Michael Griffith is a top executive in the world of video games and he likes to play them, too. Griffith is president and chief executive of Activision Publishing Inc., the chief subsidiary of Activision Blizzard Inc. and one of the largest video game publishers in the world. Griffith has been a gamer since college, back when Pong and Pac-Man were new to the scene. “I wish I could say I played them when I was a kid,” Griffith confessed. “But video games hadn’t even been invented yet.” He was born in Kalamazoo, Mich., and grew up hiking and snorkeling around the Great Lakes. Then he went into management at Procter & Gamble Co., where he worked for 24 years. His titles there included vice president of fabric and home care products in Asia, vice president of coffee products, and president of global beverages. Griffith took over as Activision CEO in June 2005. That meant going from parsing the finer points of cake mix and coffee grounds to overseeing the development, marketing and distribution of video games. One of his first coups: Landing the blockbuster “Guitar Hero” franchise, which has generated more than $1 billion in sales for Activision since 2006.
Question: Have you always been a fan of video games?
Answer: Definitely. Pong came out when I was in college, and it was a lot of fun. It seemed terribly advanced at the time, too. I played Pac-Man at the bars, Donkey Kong, things like that. And more recently, as my kids have been growing up, we played a lot of video games as part of family social time. I played a lot of kids-oriented games with my daughters, and “GoldenEye 007” with my son.
Q: What do you like about video games?
A: Video games really can be used for a social connection, and I’ve used it to connect with my kids. And in a solitary setting, I think it’s certainly as productive as watching TV.
Q: What’s your favorite video game?
A: I’ve been playing “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” every day since it launched last year. And yesterday I started playing the next one, “Call of Duty: World at War.” I’ve always been a fan of shooters. They help me blow off steam.
Q: Was your goal to become a video game executive?
A: No, that hadn’t crossed my mind. I didn’t have a real clear indication growing up what I wanted to be. When I got to college, I was interested mostly in math. I think it was the puzzles that interested me, the logic of being able to work solutions out through some basic sets of principles and rules.
Q: What was it like to grow up in Kalamazoo?
A: It was a small town of about 100,000 people, centered on a university. And there was a major pharmaceutical company in town called the Upjohn Co. where my father was a physicist. So it was all about pharmaceuticals and universities growing up.
Q: What were your college days like?
A: I went to Albion College in Michigan. It was a very small college, 1,800 students. I was part of a fraternity, Delta Tau Delta. It was nothing like you see in the movies. We were known as the more, uh, studious fraternity of the student body.
Q: Then you went to the University of Michigan to get your M.B.A.
A: That’s right. I had an interest in economics, especially in math, and I really thought I’d go into a banking-oriented career.
Q: Are you a fan of Michigan football?
A: Of course. But it was easier to be a Michigan fan a few years ago. This is the true test of a fan, sticking with them through the down times.
Q: Instead of banking, you went on to a career at Procter & Gamble. Why did you change your mind?
A: I did an internship with General Motors, and I saw first-hand there what general management was all about. And I thought that looked pretty interesting. So when I got back to business school, I did a bit of research and decided consumer packaged goods was really the earliest I could get to a general management position. My aspiration at the time was to run a brand, then a group of brands, and eventually a country of brands.
Q: What were some of the brands you managed at Procter & Gamble
A: To name a few: Folgers Coffee, Sunny Delight, Hawaiian Punch, Duncan Hines baking mixes, Crisco shortening, Ivory soap.
Q: At Procter & Gamble, you lived for four years in Kobe, Japan, as vice president for fabric and home care products in Asia. What was that like?
A: It was difficult the first few months until I learned the survival skills of the language. Because I couldn’t read the signs, I couldn’t look them up in a book, and there’s just not a lot of English spoken. I studied the language very hard with a private tutor, and after about three and a half months I could get around, order food, get in a taxi. And then the world opened up.
Q: What was your least favorite thing about being in Japan?
A: Sometimes it was very difficult to get things like cereal, peanut butter, comfort foods. And it’s a very urban environment. There aren’t a lot of open spaces like I was used to growing up in Michigan.
Q: Do you still speak Japanese?
A: A little. I was just in Japan a few weeks ago, and I felt it coming back.
Q: What did you do after your stint in Japan?
A: I became vice president and general manager of coffee products, and then a short time later I became president of global beverages. Buying coffee was a big part of my responsibility, and I had to pay such close attention to the commodity cost of coffee that I set up a coffee commodity ticker on my desk.
Q: How did you end up at Activision?
A: About four years ago, I was retiring from Procter & Gamble and my wife and I were planning to meet another couple in the Caribbean. We had our bags packed by the door and our flight was ready to leave the next morning. Then Bob Kotick and Brian Kelly of Activision were in Cincinnati and they invited me to dinner. And I thought, Why not? We ended up having such a great dinner and hit it off so well that instead of going to the Caribbean, we took our bags and came to Los Angeles. We had to call our friends and say, “Sorry, we’re not coming.” And literally 48 hours later we had an agreement for me to be CEO.
Q: So it all went smoothly?
A: Well, no. After we landed at LAX we were in a limo coming to our hotel, and the limo got into a head-on collision. I had bruises from the seat belt, and my wife was hurt badly enough to go to the hospital.
Q: Wow. Was she OK?
A: She was fine but had to wear this big neck brace. We stumbled in the next day a little bit battered and bruised. But in spite of that, everything worked out.
Q: Marketing Proctor & Gamble products must be very different from running a video game company.
A: They have a lot in common actually the retail chains that carry them, for instance. There’s a huge overlap in deciding what the product should be and developing it. When Bob and Brian talked to me about taking this job originally, they described it as combining the best of packaged goods with the best of Hollywood. And that was a business model I thought had real potential.
Q: You were overseeing Activision when it bought the “Guitar Hero” franchise. How did that game first get your attention?
A: We first noticed it when our game testers were playing “Guitar Hero” during their breaks. I thought, They’re testing video games all day, they get a few minutes off, and they play a video game. So what is this that has them so captivated? That was our first indication that this would be something big.
Q: Then what happened?
A: We noticed that “Guitar Hero” was not showing up on the charts as very successful, but we also noticed that it was always out of stock. And when it was in stock, it was a top five game. That led us to see the potential before anyone else. So we bought it and we debottlenecked the supply chain so that the next time around it was legitimately a top five game. And last year, it was the No. 1 game in the world in terms of dollars sold.
Q: Do you play “Guitar Hero”?
A: Oh, sure.
Q: How good are you?
A: I play “Guitar Hero” just like I ski: medium. I’m great on medium.
Q: Do you test the video games before they go to market?
A: Well, I definitely get access to the games. But I don’t know how much the designers value my input.
Q: What was a key moment that helped shape your career?
A: Early on in my time at Procter & Gamble, I had a boss who taught me a phrase that sounds corny, but it went, “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” And what I realized from that phrase was that I could take on as much responsibility as I wanted. I just had to define what I wanted to do and then deliver it. It’s there for the taking, whatever it is, but you have to be responsible for it. And you can’t blame anyone else but yourself if you don’t get it.
Q: What’s your favorite book?
A: I don’t really have one, but I read a fair amount for pleasure, a lot of fiction. There’s a guy named John Johnson, and he just published a great new science-fiction book called “Purusha’s Urn.” He and I have been friends for a while he worked at an L.A. advertising agency I used in my beverage product days and when I was in Japan he was writing this book, and he would send it to me over e-mail chapter by chapter as he wrote it. And I’d read it and tell him what I thought. So I got to see the book come together over this long period of time, and it was just published a couple of months ago.
Q: So you were his editor?
A: No, I think that would be going too far. It was an interesting book, about a wrinkle in space-time.
Q: What are your hobbies, besides playing video games?
A: Scuba diving. I try to take as many diving trips as I can. But I don’t like the cold water, so I don’t dive off the coast of California. I mostly go in the Caribbean.
Q: How did you get into it?
A: I did a lot of snorkeling in the lakes in Michigan, but real scuba diving began when I lived in Japan. I took some basic courses, and I really got into it.
Q: What’s the best place to scuba dive?
A: Little Cayman Island, without a doubt. The reefs are spectacular and they’re absolutely pristine; no one’s there. There are only 100 people who live on the island, and the underwater topography and reef life is as magnificent as the Great Barrier. I have a group of guys I go with. It started with people from Procter & Gamble, but over the years it’s come to include people from many different cities.
Q: How do your kids feel about their dad being a top video game executive?
A: It’s definitely high on the cool factor. Better than soap and coffee.
Title: Chief Executive Officer
Company: Activision Publishing Inc.
Born: 1957; Kalamazoo, Mich.
Education: B.A., Albion College; M.B.A., University of Michigan
Career Turning Point: Moving to Japan to run Procter & Gamble’s Asian laundry and cleaning products business
Most Influential People: Father, a physicist at Upjohn Corp.; wife
Personal: Lives with his wife in Hidden Hills; three children
Hobbies: Scuba diving, hiking, playing video games