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The generation lap

Video games put the young way ahead

Every parent with children from 6 to 30 knows one immutable truth -- these kids get technology -- and despite our best efforts we really don't. Having grown up with it, they're naturals. On everything from that famous flashing 12:00 on the VCR to the unmapped thicket of menus on a "simple point and shoot" camera, the story is always the same: We struggle; they zoom ahead.

There's something deeply wrong about that. After all, we're the grown-ups. We're supposed to lead in skills and wisdom and confidence, at least for a while. Yet technology has put us, not only behind, but completely out of the running. Look at the most powerful and pervasive example: video games. Give kids an unfamiliar game, and they're perfectly happy to pick up the controller; in 20 minutes, they'll be competent. In that same 20 minutes, baby boomers won't even find all the buttons. This is no generation gap -- it's a generation lap. The "gamer generation" has gone all the way around the track, and is accelerating without apparent effort. We boomers are running hard, adding skills -- and still losing ground.

Of course, it comes as no surprise how technologically savvy kids really are. Today's children have been interacting effectively with technology ever since they screamed into their first baby monitor. A Google search is second nature to them, like tying shoes. (In fact, we've known kids who were Google searching before they could tie their shoes.) We baby boomers think these skills are pretty impressive; we brag to other parents at cocktail parties and PTA meetings. We marvel at their technological savvy and fearlessness in the face of computer screens.

But there are sleepless nights where we worry what all this technology has done to them. Has this extra lap around the track ruined our progeny forever? They've never played kick-the-can or literally handwritten a letter. How can they possibly grow up to be as "normal" as we are? Have their lives been totally compromised by their hours in front of the PlayStation? Will they ever learn proper social manners when all they do is send poorly spelled and grammatically atrocious "instant messages" to their friends? Will they believe gunplay and stealing cars are normal activities of life?

Our own sleeplessness drove us to do some research. And the results stunned us -- and helped us sleep better.

We conducted a nationwide survey -- about 2,500 US business professionals -- looking for differences between those who grew up playing video games and those who did not. Among the gamers, we thought we'd find high technical skills, interesting ways of using those skills -- and real gaps in things like teamwork, leadership, and work ethic. The data, with amazing consistency, proved us wrong. Professionals who grew up playing video games actually make better business people. They're more serious about achievement; more attached to the company they work for and the people they work with; more flexible, persistent problem-solvers; more willing to take only the risks that make sense. In short, they're pretty good executives right out of the gate -- and not at all what we boomers would expect.

Looking closely at these people who grew up on video games showed us that what matters isn't the technology or even how you use it; it's how using technology changes the way you think. That's why games are especially important. The ages 5 to 15 are when kids (both boys and girls) play the most video games. Some studies suggest they average 13 hours a week. These are also the same ages when the basic neural pathways of the brain are being formed. Before about age 15, we can learn a new language, for instance, without having to connect it to an old one. After that ripe old age, we can still learn French, but only by connecting the French word to the English word that is already a part of our neural design.

No wonder the gamer generation literally "thinks differently"; they're really not wired the way we are. No wonder that our qualitative interviews found changes brewing far beyond business; the gamer generation sees the world differently -- the whole world, not just gadgets. And no wonder we boomers feel anxious; our challenge isn't unfamiliar technology, it's an unfamiliar world, already being created by the very people who have lapped us.

This generation can't help but see the world as a game. Video games have become one of their culture's deepest, most automatic, and therefore most invisible metaphors for the world around them. It's a metaphor that everyone in their generation completely understands, totally relates to, and hardly even notices. It's no surprise, then, that in our research we found that gamer generation respondents were almost twice as likely to respond positively to the statement "Winning is everything." This is a highly competitive group of people who've grown up not only believing implicitly in games, but in their own ability to win those games on a regular, reliable basis.

The gamer generation knows that learning and winning is all about trial and error. There is no owner's manual that will give you the steps you need. You have to just go out and do it. If you want to win, you have to take risks. This suggests that the dot-com boom may have just been the first of many "breakout strategies" that the gamer generation will try before they are done.

Crazy or not, these are individuals who, despite their relatively young ages, literally see themselves as experts -- and naturally look for the role of hero -- in almost everything they do. As parents, teachers, and employers, you could spend a lot of fruitless effort trying to beat the "attitude" out of this generation. But we've found that time can be much better spent harnessing that 'tude for good.

For example, you can design their projects, homework assignments, and chores so they give the gamer generation the chance to be both hero and expert. They already know from their game experience that they're going to fail much of the time -- yet can ultimately prevail. So give them tasks where, when (and if) they do succeed, they succeed on a grand scale. When the stakes are high and the emotional rewards are even higher -- everybody wins.

Games may have produced a generation of great employees, even great executives. But there's much more to life. What will these attitudes mean for the real world?

First, the gamer generation includes the most wired and globalized citizens in history, and their ascendance will mean a tighter-knit world. A summer trip to Europe is now almost a rite of passage, not an unaffordable extravagance. They've already been exposed to more foreign media by age 10 ("Pokemon" and "DragonBall Z" for starters) than many boomers have seen in their lifetimes. We doubt they'll automatically see the world in the old zero-sum chess game ways their elders do ("Either you're with us or against us"). The world may still hold threats, but our research shows that gamers will be quicker to turn those threats into opportunities, because they are measurably better at seeing many ways for various "players" to relate.

The way we spend our time and money will change as well. Just look at this past Christmas season. What were the hottest items? Digital cameras, video game equipment, plasma screen televisions, to name a few. Retailers stocking these items couldn't keep them on the shelves. The Consumer Expenditure Survey already shows those under 25 spend half of their entertainment budget on technology equipment -- a sea change from what their predecessors considered "entertainment."

Wall Street will feel the impact, as well. As investors, the gamer generation believes in measured risks -- and in getting appropriate rewards. They're used to interacting, not just with technology, but (in their view) with everything. They may not be day traders -- but they sure won't be passive, either. And they are likely to demand much more from the companies and markets that serve them. Games have given them choices, data, and above all responsiveness. Their expectations will undoubtedly rise; didn't ours?

The gamer generation's thinking -- the habits of mind created by all that technology -- will also change civic life. They demand interaction. They don't trust or even respond to authority; just try to find a video game where the hero is not a lone wolf. They believe in competence and independence. So they are already getting involved in politics in tangible, nontraditional ways -- not necessarily through getting elected to office or even working on some boomer's campaign, but through engaging in volunteerism, social networking, and other hands-on experiences. They will demand leaders who interact with them, not talk down to them with lofty platitudes. We saw evidence of this in the most recent presidential election, where younger voters cast their ballots at odds with the population at large for the first time in a generation.

The gamer generation's new thinking extends even to the biggest questions about life: their basic spiritual beliefs. This may shock parents who only know what they hear about "Grand Theft Auto," but the gamer generation grew up in a world that is basically benevolent and predictable -- or at least makes sense. Their video game training just reinforces the goodness of the world. The game designers created a world for them that may be difficult at times but is always ultimately conquerable. (And helpful! If you're wandering around lost, the instructions from headquarters start coming more often. Secret passages appear just when you need them. Pretty much like your life?) But that's their experience. Our interviews suggest the gamer generation sees the ultimate Game Designer as wanting the best for them -- they expect to win and find much happiness in this life.

In short, technology has changed everything about the world now taking shape. The changes aren't driven by machines and systems, though, but by the minds of those who've grown up with the machines. We're not saying the net effect is better or worse -- it merely is. But we know that most of our boomer video games and techno-deficit anxieties are misplaced. And, having looked closely at the generation that games created, we believe there is a hope for a more tightly knit world of people who believe in goodness, expect to work hard, and will get involved in unimaginable ways.

As for us, the techno-challenged boomers? The gamer generation is already a lap ahead -- and going interesting places. As the strategy guys say, this may be the time to be a fast follower.

John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade are authors of "Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever." 

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