25 July 2015

When visiting my parents and my sister, my son got to play video games with his cousin and was introduced to a popular game called Plants vs. Zombies (actually Plants vs. Zombies 2).  He just loves it and finally talked me into checking it out.  At a glance, this seems to be a silly game and, like most games, a waste of time.  Ok, It is that.  Still, there’s something remarkable there and something that can be taken away from getting familiar with the mechanics of the game.


The gist of the game is that the zombie apocalypse has arrived and you are under attack by brain-eating zombies.  To defend your home and yourself from these marauding undead intruders, you have a collection of lawn mowers that destroy zombies and a collection of plant seeds you can plant.  There are many different types of plants with differing types of weapons and defenses and they serve to fight off and kill (do you kill something not alive?) the approaching zombies.  There are also different types of zombies with different personalities and different attack skills and different resistances to the different types of weapons employed by the plants.  First of all, it’s really clever.  The personification of these plants is something that was clearly given a lot of thought and there are plants like Bonk Choy (a bok choy that punches zombies) and Melon-pult (a watermelon plant that lobs fruit at the enemy).  Enough about the gist, why should you care?

After the initial reactions of how silly this was and then how cool the software and user interface were and how challenging it must have been to program the complex interaction of many different elements on the screen with sophisticated and impressive animations and all the different specifications of the relative strengths and resistance to attack of both the plants and the zombies, something even more awesome about the game occurred to me: it’s really an economics lesson.  Then beyond that, it’s a lesson in building businesses, managing teams, and even designing and building systems.  I’ll tell you what I mean.


The currency employed in the game is sun.  In order to plant seeds and create plants to defend your home and your brain, you need to acquire adequate sun.  This sun falls from the sky at regular, but infrequent, intervals.  Getting sun from only the sky is insufficient to provide the sun needed to survive the attack.  Therefore, there are plants that produce sun, initially only the Sunflower (though there are other sun producing plants that come along).  In other words, sun is a scarce resource you need to allocate in strategic ways in order to produce maximum utility in planning your defense.  This scarce resource can be used to acquire resources.  Some resources have an immediate utility (in causing damage and death (is it really death?) to zombies) and some are useful in acquiring more currency with which to acquire others resources.  This is a lesson in how to allocate scarce resources and the consequences of spending available capital only on items with an immediate utility and without long-term revenue generation.

Building a Business

In no other realm do the economic lessons of the game (and of life) make themselves more obviously useful than in creating a business.  Deciding on the right defense and planning it accordingly without trying to build too much too early and making sure to plan for the future by investing heavily in assets that will produce for future resource acquisition and all elements of building businesses.

Building and Managing a Team

Because Plants vs. Zombies is organized in a way that zombies move right to left and try to penetrate the home at the left of the screen, there’s a strategic element in where to place plants and in what roles they should serve, given their unique abilities.  Some plants are more aggressive and cause massive damage to opposing zombies.  Others are more defensive and do little or no damage to attackers, but are resistant to being eaten and it takes a long time for zombies to get past such team members.  It is a wise manager that uses defensive-minded team members in the front of the defense to shield the more glamorous weaponized plants.  This could be considered like the big left tackle defending the quarterback on an American football team or the goon on a hockey team keeping opponents from slowing and intimidating the fast skater and puck handler (I don’t know anything about hockey and I’m probably using the wrong terms, but I think the idea is sound – I think).  Using the diversity of the team members and understanding their complementary skills and personalities and putting them in the right places and situations for success and shielding them from the distractions that sap their will is the entire reason for the existence of managers.  This was something Chris Eidhof emphasized on the interview I did with him for my podcast – it’s important to work with others who offer something that compliments what you provide.  Gabe Hesse also talked on the podcast about the importance of diversity in managing teams.  Yes, we can talk about the diversity of races and genders and those things, and I don’t mean to minimize the importance of those things, but what I’m talking about here is having the right mix of the right skills that make a team stronger than just the strengths of its members.  This is the idea of synergy.  I’d argue that every group of people is diverse because every set is a set of individuals and no two humans are alike.

Designing and Building Systems

What comes to mind regarding systems in Plants vs. Zombies is that if you view the collective defense system of the arrangement of plants as a system, the cost of design flaws found later, during the implementation, is much greater than if those flaws are caught before the buildout has really taken shape in earnest.  Design flaws are correctable (especially via digging up plants in positions desired for other plants), but putting plants in the wrong places and digging them up means the resources used in their creation were squandered and it’s going to require pouring in more money (sun) to fix the problem.  In short, fixing design flaws well into the implementation (or well into fighting off a zombie horde) is costly and sometimes it’s a cost you can’t overcome.

When you really think about it, there’s a lot to learn from silly games and perhaps stupid games aren’t that stupid after all.  An optimized programmer is not going to spend a lot of time playing video games, but there is something useful here, even in something that is billed as being only for fun.

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