"It's dangerous to go alone! Take this."
- Old Man, The Legend of Zelda
The coffee's cold. It's always cold. And the bagels - not much better. Bland, palate-shredding hardtack, dusted with enough stale poppyseeds and salt to give the appearance of flavor. The cream cheese could double as wall putty. Plastic is everywhere: plastic knives, plastic stirrers, plastic barrels of creamer marked with the warning, "For best use, do not refrigerate."
I left my apartment this morning before the sun rose, forsaking a warm bed and a fragrant pot of chicory coffee just to chug glacial joe and rend my gums on bagel bricks. And I don't regret it, not one bit. After all, nobody comes here for the food.
Dozens of people in business suits and pencil skirts mill about, and the room hums with hasty introductions, laughter, the jangle of bracelets in rapid-fire handshakes. On my left, two suits chuckle over golf scores and web designers. On my right, a woman chats in an easy, practiced lilt about charity funding. By the water fountain, a loudmouth jeweler has cornered an older woman wearing five bulky cocktail rings; she nods with feigned disinterest about his sterling silver pendants.
It's the sound of business, of change. Business doesn't happen in malls or offices or the ads you see on TV. It happens everyday in places like this, at networking events across the country, where relationships form and mature over stale Arabica and Styrofoam cups.
The first time I attended a networking event, I was terrified. I eyed the exits like a rabbit, painfully aware I was the youngest person in the room. Wondered how I'd ended up there, how I'd managed to trick these poor people into believing I was an actual businesswoman instead of just some writer playing pretend as she tapped out articles in her PJs. Networking seemed terribly complicated and arcane, some secret ceremony of the Marketing Guru that, without an MBA, I could never hope to understand.
But soon, I realized networking wasn't so foreign after all - that in fact, I'd been training for it my entire life. On the playground. In the dorm hall. Even on my PlayStation.
Think about it. What's networking but the ultimate fetch quest, a detective hunt for customers, vendors and hot leads? Making and receiving referrals is just business-themed Bejeweled: an endless match-3 of you, your associate and their perfect customer.
Networking shares plenty of characteristics with adventures and RPGs. For example:
- It's not about you; it's about saving the world. Good networking isn't about scoring referrals for yourself. It's about helping other people first, giving them the information or services they need, so that they'll want to help you however they can. Kinda like Zelda.
Link, he's a master networker. He buys meat for hungry Moblins, who then grant him access to new dungeon venues. He spends time entertaining bored fairy queens, who give him bigger bomb bags and arrow quivers. He even mows lawns for lazy townspeople, thus scoring funds for his Ganon-extermination business. That savvy little kid's built a network out of all Hyrule, drafting villagers, princesses and ancient spirits alike as referral partners. Not half bad for someone dressed like Santa's little helper.
- You have to talk to everyone. Just like decoding the convoluted plotlines of several JRPGs, good networking takes legwork, research, and an affinity for chatting up strangers. You always have to talk to as many people as you can, because you never know who has the information or referrals you'll need.
Sure, some people will only offer up info you already knew, or non-sequiturs about the War of the Magi your country waged 1,000 years ago. But others hoard juicy leads on quality clients and vendors - and they're just waiting for you to ask the right questions. Starting a conversation with those people could mean kickstarting a chain of events that doubles your monthly profits (or, alternately, reveals your father is really a genocidal alien who used his spaceship to wipe out your girlfriend's hometown.) You never know until you ask.
- You should listen more than you speak. Link. Chrono. Mario. Everyone loves a silent protagonist, especially townspeople, because a quiet hero lets them talk about their favorite topic in the world: themselves. Networking works the same way: You learn more when you shut up and let the other person speak.
- First impressions count. All the townspeople remember the silver-haired guy with the big sword in Final Fantasy VII. Sephiroth's Pantene-perfect locks and Freudian sword made him stand out from the rest of the sociopathic crowd. Likewise, you have to be distinctive in networking. That first impression's crucial, and looks do matter.
(Of course, there are limits. As Lulu, Rydia, Yuffie, Tifa, Terra and that stripper who turns you into a frog in FFIV can tell you: Heroines - or networkers - in slutty clothing rarely seal the deal.)
Networking is so much like a game sometimes that it makes me wonder: Could games themselves become networking tools one day? Could Xbox Live or World of Warcraft become the next Facebook or LinkedIn? After all, players already forge lifelong friendships over late-night raids and casual gaming tournaments. Why not take it to the next logical step?
Imagine: Xbox Live Arcade or Azeroth as an informal stage for business networking - a common ground without the crappy coffee and adamantine bagels, where young professionals could build their contacts list and grow their business. You could see specialized guilds offering discounts to business conferences. Players discussing their outsourcing needs over a hand of UNO. Trolls and Taurens, building professional trust over some friendly PvP.
In some ways, I think it's already happening. One woman I know landed her first job out of college through Dark Age of Camelot. Another friend routinely takes on his research team in Forza. And I've already played Settlers Live with a number of close business associates. As the average age of the gamer increases (now up to 33), I wonder if we'll see this idea of game-related networking gain more traction.
But for now, I'll stick with the in-person events. Here, I still have an advantage, a few extra levels in networking over those non-gamer suits. And besides - the coffee may suck, but at least it's free.
I put down my plastic cup and take out a handful of business cards. Alright, networkers, I say to myself. Now I'm ready. Let's play money-making game.