Playing Games at Work

When you hear about people 'playing games' at work you probably think about the negative connotations. Your mind wanders to a few examples you have where you dealt with shifty people who connived and manipulated their way into a position of power or influence. You probably cringe at the memories and I don't blame you. I hate that stuff too.

Luckily I'm not talking about 'playing games' as some political power play at work. I'm talking about playing proper just-relax-and-have-fun games at work.

Computer games, card games, or anything else. Games build team rapport, enhance creativity, and are just good old fashioned fun. If you're not playing games at work you should be.

I'm speaking from experience too. I am a senior leader at a software company and I currently oversee 60+ designers and engineers. Recently we instigated a culture of fun game playing at work and it is showing some great results.

Our gaming culture

We created the game playing culture with a simple computer game: Heroes of the Storm.

 Wallpaper image courtesy of Blizzard

Wallpaper image courtesy of Blizzard

We wanted something that a group of people could quickly fire up during lunch, have fun, challenge each other, and grow as a team. Heroes of the Storm (or HotS as it has affectionately become known) was ideal.

If you want to know more about the game follow that link above. It's quite a detailed game but also has a simple learning curve.

We considered a few games but in the end there were a few good reasons why we chose to play Heroes of the Storm at work:

  • It promoted teamwork & competition - it's a 5 v 5 battle game
  • It was free - nobody has to pay to play
  • It worked on PC and Mac - everyone can play
  • It was easy to get started - good for the noobs like me
  • A single game takes 20-30 minutes - perfect length for a lunchtime game

But just picking a game and telling people to play it during lunch was not going to suffice. We had to show them it was acceptable, even encouraged, to play games. We had to lead from the front.

Leaders First

The first HotS game involved a bit of preparation and fanfare. We created a Confluence page documenting how to install and get setup, we put daily reminders out in our team chat channels, and when game day came around we made sure that people seen as leaders within the company were playing, even the CTO.

Game one was a resounding success. All ten spots were filled (four of which were 'leaders') and everyone had a lot of fun. People actually walked across the office afterwards in order to sledge each other and share a laugh. It was fantastic.

So what? Why bother playing games?

Right now you're in one of two camps. You either think gaming at work is a great idea or that we are complete lunatics. If you're in the former camp then feel free to add me (my randomly generated name is GoldenPants) and hook up for a Heroes of the Storm game. If you're in the latter camp...well read on and hopefully I'll have you joining me soon.

Playing games can actually have a lot of benefits. Let's look at a few of the bigger ones:

Playing games is good for creativity

There is a bunch of research coming out that shows taking a break from work, and doing something fun like playing games, helps you be better at your job when you come back.

This makes perfect sense to me. How many times have you been working on a problem, banging your head against a wall to no avail, only to have a brilliant idea later when you have taken a step back and put your mind in another space? This is like the shower epiphany taken to a new level.

When you are deeply engrossed in a problem it is often difficult to see the bigger picture, to step back and consider alternative solutions. But when you turn your attention to something else your brain does not simply forget the problem it was trying to solve. It just puts it in to background processing (aka "default mode network") which keeps chipping away at the problem.

So while you are showering, going for a run, or even playing computer games, your brain is still subtly reassessing some of your more difficult problems.

The result? When you come back to that head-against-the-wall stupidly difficult problem you often discover a solution quickly and easily.

Playing games opens relationships

Playing games at work creates relationships that would otherwise not exist. It provides an opportunity for people to meet and talk to people outside their regular team, often sharing a laugh or some friendly banter over who is the better player.

People that used to pass each other silently in the hall, or give a token nod hello in the kitchen, now stop to discuss the latest game, swap tactics, or just have a laugh.

This is exactly what happened to me when we started playing games in the office. In fact, after the very first game I had one of my employees walk across the office just to swing by my desk and give me a friendly sledge about my (lack of) skill.

This sort of behaviour is just the start of growing the office relationships. Once people start interacting, using the game as the icebreaker, they begin to open up. They start saying hello more, actually engaging in conversations as they pass, and pretty soon Mary is asking Joe about his weekend and discovering his favourite hobby is underwater basket weaving, just like Mary!*

*Mary, Joe, and underwater basket weaving may not be real examples.

Playing games is great for team morale

Playing games at work also creates a good team environment that supports fun, collaboration, and a little bit of healthy competition. These are all good things for your team and they have a very positive impact on the team morale.

High morale teams are also high performing teams.

Teams with high morale are more engaged and, funnily enough, more likely to be highly productive and efficient at work. They enjoy the actual work they are doing AND they get to enjoy their time at work too. Win-win!

Creating an opportunity for fun at work is critical for sustaining a high performing team. You can hire a bunch of talented people but if you aren't looking after them or giving them the opportunity to be creative and have fun then you will lose them quickly.

Unforeseen side-effects of gaming in the office

There have been some side effects since we introduced the weekly HotS gaming session. Here is a brief list of what I have observed:

  • Home games - people are literally connecting with each other outside of work time to play games together
  • The previously unused Xbox is played every day - permission to have fun and play games is permeating across the office
  • A FIFA tournament sprung up and the grand final was watched by 30+ people, eating fried chicken bought by the CTO)
  • Camping trips - people who might not otherwise have hung out are now having motorcycle and camping trips together

Pretty good huh? I attribute all of these to the fun interactions generated by the inclusion of game playing at work.

Tips for setting up a gaming culture at your office

Many companies now have gaming consoles, pool tables, or other fun activities at work. It seems to be the norm, or at least a not-so-subtle method for attracting younger talent.

But how often do these things actually get used? I know our Xbox was gathering dust before we made gaming part of our culture and I've heard this from many other places. These work places are filled with cool fun things that never get used. They are just there as hiring gimmicks.

But I think they can, and should, be used to create a little fun at work.

Here is how to bring gaming in to your office and make having fun a naturally occurring part of your company culture:

Document it

Make it easy for people to get involved. We put a page up on Confluence that gave detailed instructions on everything from how to install the game to how to play it. Documenting it makes it feel more official. It's not just the whim of some quiet guy in the corner any more!

Publicise it

Talk about games regularly to get traction. In our internal company chat rooms we would call out upcoming games and post reminders for how to join. Afterwards we posted screenshots of the scoreboard. This let's everyone know, even the non-gamers, that having fun at work is fine. Hell, it's even encouraged.

Celebrate it

We added game playing as one of our team 'successes' for the first retrospective afterwards. This was to show that not only do we support having fun at work we actually value it so much that we call it a success. Funnily enough, games became a regular inclusion in the retrospective for weeks to come.

Lead it

Any organisational change, especially cultural, needs to be led from the top

I mentioned this early but it deserves another reminder. To setup a culture of fun then the leaders need to be involved early. Any organisational change, especially cultural, needs to be led from the top. The leaders needs to be demonstrating the required behaviour as frequently as possible. Once the baseline new behaviour is established then you can withdraw and let the games naturally evolve. Or you can be like me, finding yourself sneaking in a quick practice game at home at 9pm in order to keep up with everyone.

Support it

Similar to the point above but with a twist. This is less about the actual demonstration of cultural values but the subtle support that goes along with it. As an example, we setup a private Discord channel and bought special gaming headsets for our people so that we could chat during the game. This gesture cost us only a few hundred dollars but demonstrated our clear support. Worth it.


I wondered how to finalise this article, how to summarise it and provide a clear piecce of advice about why you should try playing games at work. In the end I decided I would leave with a piece of wisdom from Dr Seuess - my favourite philospher who masqueraded as a children's author...

 Dr Seuss is a great philospher

Dr Seuss is a great philospher

References

There are literally dozens (maybe even hundreds) of different examples of research around that support this gaming and fun mindset. I wont pretend to have read them all but here are some of the ones I have read, liked, or referenced: