I know what you’re thinking. You’ve read the title of this piece and you’re expecting a smart-assed apologetic for all the shoot ‘em up, high resolution, military-themed and/or zombie-infested kill fests that absorb the lives of so many young(ish) people these days. And you probably think I’m just one of the bug-eyed, finger twitching masses. Well, relax. I haven’t played video games since the turn of the century. However, revisiting the video games of my youth has allowed me to see some of the lessons taught to me by Super Mario and crew.
Let me take you back… back to a time when cartoons were drawn by hand, when moonwalking was cool (for that matter when “cool” was cool and not “sick”), when The Simpsons was funny, and when most of the Berlin Wall was still standing. I was ten years old and, in a couple of my friends’ basements, had been exposed to something called Nintendo. Another friend also had a Sega —two distinct universes of muscle-bound ninja reptiles and sword-swinging elves. Eventually I got my own Nintendo. The controls were simple, the graphics crude (at least by today’s standards), but they kept me coming back for more. One of my first favorites was the game Final Fantasy (yes, the original one). You might not think you can learn much about management from a motley crew of four pixilated, mute main characters slashing at equally pixilated monsters on a television screen. But you’d be wrong.
For those non-gamers out there (let’s face it, anyone who can truly call themselves a gamer has to have played Final Fantasy), allow me to set the scene for you. You pop the cartridge in, power on, and read (yes, read actual text) that a group of four warriors must be chosen to battle the forces of darkness and restore peace to the land. Then you get to choose your characters. My favourite team was the Fighter, the Black Belt, the Black Wizard, and the White Wizard. The other two options were a Red Wizard and a Thief. And if you wanted, you could choose four of the exact same character (i.e. four Fighters or four Thieves).
You only have a vague idea of what each character will be able to contribute as the game unfolds, but they all have unique attributes and skills. You only get to choose four characters and your choice is going to be based mostly on first impressions. Sounding familiar yet?
Lesson: Choose your team wisely. Given the unknown nature of the challenges ahead, a diversity of talent is probably the best way to go.
Furthermore, whichever characters you choose you’re stuck with them for the next two hundred hours of play that it’s going to take you to complete the game.
Lesson: Once you have your team, make the most of them. Don’t waste energy thinking about what warriors you could or should have chosen.
The game begins and you find yourself on the doorsteps of a town with nothing but your three buddies and a few coins in your pocket. You enter the town and visit the shops only to find that you don’t have nearly enough money to buy everything that you’re going to need to face a world of monsters just waiting to gobble you up. The only way to put some money in your purse is to battle some of those monsters and win. So you could blow the wad on that spiffy suit of iron armor for your Fighter or that wicked sounding fire spell for your Black Wizard, leaving the rest of your team with scarcely more than the skin on their backs, but you don’t. You go with the basics: leather armor all around, and a crude weapon or two to make the battles go faster.
Lesson: Invest wisely and ensure that no one warrior excels at the expense of the team.
Now you’ve got some basic defenses and you’re confident that you’re not going to be taken out by the first pack of imps that crosses your path. But you really have no idea how you and your buddies are going to end the Age of Darkness, so what do you do? You start talking to the townsfolk.
Lesson: When in doubt, network.
Through your investigations you discover that there’s some bully named Garland stirring up trouble from his castle in the north. You may not be able to save the world today, but you can help the good people of this village rest easier at night.
Lesson: Face the challenges on your doorstep before you worry about what lies down the road.
You have a mission! You’re going to go up north and show this bully that he can’t boss around peaceful villagers and get away with it. When? Uh… tomorrow… maybe. Today you’re taking an honest assessment of your team. Although your warriors have that feisty look in their eyes, the muscles in their arms aren’t looking so hot. That first sword you purchased doesn’t look like Excalibur and your wizards have barely mastered “Abracadabra!” So what do you do? You start a neighbourhood watch and kick some local monster butt to get some experience.
Lesson: Don’t pick a fight you can’t win.
While our warriors are out gaining that experience, allow me to introduce you to each of these characters to give you an idea of what your team looks like.
First, you’ve got your Fighter. He’s the six-foot-four guy with the broad shoulders and the big sword. The one with the brooding look on his face, the buzz cut and the scars on his arms. He almost never talks, seldom smiles and couldn’t crack a joke if his life depended on it, but he’s always got your back. He’s the guy you send into the bar first.
Lesson: When entering a new situation, project an aura of strength.
Right behind the Fighter is your Thief. With perfect hair, perfect teeth, a smile on his face and a swagger in his step, he instantly knows just how the pool table is slanted. He’s not as big and burly as your fighter, but he’s cheap to outfit, he pulls his own weight and, let’s face it, better he’s on your team than someone else’s. He’s the one you send to negotiate the price of the room.
Lesson: Carefully crafted words can be just as important as a sharp sword.
Then there’s your Black Belt. He’s naked from the waist up and why not —brother is ripped! He walks with confidence, expression totally blank, ignoring everyone in the room but completely aware of everything that’s going on. He’s the cheapest of all to outfit. With enough practice, his bare hands become better than any weapon you could buy for him. He’s the one judo flipping the guy who tried to pick his pocket.
Lesson: Less is more. Sometimes it’s better to develop what you have than to invest in the latest, greatest pair of nun chucks.
Bringing up the rear are your wizards: Black, White and Red (I’ll spare you the newspaper joke). They’re the skinny ones with the flashy, colourful robes and the huge backpacks full of spells. Your Black Wizard deals in all varieties of mayhem: lightning bolts, fireballs, blizzards, the works! The White Wizard knows just what to whisper when you feel like crap and also which spells to thwart enemy attacks. Whitey is also the only character who can use magic that’s effective against undead monsters —the nastiest looking monsters in the game! Old Red can deal in a little bit of both, but isn’t great at either. Having spent a little more time outside than his two pals, he can swing a sword as well as cast a spell, but he’ll never raise the dead. Your wizards are the ones keeping track of the tab to make sure no one gets ripped off.
Lesson: No one is good at everything. No one!
As an aside, the literature surrounding Final Fantasy almost always refers to the characters with male pronouns, but for some reason I remember me and my friends referring to the White Wizard as “she.” Maybe we did this because we collectively felt the game needed at least one female hero. Maybe we felt there was something inherently feminine about taking care of others and scaring away the scariest of monsters. I suppose that’s another essay, but in keeping with my childhood tradition I will continue to refer to the White Wizard as “she.”
Lesson: If you haven’t got at least one woman on your team, find one!
Now, of all the things you can buy in town, spells for your wizards are by far the most expensive. What’s more, you have no idea what exactly they do before you buy them.
Lesson: Tuition is a bitch and sometimes the piece of paper you get in return is just that, a piece of paper.
But in Final Fantasy, unlike in real life, you can save your game, buy your spells, try them out and then hit the “Reset” button if they turn out to be a bad bargain. The same goes for weapons and armor. They may have a hefty price tag, but you don’t know if they’re actually better than what you’ve already got before you try them out.
Lesson: Caveat emptor (buyer, beware). Learn as much as you can about an investment before making it. Don’t gamble with hard-won resources.
Okay! You’re ready! Your team is built up, your equipment is the best that the town has to offer, you’ve got some kickass spells memorized and you’ve got all the extra provisions you can afford. You’re ready to head north and show that bully Garland what’s what. Unfortunately the road north is no piece of cake. It’s longer than you thought it would be and the monsters along the way are getting tougher and meaner with every step, including a few that you’ve never seen before. You’re tempted to nuke that menacing werewolf with a fireball or two, but you don’t. You’ve still got Garland to contend with.
Lesson: Imagine that the road to victory will be difficult, prepare for it to be very difficult.
Lesson: Save your most powerful strategies for worthy opponents.
Finally you reach Garland’s Castle. It looks big and scary, your team is exhausted and it’s getting dark. So you wisely decide to pitch a tent for the night, get some rest and face your adversary fresh.
Lesson: You don’t have to put your best foot forward every day, but make sure to do so when it really counts.
Garland puts up a good fight. Your comrades are on the ropes more than once and you exhaust the supplies that were so expensive to build up. Your White Wizard is all out of healing spells, you’ve spent your last fireball, and your Fighter is huffing and puffing like a racehorse. Then, just when you think you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, Garland kicks it. You catch your breath, count up the haul of gold you’ve won and limp back to town.
Lesson: No battle worth fighting was ever easy.
The people are so grateful that they build a bridge in your honour, opening up a whole continent for you to explore. You rest, repair your armor, stock up on supplies and cross the bridge to the great unknown.
Lesson: One adventure always leads to another.
As your team ventures further afield they learn how the different forces of the world operate. For example, a fireball might be effective against an imp, but doesn’t work so well when battling the Fiend of Fire herself. Try an ice sword instead.
Lesson: Fighting fire with fire might work, but there are better options.
Eventually you’ll win a pirate ship to carry you across the water, an airship which will finally allow you to choose your battles to a certain extent, and an ancient, friendly dragon living on a lonely island who will offer your team the chance to win their greatest boon of all.
So that’s my defense of video games and the bulk of what I learned about management from Final Fantasy in particular. I won’t give away any more of the story to those of you who plan to download this little gem and take on the challenge of saving the world yourself. I don’t know if other kids learned these same lessons in their basements. I’m sure these lessons could have been learned in the fresh air with real people too, and I don’t know if video games today offer the same opportunities. But I do know that there’s more to these games than meets the eye of the disapproving “adult.”
You just have to look.