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Back to Archives | Back to October 2007 Contents 

Gamers, Millennials, and Generation Next: Implications for Policing

By Bob Harrison, Chief of Police (Retired), Vacaville, California


ven in the time of Aristotle, adults complained about the younger generation’s lack of motivation and disrespect for their elders, fearing that youths would fail in their work life from a lack of “loyalty.” Each succeeding generation laments about the next. With the advent of interactive technologies and online social networking, as well as a growing chasm between the wired and unwired worlds, never has the gap between the generation “in charge” and those that follow it been as wide.

As baby boomers reach retirement, how will young adults entering the workplace affect the norms and values of the industries to which they devote their efforts? As boomers leave, does their absence sound a death knell for what is regarded as traditional “law enforcement”? Can the profession recruit and retain peace officers who will be devoted to policing, or does the future hold only cops who view their duties as an extension of the simulated environment of video games, looking for the next best thing? In fact, the transition to the next generation has already begun, and astute police executives are starting to realize there may be ways to bridge the generation gap for the public good.

The Impact of Society and Culture

A recent survey of adults aged 18–25, the age group labeled generation next,1 revealed some interesting perspectives regarding those now entering the workplace. A number of facts about this demographic may run contrary to popular opinion. More than 9 in 10 are satisfied with their relationship with their parents. Eight in ten are satisfied with the work they do and with their standard of living. Approximately 84 percent recognize their educational opportunities are better than 20 years ago. Their heroes are often persons with whom they have had personal contact (a teacher or mentor); only 14 percent cite famous persons as heroes, while only 8 percent say that their heroes are politicians. About 85 percent say they probably want to get married.2

Certainly, they also report norms seen by their elders on a daily basis. Almost 90 percent use the Internet. More than half send text messages daily. About 54 percent use social-networking sites, and almost half have created a profile. Seven in ten say that technology helps them make new friends. Almost 90 percent believe that e-mail and other electronic means of communication help workers (as compared with 67 percent of boomers and less than half of seniors). More than half have gotten a tattoo, had a body piercing, or have dyed their hair a nontraditional color.3

Thinking of how these data might dispel (or confirm?) the views and fears of those in charge, we are wise to consider how technology has affected generation next. To gain a better understanding of their views, let’s look at the forces shaping these views.

The Complexity of Television

Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, concludes that the increasing complexity of television and cinema, along with the impact of video gaming, has not resulted in the “dumbing down” of U.S. citizens. Instead, their influence has been to create a culture that is more intellectually demanding, not less. His argument for what he terms the “Sleeper Curve” is a result of the neurological appetites of the brain, the economics of culture and technology enabling new kinds of entertainment, and online communication. Reading books elevates skills of attention, memory, imagination, concentration, and connection. Interactive technology is honing a different set of mental skills equally as important.

For those who grew up on a steady diet of television in the 1960s and 1970s, consider the evolution in television programming, using the following examples:

  • Dragnet versus CSI or NYPD Blue

  • Marcus Welby, M.D. versus ER

  • Starsky and Hutch versus 24

  • Three’s Company versus The Simpsons

How are they different? In what ways are they the same? Johnson draws comparisons of shows such as these to conclude that television has increasingly encouraged viewers to exercise their minds—to “fill in the blanks” and be-come comfortable with greater levels of complexity. This results in a comfort with ambiguity, more refined social intelligence, and a competitive edge over those lacking similar skills.

Consider a typical episode of The Simpsons, ER, or 24. In each of these distinct entertainment venues, complex, blended, and simultaneous story structures require the viewer to track multiple characters involved with loosely related story elements. Any or all of these elements may or may not possess information critical to the central storyline. In the case of The Simpsons, comedy is layered in such a manner as to allow an adult and a child viewing the mishaps of Homer and Bart to laugh for entirely different reasons. The hallmark of the contemporary comedy is how much information the viewer must draw upon to “get” the full depth of the humor.

Television has moved from a passive medium to one requiring the thought, effort, and reflection of those who watch it. What it might lack in cultural depth may be compensated for in the way in which it sharpens analytic skills that can be transferred to the real world at work and home. In similar ways, video games have moved from the realm of entertaining diversion to a force shaping culture and reshaping what it might mean to be intelligent.

Video Games—Good for You?

Beyond the traditional orthodoxy of improving visual acuity and manual dexterity, video games are adept at creating a compelling cognitive challenge to those who immerse themselves in that environment. Interestingly, they attract many to an avocation that seems frustrating, repetitive, and somewhat meaningless to those outside of the game world for reasons that may be hardwired into our brains.4

Like cocaine or other addictive substances, gaming taps into the brain’s natural reward circuitry. Johnson notes that the study of this aspect of the brain has been prominent in helping to understand addiction, with two insights pertinent to gaming. Research has uncovered results strongly indicating that the brain’s dopamine system (the natural opioids, which serve as both painkillers and pleasure providers) compels us to seek rewards in our environment; for example, disappointment felt over a setback at work is a result of lowered dopamine levels induced by the lack of an anticipated reward. The dopamine system also urges us to “keep looking” for the reward to achieve balance. Those addicted to drugs artificially introduce opioid-like substances, kick-starting the pleasure response while also inadvertently activating the search for “more.”5 Gaming, in many ways, also activates the reward circuitry of the brain.

In the game world, reward is everywhere. Most of the work in game play development focuses on “keeping players notified of potential rewards available to them, and how much those rewards are currently needed.”6 The result is a game architecture designed to withhold objects, activities, and “success” until certain levels of proficiency have been reached. This balance of reward and exploration in achieving competence as a player is what creates the draw to gaming. Nongamers scanning the last few paragraphs might recoil in horror, thinking that video games are numbing an entire generation. But consider what skills might be elevated through the experience. Johnson thinks that two skill sets, probing and telescoping, could be among the most valuable.

Probing and Telescoping

Most video games withhold information about the means by which success might be achieved at the outset of the experience (similar, in fact, to the strategies of problem-based learning). This forces participants to explore the rules, boundaries, and constraints in their environment. Even the ultimate goal of the game might not be readily apparent. The only way to move forward is to probe the setting, figure out what does and does not work, and start asking and answering questions about the challenge or threat at hand. Johnson describes this four-part process as “probe, hypothesize, reprobe, [and] think,”7 which entails the following actions:

  • Probing the virtual world, looking around, searching for hidden pathways, and taking actions to explore reactions and responses.

  • Hypothesizing the meanings of the responses seen—are they systematic? Might they be useful in other situations? Will the objects, words, or events encountered be valuable later on?

  • Reprobing the environment using the hypothesis formed to assess the effect of actions based in that frame.

  • Using the feedback gained to rethink the hypothesis and remodel player actions.

Telescoping is the management of the primary texture of the game and its complex objectives.8 This skill allows gamers to focus on immediate objectives while also maintaining a strategic view of the larger goals. Telescoping is not multitasking, which is the management of unrelated objectives; rather, it seeks to construct hierarchies of tasks and then move through them in the right sequence. This combined skill set may be useful in work settings in multiple ways: it encourages participatory thinking and analysis; it seeks to understand the immediate environment in the context of the bigger picture; and it helps to provide context for actions and to assess both the short- and long-term effects of interaction with one’s environment.

Beyond the Myths

John Beck and Mitchell Wade, in Got Game: How the Gamer Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever, reported the results of a large-scale survey and hundreds of interviews on the impact of video games. Their data show that more than 80 percent of workers less than 34 years old have had substantial game experience. For what Beck and Wade term as “the gamer generation,” video games were a “defining part” of their reality because they were everywhere, established, emotional, and expected.

Everywhere: Atari sold three million video game units a year in the 1980s; in the 1990s, Game Boy Color sold six million units in three months. By 2004, Nintendo had sold 110 million Game Boy machines, and next-generation interactive controllers sell for hundreds of dollars as quickly as they can be moved to store shelves.

Established: Those now in their twenties have neverknown a world without digital gaming. They take for granted that 70 percent of children under 18 live in U.S. households where there is a game console. A number of venerable colleges and universities offer graduate programs in game technology and programming. In early 2007, professional video gaming was broadcast on cable networks; the football simulator Madden 2007 is already a staple on ESPN2.

Emotional: An entire generation grew up with shared memories of the prominent games of their day. Spending time with friends until the early hours of the morning, testing one’s skills against a peer—these activities have a deep emotional connection for adults who will now eagerly spend a week’s salary on the newest version of their favorite game or the newest Wii platform to while away their leisure time.

Expected: In the business population aged 34 and younger, more than 8 in 10 are frequent or moderate gamers. The image of lone gaming is dispelled as one comes to realize that professionals and others on the “upper end of the pay scale” interact with video games regularly.9

Beck and Wade reach several thought provoking conclusions regarding their findings. Among them are the lessons gaming teaches:

  • Unlike real life, gaming offers a chance for everyone to be a “star.”

  • Players are the bosses and experts in their gaming environments and can experience any number of thrills, crashes, and deaths without getting hurt.

  • In games, there is always an answer. Anything is possible, and the process of trial and error is usually the best way to find the right answer.

  • Relationships are structured, and competition is not only natural but desired.

  • Edginess and attitude dominate; young people are in charge and have a chance to be the hero.10

Claire Raines, coauthor of Generations at Work and author of several other books and articles on generation gaps, concludes similarly. She writes that the generation entering the workplace has a work ethic different from any other. She refers to millennials, the generation born between 1980 and 2000, as being shaped by the pervasive presence of digital media. They grew up in scheduled, structured lives, often with active and involved parents. The emergence of a multicultural society is seen as the norm. They regard the threat of terrorism as a fact of life, and they live in a global community that is connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Interestingly, the response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, saw a resurgence of the “American hero”: police officers, firefighters, and mayors commonly appeared on the news and in print. One result of these acts is an emerging sense of patriotism and political interest. This translates to a generation that sees itself as special, connected 24/7, confident, hopeful, goal and achievement oriented, and inclusive.11

Raines expresses concern about the “digital divide” between millennials and their predecessors. Those who grew up without access to a computer and who might lack the requisite skills to cope with their complexity will be left behind. Those in earlier generations might struggle to supervise and manage tech-savvy millennials; peers who grew up in poverty (which accounts for 16 percent of U.S. citizens) might never catch up.12

Considering the possible impact of a generation entering the workplace with an interactive, self-reliant, wired upbringing and an instinctive distrust of authority and a reliance on the strategy of trial and error, how might the law enforcement profession integrate such individuals into a work environment with a strong hierarchy and no reset button?

The New Rules of Work

One might consider the task of merging the newest generation into the workplace to be daunting. In fact, each generation moves from being “new,” subject to the rules of the preceding generation, to a point where, by sheer numbers, they alter the norms of the work environment to suit their own values, perspectives, and needs.

As we move toward the second decade of the 21st century, the task ahead for aging baby boomers is to adapt the wisdom of their years to the habits of gamers and millennials as they welcome these newcomers into entry-level roles. Although no one has come up with rules for this task, fortunately, some of the authors mentioned earlier give some insight into what might work.

Johnson’s work indicates that those growing up with a diet of complex televised entertainment and interactive video gaming will be adept at probing and telescoping. They will be adept at participatory thinking and readily adapt to changing circumstances.13 Professions with regular interactions with others will benefit from the social and emotional intelligence gaming and complex media are producing.14 They will thrive in an environment where structure is present and where their supervisors ensure strategies and specific tactics are understood.15

Raines describes the six most frequent requests of millennial employees:

  • Leaders with honesty and integrity. Millennials are not necessarily anxious to be the leaders themselves; they want to see some role models first.

  • Learning opportunities in the work environment and a career plan that allows them to grow and develop.

  • Friends in the workplace with whom they can work well. Social outlets connected to coworkers will be seen as valuable ways to connect with one another.

  • Some fun at work. Irreverence and a little humor will be seen as normal and positive.

  • To be treated respectfully, even though their tenure might be brief in any particular workplace.

  • The flexibility to pursue activities and interests outside of work. A rigid schedule might be the quickest way to lose millennials to another employer.16

Options available to maximize the presence of millennials range from arranging the workplace to enhance the flow of ideas to assigning projects that allow for group success. One noted idea is reverse mentoring, where millennials could be used to mentor midcareer managers adapting to new technologies. One significant advantage of this approach would also be to foster meaningful communication between millennials and boomers, who might otherwise tend to marginalize one another. In short, Raines encourages managers to be prepared for high expectations while also recognizing that millennials might not want to “pay their dues.”17

Beck and Wade also suggest some ways to integrate gamers into the professional environment:

  • Provide structure. Gamers grew up in environments with clear rules, goal-oriented tasks, and social norms set within game-related competencies. Tap into those norms at work; traditional “team-building” exercises might have a greater chance of foundering than focused team development work would. Special projects, whether real or simulated in a learning setting, would bring out better performance in gamers used to such tasks.

  • Help gamers learn the standards and norms of the workplace. Gamers’ inclination to disregard the techilliterate could be seen as disloyal. Their penchant for electronic communication might preclude them from many of the productive informal means of face-to-face communication common to the police environment. Their multitasking abilities might be seen as advantageous to managers but threatening to older peers. Helping them understand social and professional conventions in internal and external settings as well as how to serve clientele and interact with other divisions, agencies, and organizations is an essential task of those in charge.

  • Think of how the work of the agency might be structured in a way familiar to gamers. This does not mean making every possible task electronic or transforming the office into a gaming-friendly environment. It might mean, though, that agencies place additional emphasis on innovation and problem solving. Managers should set clear boundaries and envision outcomes and then let teams work without constraints (within the set boundaries) to achieve success. For purposes of the organization’s future, managers should think of giving gamer/boomer teams room to explore the organization, community issues, and the threats and opportunities on the horizon.18

Implications for Policing

From these general observations, police managers could consider a number of ways to take advantage of generation next as it enters the law enforcement profession. Think of their norms as they relate to choosing a profession. They desire to

  • work in teams

  • perform work of significance,

  • have flexibility in their daily environment, and

  • engage in activities consistent with heroism.

The great likelihood is that they will be attracted to public safety. Recent data from the U.S. military reveal that all four branches of the armed services are meeting or exceeding recruitment and reenlistment goals.19 The law enforcement community, then, might need merely to provide recruiting tools, training, and employment to address these values.

The U.S. Army already hosts an online virtual basic-training experience for prospective recruits to familiarize them with the rigors of military life. A brief check of military recruiting Web sites reveals virtual warriors who act as guides through the recruitment process and answer questions about joining their service branch. To attract the brightest and the best, and also to find those who would thrive in policing, law enforcement may wish to replicate these and other venues.

The Army has also spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the past several years deploying computer-based training modules for their personnel. “Advances in computer science, artificial intelligence, and simulation technology have created an opportunity to improve the quality and depth of training . . .to law enforcement.”20 The Army has found benefits of this technology tocompetencies as varied as team leadership to situational awareness in a fluid and changing combat environment. Compare this teaching strategy to that of the traditional police academy, with its student workbooks, long hours of lecture, and pen and paper testing. The self-directed learning modules (SLIMs), role-playing simulations, and leadership modules seem well suited to both tactical deployment and community policing. How might this shape the academy curriculum of the future?

Once gamers and “nexters” establish themselves in agencies, the opportunities to maximize their value are almost endless. Johnson, Raines, and Beck and Wade would all point to the values deeply ingrained in young adults starting their careers. Relying on seniority or rank structure will no longer suffice for new recruits. Astute managers will match gamers with boomers to crosstrain them in their respective areas of strength. Teams will be formed to address organizational and community problems. Research and development will gain a new emphasis as technology allows for more thorough analysis of issues and crime trends.

Agencies that learn flexibility will better meet the challenges of crime and disorder. Policing agencies adept at recruiting and retaining gamers will thrive, while those who prefer their organizations to remain “as is” will continue to experience the stress of inadequate applicants, poorquality recruits, and an endless cycle of training and replacement. Far beyond merely increasing agencies’ proficiency in investigating high-tech crime, the integration of gamers into policing offers a chance to break from the past to succeed for the future.


The evidence is clear and compelling. No one can escape the truth that younger generations will enter, and then change, the workplace in every industry. In policing, a profession bound by its legacy as much as by the law, those entering the workplace can have a dramatic influence on the quality of life for communities across the United States.

Pushing gamers away due to their differing perspectives and tech-first approach might seem natural. Drawing them into the future, enabling them to do significant work, and integrating them into the fabric of an agency seem much more difficult. Convincing senior staff members to work alongside these nontraditionalists might be a challenge. In reality, though, the choice is clear: the law enforcement community must welcome this new generation or face a future without the means to thrive in a world where constant contact and flexibility are qualities essential to success.■

Bob Harrison is a consultant with more than 33 years of law enforcement experience. After retiring as chief of police, Bob worked with the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) to develop training to transform that state’s police academies to active adult learning. He has trained police and education audiences on the impact of gamers and millennials since 2005. For more information, contact Bob at (


1Pew Research Center, How Young People View Their Lives, Futures and Politics: A Portrait of Generation Next (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2007), (accessed September 6, 2007), 1.
2Ibid., 5–11.
3Ibid., 13–21.
4Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 33.
5Ibid., 34.
6Ibid., 36.
7Ibid., 45.
8Ibid., 54.
9John Beck and Mitchell Wade, Got Game: How the Gamer Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004), 9–10.
10Ibid., 11–14.
11Claire Raines, “Managing Millennials,” Generations at Work Web site, 2002, (accessed September 6, 2007).
13Johnson, Everything Bad, 60, 178, 190.
14Ibid., 100.
15Ibid., 37, 43.
16Raines, “Managing Millennials.”
18Beck and Wade, Got Game, 129–131.
19John Kruzel, “Recruiting Is Solid Despite Difficulties, Defense Official Says,” American Forces Press Service News Articles, February 16, 2007, (accessed September 6, 2007).
20Richard Besserman, Community Oriented Policing Simulations Study (Washington, D.C.: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice, 2005), 1.



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 10, October 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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