How Video Games Can Teach Us To Handle Conflict

life lessons from video games conflict resolution classically trained

Have you ever found yourself in a conversation were you and the other individual did not see eye to eye?

How did it go?

Chances are, not as well as you would like.

Conflict in video games seems so much easier. There are rules, a third party keeps track of the score in an objective fashion, and at the end there is a clear winner. Most of us feel competent in video game conflict, but real life conflict is a messy thing.

Imagine being at work, when a sudden conflict breaks out. A lifebars appear over head, then you and your coworker are prompted by your boss “Round One, Fight!”

A few PowerPoint slides and Excel pivot tables later, you are declared the winner. You pose dramatically in the meeting room as your theme song plays. Then everyone goes back to work, no hard feelings.

In Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Samurai Shodown we all have to play by the same rules. They are typically unbreakable, and we respect others’ performance. In short, we are all speaking the same language. Not so in the real world.

All You What Are Belong To Who?

Part of this is the messy nature of Communication. There are so many variables to communication, from the environment, to the sender of the message and the receiver of the message, a lot can go wrong. Just look at the recent announcement from CEO of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk entitled “All Our Patent Are Belong To You,” referencing the classic line from the game Zero Wing. Gamers and those “in the know” got a laugh out of the clever all your base classically trainedreference, but the general media found themselves very confused. Individuals on Tesla’s blog went as far as to offer up grammatical corrections. I mean, who doesn’t love a grammar Nazi, especially when they miss the point?  Successful communication and conflict resolution is a very complicated thing, but also very important.

In the life changing book “Crucial Conversations,” Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler provide some outstanding thoughts on dealing with conflict. Let’s take a look at some the best ways to successfully approach disagreements.

Work on “Me” first.

I know I am guilty of saying this over and over, but “I can only control me.” In multiplayer video games, you control your own character, not everyone else’s characters. So if I want to win, then I have to play my very best and make sure I do the right things that I need to do.  If we are to be successful in communication, we really need to focus on what we can do to help the outcome. If the other person is not understanding , then I need to look at how I am speaking, and adjust accordingly.

Am I being respectful?
If it’s my wife, am I being loving in how I speak?
How is my tone of voice?
If others spoke to me the way I speak to them, how would it make me feel?

As long as we focus on other person, we will never get anywhere. Even if I could change the other person, I would just run into the same communication problems with the next person life lessons from video games missile command classically trainedI find myself disagreeing with. Stephen Covey is famous for the advice: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Like intercepting a rocket in the game Missile Command, I need to know where the projectile is coming from and where it is going before I can make an effort to connect with it.

Focus On What Is Really Important

Have you ever gotten distracted in a game? With larger game worlds, especially open world or sandbox style games, it can become very easy to be distracted. Consider how much time you have spend fishing in any of the Legend of Zelda games, or how much time you lost to Triple Triad in Final Fantasy VIII. In the same way, we can easily be pulled into conflict where we miss the point of the entire conversation. When we do end up in conflict, it is important to think about what we really want out of the interaction.

Ask yourself these questions:

“What do I want for myself?”
“What do I want for others?”
“What do I want for this relationship?”
 Then ask yourself, “How would I behave if this were what I really wanted?”

This will give you a lot of insight on how to get the conversation back on track. Having clear goals and reflecting on our progress towards these goals will prevent us from forgetting that we still need to save the world at some point.

Mute & Berserk – How We Respond

When any of us are in a conversation where we do not feel safe, we respond in one of two ways – we either respond with Silence or with Violence. You can almost find a direct parallel to the two responses in the Final Fantasy game series, in the form of the spells mute or berserk .



In Final Fantasy, getting hit with Mute means that a character is unable to cast any spells, essentially they have lost their voice. In real life, a response of Silence is essentially the same thing. Silence means that we clam up, and we may go as far as to give others the silent treatment.  We avoid the conflict, and do anything we can to make the discomfort stop, avoiding dealing with the real issue, as long as the conflict ends.



Berserk has a very different outcome in Final Fantasy when compared to Mute. Berserk causes the affected character to enter a state of uncontrollable rage, physically attacking every turn. In the same way, Violence means that we attack the other person in the conflict, verbally and emotionally. We may become very defensive and say things like “Who are you to say that?!” or “You’re even worse than me!” We try to dominate the other individual until the conflict is over.

Rage Quitting: Fight and Flight


In the online gaming world, we even have an evenly balanced response that is both equal parts Violence and Silence: the Rage Quit. This happens when playing online competitive matches, often in head to head fighting games, where one player becomes so upset over the direction of the match that they will forcefully quit the match, game, or even shut off their gaming console. When online matches were still perfecting their systems, the player not quitting often was robbed of a “win” or experience points by the rage quitter, but as game developers noticed this trend, adjustments have been made that will penalize the Rage Quitter.

Too bad systems like this don’t exist in the real world. Imagine if we were all forced to fight fair?

But as long as we are thinking this way, we still are seeing conflict as a win/lose proposition. The thing about communication is that you do not need to have a winner and a loser. If you listen carefully, and look at what you can do to improve the situation, you just might be able to find an outcome that everyone will benefit from. If you start a conversation with the assumption that you are right or that you must win, obviously it is difficult to talk.

Remember, that when you enter into a conflict, you don’t have all the facts – neither side does, so it is important to be patient, listen, focus on what you can agree on, the move forward carefully.

It’s not always easy, but it is always worth it.

  • This is awesome Jobnathan. I do wish we could all fight fair and honest and by the rules. Then it would be clear who should soften their heart. It’s not right or wrong but how the conflict is addressed and managed that matters.

    • Thank you Philippa – you really hit the nail on the head: How we deal with conflict is what others often remember us by, not the “great” points or solid argument we made.

  • You made some great points and I think a healthy conversation/debate about any particular topic involves much of what you mentioned. There are many parallels to a turn-based RPG: The two parties should be able to take turns and hear each other out, but the discussion should remain as objective as possible and not about who is right/wrong (winner/loser).

    Now I realize that remaining objective is inherently difficult to do because we all have our own experiences that we’re drawing from, but what we can do is remove our own emotions. This should help us to realize that the discussion is nothing more than words to be heard and interpreted… which helps us to see/hear the other person’s viewpoint. In the end, we may never agree but at least I’ll understand you.

    • Well said. Too often we spend time trying to interrupt the other side, or we pretend to listen, but we are really just waiting for it to be our turn. This approach kills dialogue, and without dialogue, it becomes a game of “chicken” or “who-can-outlast-the-other” – neither count as effective communication, and neither compel others to think in new ways.

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