Why techies love games -- and why it's good they do

From World of Warcraft to Civilization, computer games hone skills, reduce frustration, and celebrate tech

Everyone knows that techies love "Dungeons & Dragons," where they can prowl the bowels of a castle and cast spells on clueless managers, er, mages. After all, it's just a game.

Or is it? Many tech staffers are also hard-core PC gamers. For good reason: In virtual worlds like "World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King" and "Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword," you can show off your awesome mental powers and flex the most feared fingers in the universe. You can hone the problem-solving skills that make you good at IT, take out frustrations from your day-to-day work, and celebrate the technology that you so love.

[ Check out InfoWorld's slideshow of the six perfect PC games for IT. | Looking for other cool techie stuff? Peruse our 2008 geek gadget gift guide. ]

So what, exactly, does a kick-ass shooter game like "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare" or the beautifully rendered role-playing game "Fallout 3" really say about tech life? Well, saddle up your Mechano-strider and watch as the Blade of Vaulted Secrets carves deeply into the tech-worker psyche.

The techie-gamer relationship is rooted in "Civilization"
Ah, the early days of "Civilization," or "Civ" in tech-speak. This classic Sid Meier game ran on PC DOS -- no games ran on Windows 3 in the early 1990s -- which basically locked out mere mortals from playing it.

That is, you needed to know how to reconfigure autoexec.bat and config.sys to load extended memory and mouse drivers so that "Civ" could run. "You had to know technology to even play games," says George Jones, editorial director of GamePro, an InfoWorld sister publication. "Back then there was no Internet resource to help you, and so you had had to figure it out on your own. It was crazy."

When PC games finally reached the masses, thanks largely to Windows 95, techies were already masters of "Doom," "Quake," "Counterstrike," and "World of Warcraft." (Let the jocks play "Madden NFL" -- why throw a football for a touchdown when you can toss a flash grenade through a window and storm the door for a beat-down?)

Today, Jones figures more than half of all hard-core PC gamers work in tech. Jerald Block, a psychiatrist specializing in the gamer lifestyle, agrees: "There's a large overlay between people who game and people who chose technology for work," he says, adding, "Some people can read people, others can understand … a computer."

Stupid users are lost in the virtual world
The single experience nearly every tech worker shares is that, at some point in their career, they've had to deal with stupid users, more stupid users, and even more stupid users. These users rarely respect the unsung tech worker -- and PC games can provide an opportunity for a little payback.

Let's face it: There's a tinge of happiness when one of these smug users creeps around the corner and right into your sniper crosshairs. It's your "Call of Duty" to put the poor sap out of his misery. Even better, the next day you can chuckle at him in the cafeteria line.

Indeed, users should thank techies for creating an industry of sophisticated games. When users look at a game screen, they probably wouldn't notice poorly overlapping 3-D images if a Hammer of Judgment hit them over the head.

But best-selling games such as "Fallout 3" don't have shoddy graphics rendering or crude artificial intelligence because "top game developers know their work will be scrutinized by trained eyes," explains Jones. "You can't fool them."

Solving problems with bloody execution
Many tech workers are fervent problem solvers. Some are strategic, some tactical. Some solve problems through reverse engineering, others by invention, and a few by sheer luck. PC games play smartly into the many aspects of this problem-solving passion.

In "Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword," a player spends days, weeks, or maybe months shaping a civilization from the beginning of time to the modern era. The goal is to emerge as the leader, and there's not just one solution or path to success. "It's the ultimate problem-solving experience," Jones says, "and epitomizes the mind frame of the tech worker."

Of course, many tech workers don't have weeks or even hours to solve a problem. That's where "StarCraft" comes in. In this game, you're a military leader of an alien species. The game calls for quick thinking and some serious team management during short missions.

"StarCraft" perhaps best mirrors the challenges and successes of life in IT. "'StarCraft' is firefighting," says Jones. "Things are crumbling, and you have to figure out how to fix it in 25 minutes. It's the nature of IT work." (FYI, "StarCraft II" is planned for release next year.)

Perfect PC games for IT
OK, now that it's clear why techies and gaming go so well together, which games are the ideal fit for IT? InfoWorld has picked the ideal game for six kinds of tech staffers. Check them out in our "Perfect techie games" slideshow.

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