Elon Musk and video games: should all business leaders be playing?
The new biography of Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson reveals that the Tesla boss plays video games regularly and that he thinks they make you a better leader and decision-maker.
One of Musk’s favourite games is The Battle of Polytopia, which he admits to playing obsessively and through the night. Polytopia is an online strategy game where you must work with and against other tribes to try to build an empire.
Musk is quoted in the biography as saying that video games have taught him that “empathy is not an asset”. This fits with a long-standing view of business that it is necessary to have a ruthless streak. Musk’s comments also appear to reflect a wider trend. An annual survey of 3000 HR professionals by organisational consulting firm Korn Ferry found that one-third did not find their CEO to be empathetic, which is a 16% decrease from 2022.
However, Chris Paton, the managing director of Quirk Solutions, the HR consultancy, contests Musk’s view of empathy not being an asset. “That may have been a contributing factor to his approach over the last 20 years, but modern organisational cultures and demographic shifts are seeing an increasing level of business performance deriving from empathetic leadership,” he says. “According to Deloitte, 94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to business success.”
There is research that suggests empathy is a valuable skill for a leader. A study of nearly 1,000 employees by Catalyst found that when people reported their leaders were empathetic, they were more likely to report they were able to be innovative. Employees who experienced empathy from their leaders also reported that they were more engaged.
Musk has said that he has learned other lessons from Polytopia, including not fearing loss, being proactive in strategies, and learning to pick your battles wisely. The Canadian venture capital investor Shivon Zilis has played the game alongside Musk and praised its ability to teach “so many life lessons”.
Paton added: “When we think about gaming, there is no doubt that the principles suggested by Elon Musk around being open to failure and exploring strategies are absolutely key. That said, I think that the approach should go beyond just a personal experience on a video game. Done correctly, gaming is a great way of helping us work out where we want to focus our attention/business, and how we will win in those areas.
“It identifies the gaps in our knowledge and the weaknesses in our plans. It allows our teams to add their perspectives in a psychologically safe space. But this requires us to apply games in a way that is relevant to our businesses, and not just our personal entertainment.”
Musk is not the only successful businessman to claim there are leadership benefits from video-gaming. Elliot Noss, the president and chief executive of Tucows, the technology group, has discussed how playing World of Warcraft for six to seven hours every week helped him. In an interview with Forbes, Noss said: “You have these events that are very leadership-driven. For example, when you’re in a raid that’s poorly led, it’s really easy to see how valuable skills are like managing the social dynamic, making sure there was the right level of preparation and making sure that there was a clear hierarchy in terms of who is performing what roles.”
Five games for business leaders to play
Although the jury is still out on whether business leaders should love video-gaming as much as Elon Musk, here are five games that business leaders might be able to learn lessons from:
The Battle of Polytopia
The world’s richest person refers to “Polytopia Life Lessons” in his latest biography, a big endorsement for any game.
Capitalism Lab markets itself as the ultimate business simulation game. The successor to the award-winning Capitalism 2, it’s an in-depth strategy game that covers almost every aspect of business that could be encountered in the real world.
Rise of Industry
Perfect for entrepreneurs with an interest in industrial history, Rise of Industry is a business tycoon game where players attempt to grow an industrial empire during the early 20th century.
First released in 1991, the turn-based strategy game has sold 1.5 million copies since its release. Now in its sixth iteration and regarded as one of the most influential games in history, Civilization tasks the player with leading an entire human civilisation over the course of several millennia.
A great game for travel enthusiasts, or people into trains, Mashinky requires players to build a transport empire. You start the game at the beginning of the 20th century and work your way through to super-modern magnetic levitation train-sets.