How Mark Summers helped our office become better friends while fighting aardvarks for charity

A few times each year, our office holds a hackathon (cleverly titled HACK’D) and we’re able to work on whatever we want for two days. Last HACK’D someone had organized a scavenger hunt around the office which went over really well. Rather than work on a new app, I wanted to take the concept of a company-wide game further.

Our team of four was fresh off an online game called Neptune’s Pride and I was interested in seeing if we could incorporate some of the elements of the game to the whole office. Here are some of those elements:

  • Takes a month to play
  • Lots of players
  • You get to know your coworkers more deeply
  • You end up hating your coworkers

We brainstormed ideas on how we could take an existing competitive game like Neptune’s Pride or Diplomacy and rework it using our office as the map. We knew we wanted everyone in the office a part of the game by default, whether they liked it or not. One of the team members had an idea: make it a cooperative game rather than having people or teams compete against each other. This not only sounded more fun but solved that pesky “hating your coworkers” problem.

Having decided on creating a cooperative game, we sketched out our main goals:

Get people from different departments to know each other
While most people in the company knew each others’ names, the tendency exists to mainly talk to people you either work on projects with, play a sport with, or those who joined the company around the same time. There are lots of people working here who don’t fit into any of these categories but you might still get along with. Even worse, there are some entire departments that are so physically far from the bulk of the team that interaction is minimal. As a result, members of far away teams can become a mysterious unknown island.

Experiment with an office wide game
This was the goal that resonated with me the most. I love games and have fun creating things, so I was excited to see what we can learn from this experiment and how far we could push it. Could this game be something that we do more than once? Does this have bigger potential than just being played at our company?

Liven the office up
I’ve heard more than once that our office is very quiet, which seems to clash with the aesthetically fun environment here. Tech types aren’t known for being particularly outgoing, but while introverts abound I don’t believe that the people here want to be left alone. Many want to be involved, talk to more people, and have more fun at work but just need that little push. Hopefully this game could be that push while also giving the office a warmer, higher energy feel.

An early obstacle was figuring out how to encourage our officemates into the game. The aforementioned scavenger hunt was prize-based, but since this would be a co-op game it would be pretty difficult to get good prizes for 100 people based on our $500 budget. We realized that having the prize be a donation to charity would work because it will motivate some while guilting others into action. Hey, whatever works.

To give a sense of pulling the office together, our game would revolve around being attacked from outside forces. A game needs a name, and thankfully some of my more over the top names were vetoed (“They’ll Kill Us All”) in favor of “We’re Under Attack!” which satisfied everyone. The game would involve multiple attacks per day for about a week and our coworkers would need to gather in the assaulted section of the office to “defend” it.

I usually try to crowbar in create a comedic video for any project I’m working on and our team devoted a work day to filming a video introducing the concept and tone of the game:

Yup. We got Marc Summers of Double Dare fame to send us a video clip promoting our game. Don’t ask me how it happened, we just wanted it enough and somehow got it. How could our coworkers who mostly grew up in the 80s and 90s resist a game that involves Marc Summers?

The core loop of our game was to have MeetMe employees gather into different zones of the office that were themed and mapped out:

Gameplay map that mirrors our office.
Gameplay map that mirrors our office.

Each time our office successfully defended an attack, we donated $50 to a local Boys & Girls Club. To defend an area, there needed to be a certain count of bodies there. To make things more interesting and also to learn more about each other, we sometimes required people from certain departments and other times made people worth more if they had certain attributes. For instance our first attack was in the QA area. Here is the email that went out:

first-emailDid you put together that BUGS were attacking the QA testers, whose jobs it is to find and eliminate bugs? So clever.

We had no idea how many people would show up. Some on our team argued that we should require less people so that we didn’t start off with a loss. A measly three people could have came and it wouldn’t have surprised us. Do we have a moral imperative to try to get these missions to pass, for the sake of the charity? No, we decided. The game must have integrity, else why bother playing it? As it so happens there were 17 present for the first attack so I threw together a comically bad photoshop showing the participants and the defeated bugs.

1-bug-attack

The photoshops ended up being a really fun thing to do. It gave character to a game that could have ended up being very generic (“Meet here, take a picture in silence, go back to your desk”). I got advice to play some music while people were gathering because it can be awkward while people are milling about in wait. The attackers started to get more and more ridiculous as well, such as the Aristocratic Aardvarks:

aristocratic-aardvardks

We also started adding more of the bonus qualifiers and we would ask people about them. In one of the challenges a Giant Meteor was going to hit an area of the building. Anyone who had been to space camp counted as 10 people. While asking people about their bonuses, we found out that one of our coworker’s father is an actual astronaut. We found out all sorts of things about each other, such as who owns a horse, who has been to an Aerosmith concert (and is willing to admit it), and who cried in the Never Ending Story when Artex sunk into the Swamp of Sadness.

neverending-story

Pretty sure people lied about not crying.

The amount of people showing up to defend each attack grew steadily. No one was forced to participate, it was just good old fashioned peer pressure. You didn’t want to be the one NOT in the picture of a Sharknado attacking office. Unsurprisingly, the more fun and whimsical we made things the greater the participation was. Our team had spent so much time on the technical aspects before the start, such as debating the best notification system and working on an accurate map of the office, that we initially overlooked the fun factor.

We had two attacks per day over the course of 5 days. As the game neared the end, I thought the game was going a little *too* well. Is this not challenging enough? Being the most sadistic member of the team, I wanted to really stretch these people. They had to earn it! Our final challenge was the most epic yet – The Nothing from the Never Ending Story was threatening our office’s very existence.

It would take 100 people to defend this greatest of foes, a tricky feat considering there are only maybe 90 people working here on a good day. Our group of course had to rely on the bonuses, which included things like acting in a movie, publishing a novel, and of course crying when Artex sank. Not only did the team reach the 100 total, they blew it away. I was surprised at how much so many of our team has accomplished in their lives. Besides being nice getting to know your coworkers more deeply, it’s pretty inspiring to see what kind of people we have working here. 10 out of 10 attacks successfully defended, all $500 went to the charity.

10-neverending-story

We sent out a survey after it was all said and done to see what people liked and didn’t like. Beforehand we were very worried about interrupting people’s work (we were after all gathering 50 people around a random person’s desk while blasting “The Final Countdown” on my laptop). 23% of respondents were “a little annoyed” and everyone else wasn’t annoyed at all (with no one selecting “very annoyed”). Almost everyone enjoyed taking the pictures and receiving the emails describing the attacks in all their horribly photoshopped glory.

Sadly, only about half the people found that they learned useful things about their coworkers that they would be able to use to start a conversation. If we do another game like this we will have to come up with different mechanics to get people to know each other better.

I was curious if people were participating because it was fun or because we were donating to charity. To my chagrin, only 13% said they would have participated even without the charity, while 30% said they would not have participated without the charity. The majority, 57%, said that the charity motivated them some. I like to believe that most of that 57% would have played along anyway.

Most of the respondents (63%) said they’d like to play “We’re Under Attack!” quarterly, with the rest split between monthly and yearly. This does seem like the kind of game that you need a break from for a while before you start to miss it. In that sense, it is very similar to Neptune’s Pride and Diplomacy. When you’re in it, it consumes most of your attention. When you finish it, you definitely want some space.

My biggest takeaway from the experience is a new appreciation for playtesting and the iterative process. We also learned what are the most important things to focus our time on and which aspects people didn’t even notice. I would venture to guess that my team’s experimenting with live social games isn’t over and hopefully we can come up with a game that is effective at making a workplace more fun and social while also being something that any other office could implement.

Now if I could just get Marc Summers on board for the next one…

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