Ever since Spacewar! was developed at MIT in 1962—teaching players the importance of resource management and risk vs. reward through rocket fuel, proton torpedoes, and hyperspace jumps—video games have been secretly training future project managers. Well, except for Superman 64. That game offered nothing to the world.
Once you start noticing project management lessons in video games, you’ll find them everywhere, from hitting your checkpoints in Rad Racer (milestones) to checking off your boxes in Q*bert (checkpoints).
Some modern games have become so complex you can recreate entire feature length films inside them. So, for the purposes of this exercise, we decided to stick to classic, or “retro,” games.
To be considered retro, the game had to be at least 10 years old. And most of the games I picked are around 20 years old, because I’m old school. So even though Left 4 Dead teaches some great project management lessons about assembling a team from a group of misfits and dealing with setbacks—like murderous infected mutants—it did not make the cut for this list.
Retro Video Games That Can Teach You How To Be A Better Project Manager
I hope you have fun reading this list, and don’t worry: if you have suggestions of your own, you’ll have a chance to share them at the end.
The Project: Gotta Catch’ Em All! As the player, you are tasked with capturing wild Pokémon (pocket monsters) in your Poké Balls, then using them to fight against other trainers and their Pokémon. Project success is achieved when you have obtained all 151 Pokemon (including the lovable Pikachu and the coveted Mewtwo) through trapping, evolution, or trading.
The Lesson: Your Pokémon are your team, and you love and rely on them, even though you treat them like expendable resources at times. To be successful, you must value and use every member of your team. Even the lowly Magikarp can eventually evolve into a powerful Gyarados. So can the weakest member of your team develop into an indispensable asset.
2. Oregon Trail
The Project: After choosing one of eight different occupations (choose Teacher for Extreme difficulty level), you and your family load up your wagon with boxes of bullets and spare wagon tongues, then set off for Willamette Valley some 2,000 miles away. Challenges include impassable trails, swollen river crossings, AWOL oxen, thieves, fires, and snake bites. Project success is achieved when you arrive at Willamette Valley without any of your family having succumbed to typhoid fever, dysentery, or cholera.
The Lesson: Oregon Trail is essentially a project management simulator. You must set a budget and stay within it, keep track of your team, make critical decisions at each intersection, and—of course—finish before winter sets in and turns your family into the Donner Party.
The Project: You are Pac-Man. You must avoid the ghosts, eat the dots and fruit, and—when things get too hot—you need to find yourself a Power Pellet and kick some ethereal tail. Project success is achieved when you complete 255 levels to trigger the legendary kill screen.
The Lesson: As classic-gaming immortal Billy Mitchell says, “You have to navigate all the way to board 255 doing the same repetitive thing. You can’t miss a dot, a prize, a blue man. You can’t die once, you can’t lose focus. You gotta stay with it all the way there, for four to five hours.” You also must be agile. Chasing the closest line of dots, just because they’re right there, can get you killed quickly. And don’t forget to use your Power Pellets. Tools like project management software can help you knock out gremlins like miscommunication and delays that pop up in every project.
The Project: You are Samus Aran, a bounty hunter working for the Galactic Federation. Your mission is to stop the Space Pirates from turning Metroids—parasitic alien organisms—into biological weapons on the planet Zebes. Project success is achieved when you have defeated the Space Pirates’ leaders—Kraid, Ridley, and Mother Brain—and bombed the Space Pirates lair into oblivion.
The Lesson: Many projects start with you feeling like basic Samus, sporting just 99 energy points and a low-power energy cannon. But, as a project manager, you will get stronger and learn new skills (Morph Ball, Screw Attack, Ice Beam, Gantt charts) throughout the process of a project. In time, you’ll feel like you’re wearing the mighty Varia Suit when you come to work.
5. The Legend of Zelda
The Project: As young Hyrulian Link, you must explore dungeons to collect the eight shards of the Triforce of Wisdom scattered throughout the land by Princess Zelda to keep them out of the hands of Prince of Darkness Gannon. Project success is achieved by reassembling the Triforce, infiltrating Death Mountain, defeating Gannon, and rescuing Princess Zelda!
The Lesson: Link’s wisdom prevails over Gannon’s power. There may be times in a difficult project where you feel like using brute force to power through. But the wise project manager is careful to consider all outcomes when making critical decisions. Think of Maslow’s Pyramid as your Triforce of Wisdom when dealing with your team. Also, it’s dangerous to go into any project alone! Take this Project Management Research list so that you can find the best weapon tailored to your team’s needs!
The Project: Perpetuating a myth started by a genocidal documentary filmmaker, Lemmings puts you in charge of a group of anthropomorphized rodent-creatures who—without your guidance—will walk directly into the first deadly hazard in their path. Project success is achieved by orchestrating the Lemmings’ varied skills, empowering them to safely reach the goal across 30 levels.
The Lesson: Some of your team members will be Blockers, keeping their teammates on track and not walking directly into a fire pit. Others are Bombers, sacrificing themselves to clear out an obstacle that will hold everyone else up (maybe a particularly needy client?). It’s your job as project manager to determine who is best at what and give everyone their marching orders.
7. Metal Gear
The Project: As special ops agent Solid Snake, you must infiltrate the heavily fortified and patrolled Outer Heaven military base in South Africa to destroy Metal Gear, a robotic walking tank that can launch nuclear weapons from anywhere in the world. Project success is achieved by evading enemy patrols and disabling Metal Gear deep in the heart of Outer Heaven.
The Lesson: As a project manager, you can’t go around picking a fight every time you come across a difficult situation. Most of the time you have to think creatively to get around obstacles, and sometimes its better to just hide out in a cardboard box until trouble passes.
8. Mega Man
The Project: In the year 200X, the darn robots have gone haywire and started attacking the humans. As Mega Man, one of the good robots and a humanoid assistant to saintly Dr. Light, you volunteer to be converted into a fighting robot to take down the ringleader robots unleashed on society by evil Dr. Wily. Project success is achieved by disabling the evil robots, stealing their powers, bringing Dr. Wily to justice, and returning to your robot family.
The Lesson: Prioritization. You need to do things in the right order. If you try to start working on your project before sitting down with the client and determining what they want, you’re going to have a hard time. Just like if you try to take on Fire Man without beating Ice Man first to get his Ice Slasher, you’re going to make things a lot harder on yourself.
The Project: You are Tetris Man, and you must defeat the giant pit to save the world from falling Tetriminos. Not really, you are just bored and it’s incredibly satisfying to complete lines and watch them disappear. Project success is achieved when you stop playing and return to your real tasks with a clear head. Because Tetris cannot be beaten. Unless you play the B-Type on 9-5 and get the best ending.
The Lesson: Your Tetriminos are your project resources, and it’s your job as project manager to make them all fit together. You can’t just take a pile of L-blocks (problems) and shove them in the corner hoping that they’ll go away on their own. If the world was full of straight lines we could all be project managers and get Tetrises like nobody’s business. But this is the real world and there are S and Z blocks around every corner.
The Project: You are the mayor of SimCity, advised by Dr. Wright, and you must make the trains run on time and keep all the citizens happy. You also have to be on the lookout for the occasional Bowser attack. Project success is achieved by building a thriving city and basking in the adoration of your Sim-empire.
The Lesson: As a project manager, you get to show off all of your skills in SimCity: organization, budget management, resource management, scheduling, crisis management, and risk management. You have to make it all work together for your city to run properly. If you can win the Free City, 1991 scenario, you might be a project management superstar.
Now for the fun part. What project management lessons have you found in your favorite retro video games? Let me know in the comments!
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