TONYA MOSLEY: That’s our guest, Sarah Bond, corporate vice president of Xbox at Microsoft. This week she talks to us about games, or more specifically, what games have to teach us about the future of work. Today, 3 billion people on the planet play games, which have a unique and powerful ability to enable collaboration, break barriers, build rapport, spark imagination, and create empathy. Gaming allows strangers to come together and work as a team to achieve a goal, even if they don’t speak the same language, have never met, live in a different part of the world, or have different abilities. As companies explore new ways to enable teamwork, including forays into the metaverse, they can learn a lot about how to best proceed from games. Sarah is the perfect person to walk us through that. Now here’s our conversation.
TONYA MOSLEY: Hi, Sarah.
SARAH BOND: Hi.
TONYA MOSLEY: Three billion people play games right now. I mean, there is so much community building that happens within gaming. We were talking about and thinking about what gaming can teach us about the future of work. And I know that you’ve been thinking a lot about that as well.
SARAH BOND: There used to be a time in gaming where the device was the center of the experience for the user. It would be about the console you bought, the PC that you configured. That paradigm was built on a set of technical limitations that existed from when gaming really started to take off as an industry. A lot of those limitations actually don’t exist anymore, and we’re just sort of carrying forward that paradigm. People really want to be able to play the games they want with the people that they want where they want. I think the same is really true for how people want to work, right? It used to be that you had to come into the office to collaborate with people. The tools, the technology, the services just weren’t there to replicate the experience. I think that there’s so much about how we’re seeing work change, the idea that you can collaborate at any time in any space synchronously, but also asynchronously, using the tools we create. That’s very similar to what we’re seeing happen in gaming.
TONYA MOSLEY: How did you come into this job? Can you share with us a little bit about your career journey and what led you to this role?
SARAH BOND: Well, you know, I always played games growing up, it was a big part of my upbringing. My dad and I, the first game I can remember playing with him was King’s Quest II when I was six or seven years old. And, after college, I pursued a career up through the business side, but really focused on consumer tech. I worked at McKinsey, I went to business school, and then I spent a good amount of time working at T-Mobile. I started as the chief of staff there, and then I led strategy, and then I ran business development. Then I got to a point where I was running a few businesses. Then at that point, I got the opportunity to come to Microsoft. And after I’d been at Microsoft for a few months, the role leading business development for gaming came open, and it just really clicked for me to take that role, especially considering how much work I had done in consumer tech throughout my career, and also that I had grown up playing games. And I led that team for about two years and it was a fantastic experience. And after about two years in that role, we were looking at the opportunity and we realized that it was really important that we talk to game developers and creators, as Microsoft, in a way that was really tailored to their needs, and that based off of everything we knew at Xbox, it was important to center that in Xbox. So in addition to all of the responsibilities I had leading the commercial relationships with game developers, I also got responsibility for all of the technical tools and services that we build to meet their needs.
TONYA MOSLEY: Microsoft has been thinking very deeply as well about the metaverse, something that we’ve been talking about over the last few years as a place to live and work, essentially. I mean, an example of this is creating digital offices to connect with colleagues, as you say, who are all around the world. What are you most excited about in this space?
SARAH BOND: Well, what I’m most excited about is when people talk about a metaverse experience. They’re talking about a digital world that’s immersive, that can hold millions of people simultaneously who have individual identities and wallets and histories. And I look at all of that and I realize that, as Microsoft, we have all those capabilities because we know how to build a game, and all of those things exist in a game. That’s what Forza is, that’s what Halo is, that’s what Minecraft is. And so I’m really excited because we are in such a beautifully unique position to take the things that we’ve learned in the gaming industry about how to do that, and how to do that in a way that’s secure, that respects privacy, that has parental controls, and real thought and care in how it’s executed and infused in it because we’ve already learned all of those things as part of the gaming industry.
TONYA MOSLEY: Right. I mean, and building that connectivity—one interesting phenomenon, as you mention, is how online multiplayer games encourage collaboration between two people who have never met each other in person. We see that with Minecraft and other games like that, but also folks who don’t speak the same language. So many industries are navigating ways, as you said, to improve remote work specifically. What can business leaders take away from the success of collaboration in gaming?
SARAH BOND: It really is the only media forum where you can do something with someone and accomplish something in coordination with them. You may have never met them, you don’t necessarily speak the same language, you don’t even know what they look like. That’s very powerful and I think important in today’s society, where the breadth of the different cultures and experiences that we encounter is wider and more varied, and in some ways more difficult to process because of that than it ever has been before in human history. And so when I think about that in business, so much of what we’re doing and the things that we invest in are to enable that exact same experience, to take down barriers like time zone, and to auto-translate that makes people well understood. It allows so many more perspectives and also new opportunities for collaboration across distances and across a range of capabilities that before wasn’t possible.
TONYA MOSLEY: You believe games can foster empathy…
SARAH BOND: I do. You know, I think empathy comes from not just understanding the position that someone else is in, but feeling an emotion about it and being compelled to act on that emotion. And when you’re playing a game, you have to go through that whole cycle. You have to understand the situation, and then you make a choice. And so very uniquely, when you’re playing a game, either it’s because you’re collaborating with someone who you may otherwise not have met, or if it’s because you’re experiencing a story from a perspective that’s unique to you, there’s a level of empathy and shared understanding that can come from a gaming experience that is quite beautiful.
TONYA MOSLEY: You know, many non-gaming businesses are focused on how to shift the ways its employees interact with technology, specifically building up the metaverse. What do you think the games industry can teach us about how to construct and engage in virtual worlds that people truly want to explore and collaborate within?
SARAH BOND: So much. I mean, look, it’s not just about creating an avatar and putting it in a virtual world. It’s about there being a reason for being there—a why—that’s what games give you. They give you a motivation, something that you could accomplish. And it’s also about doing it in a way where people believe that they can express themselves in a way that’s safe and inclusive. And that core thing, I mean, often in gaming we talk about the mechanics of a game, but that’s really talking about that core motivational loop and how you make that one that’s motivating and delightful and that people can be included in. And I think that’s the key thing. That is what makes games special.
TONYA MOSLEY: I’ve heard you say that fostering relationships with the people who develop games for Microsoft platforms is a major priority. And I’m sure you’ve learned a lot over the years as you’ve cultivated those game creator relationships. I’m thinking about what lessons other industries can learn as well from building those relationships as they think about a metaverse that allows its employees to interact with technology and deepen their connectivity and their working relationships with each other.
SARAH BOND: In the end, all of life is the interactions you have with each other. As much as I think people like to talk about business being about optimizing a set of dollars and cents, the real value comes from the people who make the choices, build the visions, and drive the execution. In the case of game creators, we take it very seriously that we push the boundaries of making it possible for us to have a relationship, for it to be possible for any creator to bring their game to Xbox. And I want the people to build those experiences to represent all of the people in the world, not just people who are like me or have the same views. So building those relationships, but really extending them and making it possible for anyone who wishes to create a game and bring their story to the fore through that medium is important, you know, to run a good business. But it’s also important when we think about the impact that gaming can have on society.
TONYA MOSLEY: You know, to this point, we have been online and in virtual spaces long enough to also know that they can be toxic. There can be negative aspects of it. What can the game industry also teach metaverse builders about encouraging positive interactions?
SARAH BOND: We’ve spent so much time on this. It’s so important to us. We have the phrase, ‘when everyone plays, we all win.’ And that doesn’t just mean that someone can actually play, it means that you can enjoy it—that you go away feeling positive and wanting to go back. And we see consistently that if somebody has a toxic or negative experience on our platform, they don’t want to go back. It doesn’t matter. All the other stuff goes away if you went to have a fun time and you come away hurt. And so we do a lot of investment in creating the tools in the community that creates a positive gaming experience for people. We do it in our policies; we’re super clear about our code of conduct and how we want individuals to behave. We do it in the investments that we do in tech to monitor what’s going on in parental controls and settings that you can set so that you can go into spaces and feel comfortable. And we also do it in the community itself. I mean, one of the most beautiful things about the Xbox community is that we’re so clear about our intent. We’re so clear about what we want individuals to experience that when that doesn’t happen, the community will actually help self-regulate, will let us know when something is going on to ensure that we actually build on that experience and are able to deliver it. And I think it’s all of those things, continually iterating and investing in them and taking it very seriously, that’s important for us to bring to metaverses as they start scaling around the world.
TONYA MOSLEY: You believe that playing games can stimulate the brain and encourage a growth mindset, which is from the influential book by Carol Dweck.
SARAH BOND: When you think about what Carol Dweck is really saying in her book, it’s the idea that if you put in effort, it will lead to a different result. It turns out a game perfectly embodies this idea, like if you start out playing a game—this is my experience frequently—I have no idea what to do. Like, I get in my character, I do a couple of things, I die, or I get frustrated, or I can’t figure out a puzzle and the level seems impossible. But then I come back and I try again and again and again. And in the end, by the time you have invested that time in it and you’ve learned how it works and you’ve figured out the mechanics, a level that before would have seemed impossible or a series of jumps that you couldn’t have imagined being able to do, you can breeze right through. And the consequence of failing is, relative to some consequences in life when you try something risky, pretty low, right? You might lose some coins or something, but you’ll come back. And so I love the fact that gaming, just by its very nature, teaches you that if you keep working at it, something that seems impossible, you can master. And I’ve really appreciated seeing that in my kids. My littlest loves to play games. He actually regularly plays with my dad, which I think is adorable. I mean, my dad is in his mid 70s, my son is 8, and they will sit side-by-side and do this thing together. But he’s learning that, you know, because he’s little, that failure isn’t failure, that if you get something wrong or you mess up that it doesn’t define you. And he’ll have a reaction, he’ll be like, ‘Oh, but I messed up,’ and he’s crying and everything. I’m like, ‘Well, no, get back up and try again.’ And he’s like, ‘I can?’ And so I see him learning and growing through the experience of a game, and therefore being more willing to take risks or try new things in real life because he’s already built that confidence that applying himself can lead to a different result.
TONYA MOSLEY: Yes, I’ve actually seen this as well firsthand with my 9-year-old who builds worlds with his friends and cousins within Minecraft. Which makes me wonder about what skills do you see forming for these kids who have grown up creating these virtual worlds or grown up gaming and building on this idea of a growth mindset?
SARAH BOND: Well, you know, when I was a girl, I had two phone numbers memorized, I think three, actually. I had my own phone number memorized, I had my first best friend’s phone number, and my second best friend’s phone number. And I would probably call them in about that order. And the idea of maintaining a friendship when I moved away that didn’t involve seeing someone in person every day was completely foreign and impossible. So I think the number one thing, honestly, that kids are learning from gaming is the definition of a relationship and what it means and how you can engage with someone—[this] transcends being in person. And I really see my daughter, my son, you know, their ability to connect with and identify with people over many, many mediums is very, very different than I think our generation that just didn’t grow up building bonds in that way.
TONYA MOSLEY:You know, the forms of collaboration and games can be very ambitious and intricate and require extraordinary levels of collaboration. What can leaders and people managers learn from looking at multiplayer games specifically, like esports, for instance?
SARAH BOND: Let’s give Overwatch as an example. Overwatch has different types of characters that you can play. It’s a team game, so you play as a team, but you pick a different type of character and the characters have different abilities. There’s some that have healing abilities or some that are really fast, you know, they have different weaponry that are associated with them. And when people first started playing Overwatch, they didn’t realize how much this mattered. But it turns out that a team has a better chance of winning if you have the right variety of characters adopted. Now, the game is built that way, that’s how they built it. They didn’t have to build it that way, but I appreciate they built it that way because that is a wonderful lesson for all of us as leaders—because that’s actually how the real world works.
TONYA MOSLEY: Sounds like I’ve got to start playing more games.
SARAH BOND: You never know what you might find out.
TONYA MOSLEY: Sarah Bond, thank you so much for this conversation.
SARAH BOND: Thank you. It was wonderful to connect. Thank you for having me.
TONYA MOSLEY: Thanks again to Sarah Bond, corporate vice president of Xbox at Microsoft. And that’s it for this episode of the WorkLab podcast from Microsoft. Please subscribe and check back for the next episode of WorkLab, where I’ll be speaking with Versha Sharma, editor in chief of Teen Vogue, about the wants and needs of Gen Z employees entering the workforce. And please rate us, review, and follow us wherever you listen. It really helps us out. And if you’ve got a question, we’d love to hear from you. You can drop us an email at email@example.com. And check out the WorkLab digital publication too, where you can find the latest Work Trend Index report, as well as a transcript of this episode. You can find everything at Microsoft.com/WorkLab. WorkLab is produced by Microsoft and Godfrey Dadich Partners and Reasonable Volume. I’m your host, Tonya Mosley. Our correspondents are Mary Melton and Desmond Dickerson. Sharon Kallander and Matthew Duncan produced this podcast. And Jessica Voelker is the WorkLab editor. Thank you for listening.