What I Learned About Leadership During My Summer As A Viking Chief – Forbes


By Paul Glader
My appointment to lead a band of brutal Vikings from around the world this past Summer started as a harmless curiosity. I saw a TV ad for one of those mobile device games featuring masculine graphics, dramatic synthesizer music and the inevitable words “clan” and “war.” Normally, I withstand such appeals as trifling time-wasters. OK. I dabbled in Clash of Clans because my nephews loved that game. This was different. The ad was for Vikings: War of Clans. As a sucker for all things Vikings and Scandinavian, I couldn’t resist.
So sometime in late May, after my second child was born (she is named after my Great Grandmother Emmy, who emigrated from a small Swedish town near the arctic circle to the U.S. in the 1920s) as I was camping out with her and my wife in the hospital’s maternity ward, I went to the App store and downloaded the free game produced by Plarium Global Ltd., an Israeli games studio. The home screen featured annoying music, garish orange flames engulfing a Viking village in the background while a hulking Viking stands in the foreground sporting bulging muscles, a ferocious braided beard, a helmet with horns (more myth than accurate depiction of Vikings) and a vicious look in his eye. Then, a sultry Viking avatar appeared to walk me through the game’s setup steps.
Screenshot for one warrior type in the game Vikings: War of Clans. Source: Plarium Global
After naming myself “Jarl Glader,” building a simulated Viking town, selecting a name for my champion fighter or “hero” (I named him “Sven” after my great-grandfather, who also came from a small town called Palang, Sweden, to the upper Midwest of America in the 1920s), the sultry avatar asked me to select a “clan” in my Kingdom #157 (Myderig) to join.
Scanning the list of clans, I didn’t like any of their names. I particularly disliked the top clan, which called itself “LAWD: Hail Satan.” So I selected the option to create my own clan. I came up with the clan name “NRDIC: Nordic Onslaught” totally unaware that an “onslaught” is a feature of the game whereby players can team up for a massive attack on another player. When it asked me for a clan description, I wrote simply, “Viking enthusiasts in the U.S., Scandinavia and beyond.”
Then I turned off the game, unsure whether I liked it, wondering if I would delete it later. The controls, features and details looked complex and not exactly user intuitive. The game was like a massive board game digitized inside my iPhone. The war action wasn’t as visceral as that found in Clash of Clans. This game featured dozens of buttons, legions of data points and several dashboards to analyze player, clan and kingdom performance.
A screenshot of a player’s home village. Image courtesy of Plarium Global
A few hours later (after changing the newborn’s diaper, talking to her and rocking her to sleep), I opened the app and entered the game. To my surprise, the clan I created was nearly filled with the maximum 100 players. They had lively names like Boral, Chopper, Gallin, Jerlda and Pike. It felt like an epic adventure of Lord of the Rings magnitude was coming alive in my phone.
They were enthusiastically introducing themselves on the game’s chat app and sending me messages, asking who would be elders, how we would locate near each other on a global map to form a “hive.” Many of us shared an interest in Scandinavian history and lore. To my astonishment, we were ranked among the top 10 clans in terms of power and influence right away, a leader among 298 clans in the Kingdom. At that moment, I was reminded of a quote by Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, one of the leaders of the French Revolution in 1848: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” I became the accidental Viking chief.
Plarium claims it has 250 million users of its various games. The company, started in 2009, employs more than 1,000 people in Israel and its eight other offices in Europe and the United States. Its games can be played on social networks (like Facebook), web browsers and mobile devices (via iOS and Android operating systems). A press release from the company in December of 2015 explains Vikings as “a fierce strategy title, inspired by the historical era of Vikings from 750 to 1050 AD, that takes players to a ruthless world governed by freedom, power, fear and violence, where players must lead brave warriors into battle, conquer the world and prove their mighty rule against other clans from all over the world. The game originally launched in August 2015 and has since gained significant momentum, reaching one million Monthly Active Users in less than four months.”
The image of a player’s “hero” inside Vikings: Clan of Wars. Image courtesy of Plarium
Many players are based in Russia, followed by countries such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia and the U.S. These kinds of games bring the world together in some ways. They also reveal the deep fractures, tribalism and nationalism now growing globally. Entering this world means launching headfirst into player versus player (PVP) games. In such video games, the in-game combat takes places between two human players, or gamers, rather than a player and a computer controlled opponent (player versus environment, PVE).
A research firm called Newzoo estimates the games market will reap $99.6 billion of revenue in 2016, up 8% from 2015. It expects mobile games to generate $36.9 billion, or roughly 37% of the overall figure and up 21.3% from 2015. It estimates mobile games will yield more revenue than PCs for the first time. Newzoo also predicts this industry will keep growing as people like me get sucked into downloading the games and spending money within the games. It predicts gaming will reap $118.6 billion in revenue by 2019, with mobile gaming bringing in $52.5 billion of that revenue.
A mobile game can certainly become an obsession, a hobby that wastes your time. But, after a few months casually entrenched in this world, I believe some of these games may actually be teaching us valuable lessons about leadership, strategy and communications. In MBA classes I took as a Knight-Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business and, later, as an EMBA participant at The Berlin School of Creative Leadership, we often were put into groups to perform gamed scenarios. Sometimes this involved computer simulations. I remember one, for example, where two companies merge and our team has to make decisions on how to integrate the two companies in a choose-your-own-adventure system. The computer simulation display consequences for various decisions and then scores the players and teams on their performance.
A screenshot of the Hero dashboard within Vikings: Clan of War. Image courtesy of Plarium
Those simulations are fun. They are also instructive. For that reason, I think we can also learn from strategy games within the PVP realm. These multiplayer games allow for – in fact they almost require – scenarios of conflict, teamwork, mergers, communication and strategy via our mobile devices. As I delved deeper into Vikings, I realized I was using some leadership and communication skills in the game that I had learned in the MBA courses. And I wondered, “Are these video games more helpful or interesting than simulators and some strategy coursework at high-priced MBA programs?”
And did participating in this gamified leadership lesson turn out to be more fun because it is enmeshed in an environment of imposing warriors, lethal weapons and violent outcomes? Or is it just a waste of time? I wrestled with that question as I pursued my two goals: A) Learn, experience and think about Viking culture, which is a research interest of mine. B) Remain a top-10 clan in a successful kingdom.
Goals and plans are fine. But as boxer Mike Tyson famously said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Our clan was enjoying relative peace until late June when members of another clan called Valhalla Knights started attacking us, destroying our towns, killing our soldiers and stealing our resources. My clan members were rattled. I was so angry my hands were shaking as I analyzed the data and surveyed the damage to players in our clan. So I started talking to the Valhalla Knight’s leadership as to why they were attacking us. They sneered, saying they were attacking us for fun. So we declared war on them in return.
Screenshot of the global map within a Kingdom of Vikings: Clan of War. Players navigate the map to… [+] obtain resources and battle with enemies. Source: Plarium
I started talking to leaders of several other clans, soliciting allies in a war. It felt wild and liberating to be waiting for my train into New York City, flashing out messages to players around the world in a campaign of outright war, executing digital violence and mayhem. The messages stirred up many dynamics. For example, I discovered two other clans – one called Nordic Gods and the other Nordic Urge (I’m still not sure exactly what is a Nordic Urge and whether it relates to bodily functions in the woods or sensual desires with a shield maiden).
“Hello! I’m Straba, one of Nordic God’s elders,” said one message on June 24 at 2:44. “We’ve heard you have a tiff with Valhalla.”
“Yes. We are. And yes. We would like an alliance,” I wrote. “My top warriors are Clint, Agnoss, Gallin, Matty and Chopper. Valhalla Knights have two strong warriors as chief and a top elder… but less talent from there.”
We got into talks, became allies and formed the “Nordic Alliance.” Together, our three clans were as powerful as any other clan in the Kingdom. Mess with one of us meant to mess with all of us.
From that point on, as our clans and Kingdom grew, I realized that leadership in PVP games are complex and require toughness, a managerial approach and strong communication skills. Here are six lessons I learned are key to PVP games and leadership in general.
Branding Matters
The top clan in our kingdom, LAWD, was overthrown by a Russian clan and tried to rally support from allies to prevent a Russian monopoly in our kingdom. Many of us were annoyed by the off-putting attitude from LAWD leaders and their satanic branding. We explained that Russians are often Orthodox Christians and don’t want to cooperate with a Satanic clan. The same is true for many of us from various religions. We don’t want religion being a point of war or even irony in a game. The leaders of that clan listened to our concerns. They changed their name to Valar Morghulis (“All men must die” in Game of Thrones parlance if you are speaking high Valyrian). The way clans name themselves, select logos and explain themselves in the game matters to the culture of the clan and the attractiveness of the clan in recruiting new, strong players. The same is true in the real world of business, banks, corporations and startups.
Screenshot of a type of warrior players can acquire and send into battle in Vikings: War of Clans.… [+] Image courtesy of Plarium.
Communication Is Key
The built-in messenger feature of the game is very clunky. So many players communicate on the messaging app, LINE, a Japan-based software company with a market cap of more than $8 billion. LINE’s use of emojis make it fun to use for mobile gamers. And we can run several discussion groups simultaneously to settle disagreements, plan targets of war, or discuss clan or kingdom strategy. With players from around the world, time zones and language barriers were normally a problem in the game chat function. On LINE, we found translation software and multi-lingual players so we could communicate with clans that spoke only Russian, French or Spanish. English remained the lingua franca of the game. At times, when inter-kingdom wars became hot, elders and chiefs on LINE shifted to fun banter and sharing memes to cool the tension. We were able to establish some basic rules of engagement in the kingdom that would, in theory, help small and medium clans grow and prevent larger clans and players from bullying smaller players and clans. That, in turn, makes a Kingdom stronger for the Kingdom v. Kingdom battles we would face. We know that communication is also key in the real world of business, where the flow of information and methods of delivering of that information dictate industry deals, institutional cultures and ultimate success.
Mergers And Acquisitions
As time went on, some of our members such as Boral, Jerlda and Gallin quit. We needed to boot them from the clan (so they are not attacked, costing us points) and recruit new members in their place. At one point, it made sense to look around for a merger. Our clan had good relations with a smaller clan called Wolfpack. Their chief and I started discussing the possibility. Their elders put it to a vote and decided to join us. Having taken a class at Columbia Business School in media mergers and acquisitions, I found myself using some of the theories and ideas from the class in my logic to Wolfpack as to why a deal made sense. I also paid close attention to cultural elements of the merger. Wolfpack had a strong culture with most members using the name “wolf” in their player profiles. We worked hard to welcome them, promote them and value them in Nordic Onslaught. Recently, we have even discussed changing our name to Nordic Wolfpack at some point in the future. As we finalized our deal, our alliance partners also merged with other clans. In our Kingdom, we have seen some mergers work well. We have seen others splinter apart. This parallels real life where most mergers and acquisitions fail because of culture clashes or the lack of real value from the merger.
Big Data
One of the most impressive features of PVP games is the wealth of data the game-makers can track and store. For example, when I click on my player’s “statistics,” the game tells me how much food my town’s farms produce each hour and if it is enough to feed my Viking army. I can see in another tab that members in our clan have fought 17,258 battles and won 12,689 of them. Together, my clan mates and I have trained more than 24 million troops. Many of the best players in our kingdom such as CapnBody in Nordic Urge study the statistics in the game, run spreadsheets and tests to optimize their players, towns and clan. Playing PVP games can be an exercise in using data in strategy and leadership, an important element in today’s business world.
Screenshot of a player’s home village inside Vikings: War of Clans. Image Courtesy of Plarium.
Money Inequality
The biggest players spend lots of money in the game. They can easily stomp smaller players. Frugality doesn’t win in the myriad mobile games on our phones. Some players in our Myderig Kingdom openly admit that they spend hundreds or thousands of dollars in the game. No wonder some of these app makers in Finland, Israel and elsewhere are reaching billion-dollar valuations so rapidly. For example, China’s Tencent Holdings Ltd. and its partners agreed to pay $8.6 billion for Supercell, the Finnish maker of “Clash of Clans” in June. Game makers such as Supercell and Plarium use psychology and algorithms that aim to get players hooked on the game and spending money inside the game. In Pavlovian style, they reward big spenders with faster growth, more power and accolades. This may be frustrating to players trying to be more frugal and play for the sake of the game. But it also mirrors the situation of our world where both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street crowd are bellowing about inequality. It’s no different when we visit an airport and can fly coach class or buy a business class fare for rights to an airport lounge, more comfy seats and champagne.
Poorly designed PVP games, however, often die out because they accidentally encourage experienced players to immediately attack and kill inexperienced players before those new players have a chance to learn and play the game. I would give Vikings a mixed rating on that front. We have many people who quit for that very reason. It’s upon each individual server, or Kingdom, to set rules that limit the powerful clans and players and help new players flourish. Myderig has experienced mixed success in creating a healthy kingdom.
The Fragility Of Geopolitics
After playing the game, I have a new appreciation for leaders in government and politics. I see how alliances can easily fray, how egos get in the way of progress, how misunderstandings can quickly spiral out of control. Chats on LINE sometimes devolved into two leaders calling each other names and dragging their clans into a major scuffle. As a news junkie, I often read of squabbling between U.S. presidential candidates. We see wild posturing by the Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte and how it could impact his entire country’s relationship to the U.S., China and Russia. We read about the suffering of the people in Venezuela because of leaders who are deluded by socialist economics and their quest for dictatorial control. We see the terrible squabbling in Syria and the immense cost on human lives. All of these real life stories bear similarities to fault lines happening in the world of this PVP game. An insult or an accidental attack sometimes caused incredible misunderstandings or outright wars between clans.
I appreciated notes from players like Captain Alfie from Nordic Urge when he wrote:
“You have a new member in your clan today, Lord Haven, who has caused us problems. He was leader of Brave Harts (clan) and jumped ship today after starting a clan war. We intend to seek revenge on Haven, but it’s not an act of war on you guys.”
“Thanks for the heads up,” I wrote. “He jumped into our clan and jumped out same day. I’m not sure what he’s doing.”
Diplomacy works generally well solving disputes within the kingdom. But natural competitions and clashes continued to emerge into the Fall between clans. My clan had a Laissez Faire culture, perhaps akin to a frat house at times. I told my elders I enjoyed working on recruiting players and mergers with clans. But I assigned others to lead battle strategies and monitor the thousands of messages and communications within our kingdom. Some top players in my clan – Blackwolf, Baldr, Gallin and Wolverine — decided to quit the game.
Screenshot of a Hero’s dashboard inside the Vikings: War of Clans game. Image courtesy of Plarium.
In August, I was on a boat ride away from cell phone serve when a Kingdom v. Kingdom battle broke out, launching our server full of clans into war with another server. I was attacked and suffered major losses that day. In September, I was traveling heavily for work, spending less time in the game. Fractures broke out in the kingdom. Our two partners – Nordic Urge and Nordic Gods – had a falling out and our alliance broke apart like a feuding family, leading to other mergers and shifts in the Kingdom. One clan called Andraste Victrix decided to break rules and go to war in the kingdom during a time of supposed peace. Several of their top players surrounded our champion player, Vencima, who was not online at the time. They repeatedly attacked him, stealing resources and killing his soldiers.
Vencima decided to quit the game. Our clan’s influence took a quick dip, like a stock market quiver of confidence. I didn’t have time to lead anymore. So I talked with my elders on LINE and asked them to nominate a new leader. They picked an active member originally named “Chopper,” who lives in Alaska and frequently changes his player names to things like “Megadeath” and “DrDestructo.” He agreed to serve as interim chief.
“All must share what they have learned and mistakes made and how to correct them,” Chopper wrote to me back in July at 2:33 p.m. “ This game is a learning experience. It teaches patience, tenacity and diplomacy, as well as vengeance and absolution. Sometimes forgiveness as well!” He did a good job during his stint as chief. Chopper handed off the chief title in October to one of our top warriors, Clint (who goes by the name “TheHealer” right now). Clint’s done a good job leading our clan, although we may need to consider a merger at some point to move higher up in the list of top 10 clans.
In recent weeks, I changed my player’s name to “Gladerator.” I looked up my stats and noticed that I have, so far, spent five days, 18 hours and 17 minutes in the game. I’ve spent more than $100 for in-game purchases. For now, I’m having fun using the game as a diversion while waiting for the train, rocking my daughter to sleep or while thinking of ideas and strategy in other areas of life and work. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep playing this game. You can’t really “win” this game. Rather, it’s like an ongoing book series or TV show. You keep playing as long as you are entertained.
Meanwhile, I enjoyed my Summer as a Viking chief. I learned that many of the principles of good leadership in real life apply in these virtual realms. Good leadership in either realm takes time, thought and engagement. It also takes a team. And, sometimes, when you find yourself less engaged as a leader, its time to make a succession plan or a new leadership plan. Because that’s when your Viking clan might face it’s greatest test.
Oh, yeah. And that merger with Wolfpack? It didn’t work out 100% beautifully in the end. Roughly eight of their members stayed. Others yearned to reform their original clan or decamped to other clans. We fight on.
Paul Glader is an associate professor of journalism at The King’s College in New York City and a media scholar at The Berlin School of Creative Leadership


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