If you’ve had enough of virtual drinks maybe it’s time to introduce games into workplace socialising.
When workplaces went remote earlier this year there was a common approach to keeping staff connected socially. “Zoom happy hour” entered the lexicon as an alternative to the Friday afternoon catch up and for a while, it worked.
Our workplace did something similar and I loved it. Being both new to the company and new to the city these catch-ups made me feel connected. They gave us an opportunity to chat and laugh and feel like we weren’t so separate from each other.
Five months later and the excitement has worn off. Video call fatigue has well and truly caught up with us and using it for our social life has become a bit exhausting.
When faced with a similar dilemma, US-based author Vivan Schwarz took her meeting into an entirely new virtual world, that of Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Online. Red Dead is a cowboy role-playing game and the online version allows players to explore the American frontier with friends across the globe.
Red Dead isn’t exactly suitable for everyone, as Schwarz herself points out, “Sometimes the meeting table doesn’t exist for everyone, and sitting on the ground is the same button as attempting to strangle the nearest person”. But Schwarz ingenuity highlights a whole new way we could approach gatherings. Is bringing video games into the workplace a way to push through the fog a video call fatigue and allow employees to connect on a whole new level?
Why video games?
Kerstin Oberprieler, co-founder and CEO of gamification service PentaQuest, says games tap into our human desire to play.
“Play is really important for exploring, understanding, and doing things in a safe environment. It’s really deeply rooted in our psychology,” says Oberprieler.
“We’ve found evidence of knucklebones and ancient board games that existed almost 5000 years ago. And games are still prevalent. In fact, they’re probably more prevalent now than ever. That’s why we see the video game industry being larger than movies and cinema.”
HRM has examined the impact of video games on workplaces before, both from employee productivity and recruitment perspectives but as video games already exist in the virtual space slotting them into virtual social events can be straightforward.
Many casual video games are perfect at putting everyone on the same footing, something that is surprisingly difficult during video conferences where the person with the loudest voice and best internet connection tends to hog the spotlight.
Earlier this year James Micklethwait, vice president of products for online trivia platform Kahoot!, wrote about the benefits of workplace games for Forbes Technology. He noted how the open-plan office had failed to socialise employees, games on the other hand “can be played in a group setting and are often anonymised, so you can participate without feeling embarrassed.”
Oberprieler agrees with Micklethwait’s assessment saying games are a great way to break down barriers.
“Games help us relax and get into this playful space, and in that space, it’s much easier to connect with other people. So if we’re playing a game, it kind of takes the pressure off and can help us connect as humans rather than as just professional colleagues.”
A 2017 paper published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication examined multiplayer video games as a “third place”, that is the space between work and home. We understand the importance of third spaces such as our commute as important places to switch between tasks, but the researchers theorised video games could also work as a third space for socialising – think the water coolers of the virtual world. Working remotely we tend to keep our communications work-related and we lose those casual chit chat moments. Reintroducing them through video game catch ups could be a good alternative.
Finding what works for you
The great thing about video games is their variety.
Many popular video games promote competitiveness, think any sports-based or shoot-em-up game, however, that’s just skimming the surface of what’s available. From puzzles to cooperative challenges, to casual games where you manage a nice farm or make friends with animals, video game genres are as vast other mediums.
When it comes to finding games that suit your workplaces, Oberprieler suggests thinking about what you’d like to get out of the experience.
“It often depends on the organisational culture to what is the right type of games for your audience,” she says, “As an example when we work with not-for-profits, they tend to be very focused on the collective and contributing to a higher purpose, so they tend to choose games that are more collaborative.”
Board games often have been great for these collaborative experiences. Thankfully there are many virtual ways to recreate that experience through software like Tabletop Simulator. Games that give players a common goal can help build communication and troubleshooting skills that have a flow-on effect on the workplace. Seeing how different employees approach a problem can also help employees understand how they would tackle real-world hurdles.
On the other hand, some teams enjoy a bit of competition.
“Some people actually love the competition and thrive on that combativeness. ‘You versus me” can be really energising to some teams. It’s just about understanding the gameplay your team would enjoy and what type of social interaction you’re looking for,” says Oberprieler.
Competitive games are really easy to incorporate into virtual catch-ups. Trivia platform ‘Kahoot!’ took off during lockdown as an easy way to host staff trivia nights. This is a simple, free way to entertain your team but also means the quality can be hit or miss. Kahoot quizzes are crowdsourced so if you’re not making your own you are relying on internet strangers which can have mixed success.
On the other hand, virtual party games like Jackbox games, which would set you back about $20, have higher quality but are designed to be a bit cheeky and that isn’t always appropriate for different workplaces.
Oberprieler says it’s about really understanding your team and their comfort levels. If you’re not careful there is a risk of alienating staff members.
“In my experience, I find that there’s a bell curve where some people are like, ‘thank goodness, something fun in the workplace let’s going’. And then you’ve got some people that are really resistant. Like ‘work is work. I don’t need to have fun at work, I get paid to work’,” she says.
Oberprieler says it can be a process of trial and error but variety should keep everyone happy.
“If the purpose of the games is to socialise and is a regular occurrence, then one way to do that is to play different types of games that allow for different types of players at different levels of comfort. Maybe you’ll play cards one day, then you’ll do role-playing games another day and then a collaborative on the other day.
“That way you can really let people shine and enjoy the different games that suit them”.
Want to learn how to build a responsive team culture in this new world of work? AHRI’s SHIFT20 conference covers this very topic. Register here.