercompetitive types and just about anyone under 30, those are as demanding as Rock, Paper, Scissors. Video-game hardware plus software has grown into a $30 billion worldwide phenomenon, thanks to increasingly interactive game-play that doesn't just test how you perform mano a mano against another player or a computer but allows you to go up against dozens, even thousands of others in online fantasy worlds.
Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft is Exhibit A of the Internet gaming explosion. After nearly two years on the market, an eternity in this world, the game has 6 million subscribers who pay $15 a month to become, among other things, hunters, dwarves, and shamans in an epic battle for control of the world of Azeroth. At any given time of the day, at least 500,000 players are online.
These aren't just teenagers cloistered in dark rooms. Mayfield, for one, has brought together a "guild" of about 60 flesh-and-blood players, including police officers, soldiers, nurses, and even his 10-year-old daughter. Early on in the game, a player is on his own, but as the difficulty mounts, players need to team up. In these virtual worlds, one wrong move could lead to the slaughter of half your team. The games are also showcases of technological savvy. Players send text messages, use headsets to chat, and give visual signals on their PC screens to coordinate moves.
Internet games in China are played largely in dimly lit, smoke-filled cafes crowded with a cross section of some of the 20 million Chinese who play online, many for days at a time. The government late last year moved to deter people from gaming longer than three hours at a time to prevent addiction, after a man killed a fellow player who had stolen his virtual sword.
Passions may run high, but there's more than raw competition at work. Busy executives like Mayfield and Ito see such real-time multiplayer games as a good way to sharpen their management skills. They formulate strategies, research weaknesses in opposing players, and do a little networking on the side. "I'm learning about leadership, group dynamics, project management, governance, friendship, and trust," Ito says. "It's a fascinating sort of management style that could be used in many real-life situations."
Then, too, there's something to be said simply for the habit-forming fun of conquering new realms. Ito, who plays 20 hours a week, is so hooked that, as he gave a presentation remotely at a recent conference on emerging technology, the audience could hear the constant chatter of his fellow guild members through a speaker system connected to his PC. Says Mayfield: "CEOs are people, too. We all have different ways of grabbing downtime, and [gaming] happens to be one of them." You'd have to be very committed indeed to be on the losing end of a horde of Undead and keep coming back for more.
Edwards is a correspondent with BusinessWeek in San Mateo, Calif.