How online gaming helped me become a successful tech entrepreneur (and can help your kids too)
I’m a geek and I’m not ashamed to admit it. In fact, I attribute a lot of my success to my years spent playing online games, mostly Starcraft. That’s why I’m planning to allow (and even encourage) my daughters to grow up as geeks.
When it comes to kids, there seems to be a consensus that “screen time is bad.” But I would argue that just like with calories, (there are good calories and there are bad calories) there’s a difference between “good screen time” and “bad screen time.” And playing the right online games can be actually positive and beneficial for a developing mind.
I played a LOT as a child, and it didn’t hinder me at all in other areas of my life. I have friends and family, I started several multi-million dollar startups, and I’m a founder and CEO at one of the top European startup-factories. I’d like to tell you how gaming helped me acquire the skills necessary to run these high-speed, high-stress organizations.
Of course, I’m not saying that all games are good and you should let your kids play as much as they want. The challenge lies in distinguishing between good and bad screen time activities (which is not easy, considering how difficult it is to distinguish between good and bad calories, with all the contradictory information out there). It’s also about finding the right balance — you can get fat eating only “good” calories if you eat too much.
I’m no psychologist, so most of this article reflects my opinion, although I will share a few studies. But if you’re a parent like me, I’m sure you’ve already noticed that you can find plenty of arguments for either end of a spectrum in practically any topic. When it comes down to it, you have to make the choices that are right for your family.
Growing up among computers
I’m part of Gen Y, where growing up with access to computers was an exception rather than the norm, especially in Central Europe. Luckily, my parents were both IT professionals, and we had several computers at home for as long as I can remember.
From a very young age, I played computer games — a lot. From the moment I woke up, while my parents were still sleeping, I would sneak into our “working room” where the computers were, turn them on, and play until I was cut off. “That’s enough for today, son!”
I wasn’t very picky in those early years… I played whatever I could get my hands on. In the 1990s, getting new games was not as easy as it is today, and often involved haggling with other kids in the neighborhood.
Playing all those games had a few nice side effects: I was really good with computers, I could (and still can) type faster than I spoke, and I was tech-savvy. I was always looking for new ways to improve the performance of my computers so the games I was playing would run faster.
These minor differences helped me stand out among my peers in small but meaningful ways. I was THE computer expert in my class. Even today, I’m still fast and “natural” with technology (which of course comes in handy as a tech entrepreneur). And as you’ve probably noticed, there are fewer and fewer fields that are not affected by technology.
An (un)lucky accident
In my later teenage years, I started spending less time with computers and more with other offline activities… like friends, soccer, and girls. Then at age 17, on the very last day of my 3rd year in high school, we were playing soccer during PE class, only minutes away from summer vacation…and I broke my leg.
It wasn’t a simple break. It was a bad fracture, requiring a serious operation that forced me to lay in bed for more than a month. Even after this immobilized recovery period, I couldn’t walk for another month or so. This is when I started playing Starcraft, which was a highly popular online strategy game.
My friends were going out, chasing girls, partying, and hitting the beach (and constantly reminding me of what I was missing out on…) while I was sitting at home all summer, doing nothing but playing Starcraft.
Playing 8–10 hours a day for a couple of months in a row will make you really good at any game. E-sports were not very competitive those days, but this forced gaming period made me one of the top Starcraft players in Hungary.
In fact, when the cast was off my leg, one of the first things I did was attend the local World Cyber Games (WCG) competition in Hungary. I won, and I got the chance to travel to South Korea as the Hungarian champion to compete in the first World Cyber Games. Well… to be more precise, the VERY first thing I did was meet up with my new girlfriend, Magdi, who has since become my wife and the mother of my children. But once the girlfriend issue was sorted, I went to participate in the competition. 😉
I spent the next 5 years competing in Starcraft, (I’ve represented Hungary in South Korea 3 times as the Hungarian champion) attending university, enjoying life with Magdi, and doing nothing else, really.
It was only after 5 years when I started losing in Starcraft (and I HATE losing 😉) that I started to become really interested in starting a business. I had known I wanted to become a tech entrepreneur since I was 14, but I didn’t really prepare for it consciously. From the outside, I was easily mistaken for a lazy “good-for-nothing,” whose only visible activity was playing computer games. To be frank, that wasn’t too far from the truth.
When I started my first company in 2006, I had zero business experience and no entrepreneurial connections in my network. And yet, it felt familiar. I accomplished a lot, and I did it rather quickly. Somehow, I already had many of the skills necessary for running a company. In retrospect, I can only attribute this to Starcraft and my gaming years.
Advantages of playing strategy games
Since then, there have been several studies demonstrating how playing Starcraft makes you smarter. It’s not limited to Starcraft of course — video games, in general, can have an impact on a lot of basic mental abilities, leading to:
- Improvements in basic visual processes
- Improvements in attention and vigilance
- Reduced impulsiveness
- Overcoming dyslexia
- Improved ability to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously
- Increased mental flexibility
- Reduction of mental decline that accompanies aging
- Improvements in job-related skills
Other articles claim that the skills that make a good Starcraft player are very similar to the skills you need to work for a startup. Some even go so far as to claim that startups should only hire good Starcraft players.
Researchers have found that StarCraft players have measurable gains on psychological tests and demonstrate greater “cognitive flexibility,” described as “a core component with broad influence on the psychological abilities and well-being of an individual.”
Or in the words of a previous pro-gramer: “Strategy games — StarCraft II especially — are really good at rewarding problem-solving skills and improving your decision making.”
There are several other ex-Starcraft players who went on to become successful business leaders. Tobi Lutke, CEO of 44bn ecommerce giant Shopify, is a big fan of Starcraft. He claims: “I firmly believe that I learned more about building businesses from playing Starcraft than I’ve learned from business books.” I can very much appreciate that sentiment.
He is also famous for hiring Shopify team members based on their Starcraft skills only:
So what makes Starcraft so powerful? Here are my observations:
- Strategic thinking (macro): In many ways it’s like chess. It’s not enough to think just one step ahead. While the next step is always the most important, you need to think ahead, and anticipate the future — like the other team’s next move. You have to think about where you want to be two, three, or four steps ahead. Running a company is similar: if you only focus on the short term, the current month, the current quarter, you can easily get burnt in the next quarter or year. You need to figure out how you’ll win (which is the main essence of strategy).
- Management skills (micro): While high-level thinking is important, you need to sweat the small stuff too. Otherwise, you can get caught off guard by seemingly small issues while you’re focused on your grandiose plans. Just like a real-life business, Starcraft requires you to continuously balance between micro- and macro-level thinking.
- Fast decision making: In online gaming, you have to make decisions quickly. Plus, just like in real life, information is usually limited when you’re making those decisions. Playing StarCraft can help you prioritize your time and resources in the most efficient way, and in a way that makes the most sense in any given situation.
- Concentration skills: Real-time online gaming requires continuous focus. You can easily get smashed if you let your concentration drop even for a couple of seconds. So it definitely helps you train your concentration muscles, which will come in very handy in real life (where such concentration might not be forced on you).
These benefits cannot be attributed to most other types of screen-time activities. Though watching TV, hanging around on social media, or chatting with friends might be equally enjoyable, they don’t nurture your brain like online gaming — especially if you’re playing a strategic game like Starcraft — does. Playing video games activates parts of your brain and provides benefits that other more passive activities spent in front of the screen do not.
I must also add that after playing a tougher game, I usually felt REALLY drained. Playing any game at a competitive level is super stressful and tiring, and it requires every ounce of your focus and energy. While this has its advantages, (as you can see, it’s like super-focused brain training) I think it also carries certain risks if you’re not careful.
Finding the right balance
This brings us to the final topic: while playing online games is not inherently bad, you have to remember that moderation is key.
Doing too much of any good thing can cause you harm. While playing games won’t necessarily kill you, (although that actually did happen to one guy who played 50 hours of Starcraft straight) it can be harmful in other ways, like making kids spend less time socializing with friends and family, less time reading or exercising, or even hindering sleep.
As I mentioned in the intro, just like with “good” calories, there is such a thing as too much “good” screen time. You need limitations and restraints, either self-imposed or forced. And since kids are usually terrible at self-restraint, it’s up to you as a parent to force restraint on them until they learn to do it themselves.
How much is “too much,” then? I can’t answer that, and I suppose it varies from person to person, so there might not be one definitive answer. I played a lot, without substantial negative consequences, but I can definitely imagine someone getting burned out from that amount of gaming. So I will definitely NOT let my daughters play as much as I played! ;)
As you can see, this topic is not black and white, which is exactly the point. Screen time in general has been associated overwhelmingly with bad things, which has led many parents to believe that the only solution is to reject it altogether, thinking that the best thing is for children to live like some kind of anti-digital hermits.
Right now, my daughters are 8 and almost 5. They’re already very savvy with Nintendo and simple mobile games, which we let them play in moderation. And they’re already playing Minecraft, which has several educational benefits, and has even been made part of the mandatory curriculum in several schools around the world.
They haven’t tried Starcraft yet: I think they’re still too young for that. My elder daughter Kamelia is almost to the age where I’ll be able to introduce her to the beautiful world of Starcraft — I’m a fan, can’t deny it! — and I’m really curious to see if she’ll get hooked.
Young kids’ attention span seems to be growing shorter due to all of today’s fast-paced entertainment, like easy mobile games and Youtube. But getting immersed into more complex strategic games like chess or Starcraft will definitely help my daughters as they grow, so I’m determined to encourage it.
I hope I’ve been able to show you how online gaming can actually be beneficial, in moderation. Picking the right screen time activities and playing the right games can not only be super enjoyable activities for your kids, but it can even help them pick up skills and affect their developing brains in a positive way.
I urge you to be open about video games. They’re not the enemy, and investing some time into finding good educational options will be a useful addition to all the other educational activities you’re investing your time and money into. I’ll leave you with a gamer’s catchphrase: good luck & have fun!