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Here’s one of the things that surprised me about the GamesBeat Summit 2020 online-only event that we held last week: Our audience loved messaging each other on Slack, the group chat system that we used to enable our 600 attendees and speakers to communicate with each other.

In some ways, the text chat of Slack seemed antiquated. You type messages to groups of people or engage in 1-on-1 chats. But in the absence of face-to-face meetings and group Zoom calls, this was the next best thing. In fact, our 600 people messaged each other more than 12,000 times by the end of the conference. And only 20% of those messages took place in public chat rooms.

It dawned on me that maybe people were doing a lot of 1-on-1s and actually getting deals done. Our audience told us they loved the engagement of the Slack channels. And that surprised me.

A number of our speakers said that a difficult thing about the pandemic and the shelter-in-place rules is that you can’t meet someone in person before making a big decision about them. That is, you can’t look them in the eye, go out drinking with them, share a coffee, or shake their hands before doing something like hiring them, investing in their company, or buying their company. It’s just harder to do deals.

As you contemplate this as well, I encourage you to view the videos from the GamesBeat Summit talks that I have embedded here in relevant spots.

How do you get deals done with people you can’t meet?

During our event, seasoned game investors expressed their discomfort with making an investment in a startup without meeting the leader or the team in person.

Gregory Milken, a managing partner at March Capital Partners, said there’s a higher bar now for investing in startups because it’s so hard to meet in person.

“A lot of what we do in venture is evaluate teams, and not being able to meet a team in person and evaluate them and not being able to be in the same room, it’s difficult to make that investment decision,” Milken said.

Shanti Bergel, the head of the Transcend Fund, said it is harder to do deals remotely, but he has to lean on other things to get deals done, like his network of friends in the game industry and the ability to vet people through their networks of friends. Yet he said he has an upcoming investment in place where he didn’t know the team very well for a long time.

“If anybody should be able to close deals in a virtual environment, it should be the games industry,” said David Chang, a partner at Juno Capital and moderator of our panel on early-stage fundraising.

Gardner said he signed a term sheet with a company in California where the deal was all done virtual. Focusing on other things besides the in-person meeting is what helped Gardner’s partners figure out that investment.

“Ironically, we may end up making better decisions by being virtual,” Gardner said.

This isn’t to single them out in terms of finding this new world difficult. More people said the same thing, and they came from all parts of the industry.

A universal problem?

This was not just an American thing. Lisa Cosmas Hanson, president of Niko Partners, asked how foreign developers can strike deals for launching games in China if travel wasn’t possible. Amy Huang of Mattel163 said it was a very big challenge if you can’t connect with people personally.

Cynthia Du of Cocos said it helps to turn on a camera but it is tough because of time-zone differences. She said everyone was still learning how to do business this way. Jeff Lyndon of iDreamsky said it has been getting harder for foreign developers to publish their games in China, and he said the inability to travel has made it even harder. For those who have no network in China, it gets harder to get noticed in China, he said.

The net result is more friction and inefficiency.

Talking to strangers

Above: Talking to Strangers tells us about the flaws we have in judging people we don’t know.

Image Credit: Little, Brown & Co.

This made me think about an outstanding new book by Malcolm Gladwell that I listened to on Audible. His book is Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know.

The book is a study of miscommunication. It’s about all of the things that can go wrong when we meet strangers for the first time and try to figure them out. Gladwell brings up a myriad number of examples of this problem: the arrest and death in custody of Sandra Bland, a black woman confronted by an armed white police officer; British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s decision to trust Adolf Hitler because he looked him in the eye and shook hands with him; the sex abuse trial of Larry Nassar, who was trusted by parents even when their kids were saying he was an abuser; the investment scandal of Bernie Madoff, a swindler whom people trusted with their life savings; and the trial of Amanda Knox, who was found guilty of murder in part because of her standoffish attitude — and whose conviction was later overturned.

Gladwell pins the research on what goes wrong on the theory of psychologist Timothy Levine. Levine found in his studies that human beings are by nature trusting. They “default to truth” when talking to someone, assuming that person is telling them the truth. This kind of trust helps societies to exist in harmony. But it also goes with a built-in bias. And that is, we will often distrust people who appear on the surface to be obviously untrustworthy. This behavior leads to the disastrous and tragic outcomes that we see every day and in the stories Gladwell cites.

It turns out, Gladwell says, that human beings are really bad at making split-second judgments about people they are meeting. Default to trust is a lousy strategy when you come across someone who is deceptive. Gladwell cited evidence that showed artificial intelligence programs do a better job than judges about setting bail for suspects, or do a better job hiring people than seasoned managers. That is, we are not as objective as we would like to believe we are. If we were all jurists on Amanda Knox’s murder trial, we would convict her because she behaved suspiciously, but not because she actually did it. We would not have considered that she just communicates in ways that are entirely different than what we would expect.

Gladwell’s book is good not because Gladwell has the answers. Rather, he makes us see all of the different outcomes that can happen, and how our gut instinct about people can lead us in the wrong direction in so many ways. He opens our eyes to the fact that we all have massive blind spots, and that these are exposed when we make important decisions about people that we meet in person.

It is worth noting that, in of all the examples that Gladwell explored in his outstanding book, he never once talked about video games.

How do we solve this problem?

Given that we are sheltering in place, I think we can start to question our assumptions about the value of face-to-face meetings. I think that someone really has to solve this problem, and it turns out that some of our speakers were talking about bits and pieces of it. It was only by listening to so many talks that I eventually began to see the connection between these threads.

Most fascinating was the conversation between Sugar Gamers founder Keisha Howard and Skillprint CEO Chethan Ramachandran. Ramachandran’s company figures out a gamer’s DNA, or figuring out their personality, intelligence, and skills by closely watching how they play games.

“We think we can use games to help people not only understand what type of intelligences they have and where they are, and help them grow it over time and go from where they are in their dreams in life and help them get to where they want to go to,” Ramachandran said.

The core hypothesis is that if you see someone playing a basketball game or a board game, you see someone as they truly are, he said.

“That’s the core theory of what we are doing,” Ramachandran said.

He thinks this will be better at discerning someone’s personality than staid question-and-answer sessions like the Myers-Briggs personality tests. That is to say, Ramanchanran believes that research is suggesting that playing games with someone is one of the best ways to get to know them.

“Games are not theoretical. Games have actions,” he said. “And when you see someone act, you have a much better sense of who they truly are.”

Of course, someone could try to deceive you in a game, as if they were playing a serious game of poker and wanted to bluff. That suggests that if you play with them enough, you will get to learn that about them as well.

“You have all the companies looking for the right type of people, the right teams, the right culture. You want to make sure that it is done in a way in that the old biases don’t come back,” Ramachandran said. “Team composition could be super interesting with this approach. You think about games. When you play in a squad, everyone takes on different roles. You can understand someone’s psychological make-up by how well they do in that role. That is the ultimate way to take bias away.”

Can games tell us that much about ourselves? It reminded me of a quote from Selcuk Atli, CEO of Bunch, who said to me, “Games are the new social network.” That is, games could be one of the answers we’re looking for here in getting something as good as face-to-face networking.

Game designers are tackling the problem

I was pleased to see people trying to bridge the gulf that exists in getting to know somebody online, whether that’s with virtual reality platforms like Oculus Venues, audio chat like Hearo.Live (we used both of these platforms at our event for a reception), or even tabletop card games as described by Exploding Kittens cofounder Elan Lee. With VR, Spaces CEO Shiraz Akmal can’t operate his VR arcades anymore. But his team did adapt Space VR software so that people could attend Zoom meetings in VR and draw on whiteboards.

Lee talked at our event about trying to play card games on a video call. You can’t do that. You can’t reach through the screen and grab a card.

But Lee mentioned the possibilities of “air-gapped” games. These are games that are physical games and are not connected, yet they can be played by people who are apart. Lee mentioned Battleship. You call out a coordinate and your opponent says whether you hit a ship or not. The human is the connecting element there. It’s no surprise that Battleship is rising in the ranks during the coronavirus, Lee said. We can still play it, and have a human connection, as it is an air-gapped game. Lee created a game called Quarantined Kittens, with a different set of rules so people could play it with a different version of a draw pile.

The point is that, faced with the impediment of the coronavirus, Lee and his team invented a new kind of game that could build a connection.

“This is the time when a community needs some help, and we are all feeling kind of lonely, and for me it’s worth it to spend some mental cycles to solve this problem,” Lee said. “Maybe it gives a tool set for other designers to start thinking through this.”