A new day dawns. Another Wednesday in the office. The hours go by; meetings and one-on-ones had. But something feels different.
I care for my employees. It’s normal for me to wear their burdens — work-related and otherwise — upon my shoulders. But today, it feels like my attention of their emotional well-being and performance has gone a level deeper. Maybe it’s because it’s review season and I’ve been carefully reflecting on their year? No. This is different than years past. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve been a sounding board and observer of each of them a bit more as of late.
Then it dawns on me. I haven’t been spending more time in the office, but I have spent at least 20 hours of my free time playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses — a game that puts me in the role of a military academy professor intently focused on the subtleties of my students’ personalities and behaviors, strengths and weaknesses. The better I can guide them down the right paths, uncover hidden talents, or find deeper relationships, the better they will perform in battle.
Many a review and commentary focus on Three Houses’ Harry Potter-like setting and structure. Garreg Mach Monastery is a sizable castle (Hogwarts) with its students divvied up between three houses — the Golden Deer (Gryffindor?), Blue Lions (Ravenclaw?), and Black Eagles (definitely Slytherin). In addition to students, staff and several members of the Church of Seiros walk the halls helping you train, build relationships, and assist in battle. Consider these the professors of Hogwarts. You will spend a majority of your time wandering the monastery speaking with students and staff, teaching your recruits different skills, analyzing individuals over tea, fishing, forcing conversation between students over a meal, fishing, taking exams to unlock a new military class, and fishing.
This is a game focused on education and academy life. It’s not about a 9-5. That said, since I become a manager, I’ve felt there is a direct parallel between teaching and managing. Harvard Business Review will tell you the best leaders are great teachers. It’s no surprise that I began to see my own work-life take place within the walls of Garreg Mach.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is my first foray into the Fire Emblem series. Jumping into the 50 hour TRPHPFS (tactical role-playing Harry Potter fishing simulator) took very little deliberation. Since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, every core Nintendo franchise title released on Switch has been the fully realized version of itself. I figured this would be a good place to dive in. I wasn’t wrong. I haven’t been sucked into a game like this since Breath of the Wild. Even then, it was less about the game itself and more about the zeitgeist propelling me forward.
Three Houses taps into something true to my core: empathy. I legitimately care about the cast as I care about my real-world contacts. Will Ignace realize his full potential as an artist? Will Raphael, the jovial brute, realize he can master the battlefield? Will Marianne realize she is a wise warrior… that can talk to… horses? Will Lorenz stop fucking harassing women?! If none of them can on their own, can I help them get there by revealing chinks in the armor of their ignorance?
These are not the same issues as the employees I care for. But I care nonetheless. Will they approach ambiguity with unease or confidence? Will they understand the subtleties of negotiation within a large bureaucracy? Will they learn to lean on the specialities of someone with less “professional” experience? Will they feel comfortable leading a particular project?
I take these thoughts home with me. And when I pick up the game, they come back to life. I think carefully about which skills to stretch, not entirely sure my judgement will pay back the greatest dividend. I think beyond the workplace and wonder how home-life may be influencing my employees’ creativity. Are they committed? Are they motivated? Do they care? Is this what they really want? Do they need a break?
Fire Emblem: Three Houses asks these same questions with every explore-teach-fight loop, ultimately growing my cadets. And they do throw it back at me. If I offer and incorrect response or pair incompatible personalities together, they’ll let me know. No two students are alike. No two employees are alike. No two human are alike.
And like management, the more students I have under my purview, the less time I can spend teaching them individually. Who is more critical to grow? How balanced does my team need to be? Should I round out each individual, or focus on their strengths? And ultimately, who are my favorites?
And there in lies the beauty of Fire Emblem: Three Houses. There is a repetitive loop, yes, but there is also painstaking care put into each of the students. And the fact that you will likely only experience 1/3 of them on your first play through is quite incredible. There are two other houses, two entirely different yet connected campaigns to explore. (I’m a sucker for games where only a fraction can be played through, leaving more to discover again and again. Think Star Fox 64.)
What is more is understanding how to balance the comfort of an individual for individual-growth. The best path forward may not be the easiest or the one that suits an individual’s strengths. There is pain in growth, for the individual(s) involved as well as for the leader calling the shots.
Where things divide — where a game cannot mirror reality — is balancing the growth of an individual and the goals of the bureaucracy. A role-playing game will almost always propel you to win, regardless of the “feelings” of its characters. In reality, it’s impossible — or should be impossible — to ignore the feelings of our own kind. As a manager, it’s a more difficult and existential challenge to prioritize the company’s goals over the fulfillment of your employees. More often than not it’s your job to move the company forward — increase revenue, decrease cost; increase productivity, decrease bottlenecks.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses rewards you as a professor with growth whenever you successfully pair students in activities or win a battle. These are balanced by days on a calendar. Will you converse with students this week, or will you fight? Either way, you’re leveling up. In reality, those choices are not and will never be as clear cut. Your professional growth is measured by the value you provide the company. Creating a great culture amongst your employees ultimately pays the company back, but the time it takes to build that culture versus hard and quick calls will always be under the omnipresent eye of the corporation.