Rendering Leaders From Virtual Worlds: The Implications of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games for Public Policy Leadership

As a result of technology and changing consumer behaviors, entirely new avenues for cultivating leadership have sprung up that have the possibility to hone leadership skills for a new generation of public policy makers.

In the past two decades, one of the major shifts in how the Western World recreates has been away from passive consumption of entertainment and toward participatory activity in the form of video games.  This change has been driven by gaming experiences that are increasingly robust, complex, engaging and immersive.

The evolution of games was radically enhanced by the advent of the Internet and the ability for users to play simultaneously with one another online either in cooperation or competition.  This capacity, once only reserved for a handful of players at a time, has grown to the ability for millions of players to be online in the same environment, interacting with one another in real-time.

World of Warcraft (WoW) is one of the most popular Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) , with over eight million players who pay for a monthly subscription (Healey, 2013).  During its peak, that number was over 12 million.

Image: wowmedia

Image: wowmedia

WoW offers players the opportunity to explore the virtual world of Azaroth in solo play, or to join “guilds” of many players who work cooperatively toward the goal of acquiring wealth and powerful magical items.  Currently there are over 230,000 guilds – some of which contain hundreds of members (Holisky, 2012).  The high level of competition within the game means that the stakes are high for successful cooperation among members of a guild.

As it currently stands, video games are a $66 billion dollar industry in the United States (Nayak, 2013).  They now attract players of all ages and genders to an activity that was formerly reserved only for adolescent males.  The environments in which games take place are increasingly valuable as laboratories for studying human behavior.  For several years now, economists have studied currency and trade in virtual worlds.  Epidemiologists studied the spread of infection within WoW, which has happened on two notable occasions as a result of a glitch that failed to contain the effects of a new and advanced enemy to a particular geographical area within the game.

It is arguable that a game does not possess the same level of intensity as the real world; however consider that WoW brings in $1 billion per year to Blizzard Entertainment, its parent software company.  A massive black market in virtual items and gold has existed online as well, also estimated to be worth $1 billion per year.  The time commitment to playing WoW and “raiding” on behalf of one’s guild amounts to a part-time job for many players, amounting to an average of 22.7 hours per week.

The applicability of time spent on MMORPGs to public policy leadership is best described by J.S. Brown and D. Thomas in an April, 2006 article in Wired:

“A guild is a collection of players who come together to share knowledge, resources, and manpower. To run a large one, a guild master must be adept at many skills: attracting, evaluating, and recruiting new members; creating apprenticeship programs; orchestrating group strategy; and adjudicating disputes. Guilds routinely splinter over petty squabbles and other basic failures of management; the master must resolve them without losing valuable members, who can easily quit and join a rival guild. Never mind the virtual surroundings; these conditions provide real-world training a manager can apply directly in the workplace” (par. 4). 

These findings were echoed by Williams et al in their study of WoW:

Rank-and-file members recognized the crucial roles and responsibilities of GMs even while their preferences for leadership styles varied. As one member put it, leadership in WoW takes “serious energy, charisma, vision, politics and personality.” Smaller guilds flourished when GMs facilitated social support. In larger guilds in which demand for membership was high, GMs were able to enforce codes of ethics, police disputes, coordinate scheduling, and even impose lofty guiding philosophies. Some large guilds functioned as a virtual barracks; these were task-oriented military-style hierarchies. Others managed to maintain casual social atmospheres more akin to a children’s tree house play space even as they tackled difficult group tasks. There was clear evidence that the majority of players wanted a firm leader to enforce norms and policies. One player said the ideal GM is “Impartial. Strong. Consistent.” Leaders who were seen as inconsistent or unethical quickly lost their positions or saw their guilds break up via quitting members or even coup d’états. 

Consider, also, that managing groups within a virtual space may actually be more challenging than in the “real world” due to the limits placed on interpersonal communication.  Most guild leaders never interact with their membership face-to-face, rather they are forced to use the mediated forms of communication online in order to maintain productivity.

This feature of online gaming might actually be better preparation for public policy leaders of the future given that all human interaction is increasingly electronically-mediated, with employees and colleagues located across the country or the globe.

Public policy leadership training would do well to consider massive social gaming atmospheres as training simulators for burgeoning leaders.  It provides an entertaining and consequence-free way to practice the skills needed for sturdy leadership. 



Brown, J. S. and Thomas, D. (2006).  You Play World of Warcraft? You’re Hired!  – Why multiplayer games may be the best kind of job training.  Wired.  April, 2006.  Accessed 15 June, 2013 from 

Evangelho, I. (2012).  ‘League of Legends’ Bigger Than ‘WoW,’ More Daily Players Than ‘Call of Duty’.  Forbes.  12 Oct. 2012.  Accessed 15 Jun 2013 from 

Healey, Nic. “World of Warcraft loses 1.3m players – PC Games”. Retrieved 2013-05-09.

Holisky, A. (2012).  World of Warcraft’s top 20 guild names.  WoW Insider, 2 Nov. 2012.  Accessed 15 Jun. 2013 from 

Nayak, M.  (2013).  A look at the $66 billion video-games industry.  Reuters, 10 Jun 2013.  Accessed 15 Jun 2013 from 

Williams, D., Duchenaut, N., Xiong, L., Zhang, Y., Yee, N., and Nickell, E. (2006).  From Tree House to Barracks: The Social Life of Guilds in World of Warcraft.  Games and Culture October 2006 1: 338-361, doi:10.1177/1555412006292616

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