Workplace

We can’t stop playing video games at work

The newest work perk: gaming at the office.

Teams playing minigame "Space Race"

Co-founder Arlen Marmel's goal is to make Luna Park “something you would do even if your boss didn’t force you."

Image: Luna Park

We’ve come a long way since the boss key. Remote and hybrid workers aren’t seeing much of the boss over their shoulder these days. Async work leaves lots of time for gaming during the traditional workday and some companies are even embracing the idea of gaming with co-workers.

Plenty of tech companies champion video games at work. Atlassian is a big proponent of playing games at work, with Trello hosting VR golf tournaments for employees. So is Shopify — the company apparently lets employees expense mining game Factorio, and encourages the use of an in-house, avatar-based game called Shopify Party. Work “metaverse” platforms like Virbela and Gather think offices should become multiplayer video games. Some companies want to use gaming interfaces for communication, like Discord. The trend is amplified by our work and home lives becoming ever more enmeshed.

“I’m using my work laptop, I’m using my gaming monitor, keyboard and mouse because they’re better,” said Wendy Pfeiffer, CIO of cloud infrastructure company Nutanix. “It’s this blend of consumer tech and enterprise tech that already happened because we’re in these blended environments of home and work.”

Pfeiffer said she’s seen more and more companies use gaming-adjacent technology to enable work. For example, Zoom and Microsoft Teams incorporating 3D avatars into video chat, or companies like Lexus partnering with Twitch streamers. Gen Z is the most digitally native generation yet, and as it takes on the workforce, gaming tech might become more commonplace, Pfeiffer said.

Ben Anderson and Arlen Marmel are hoping to capitalize on this trend with their new virtual corporate event company Luna Park, an homage to the real-world Luna Park in Coney Island.

Anderson and Marmel started the company after Anderson sold his social media company Amino Apps, and Marmel left his longtime role at streaming service Crunchyroll. They shared experience in entertainment and community-building; both Amino and Crunchyroll had thriving anime communities, in particular.

This was back in January 2021, when remote workers were struggling to socialize with each other. Forging social connections is still arguably one of the biggest challenges of both remote and hybrid work. Bonding isn’t as easy over Slack, compared to the frequent and organic interactions you have in person. Our workplace tools let us communicate, but Zoom happy hours just aren’t the same as the real deal.

Both Anderson and Marmel had used video games as a way to stay in touch with close friends during isolation. “I might have some friends who I call up once every three months or so,” Anderson said. “But if I’m playing a game with them, I might talk to them every single day.” Maybe games could jump-start meaningful relationships at work, too. The best video games bring people together in a shared mission and keep them coming back for more. They spark conversation and prompt inside jokes. It’s true for first dates, and it’s true for work — it’s easier to connect in the context of a shared activity.

Luna Park offers live, hour-long game shows for teams with 10 to 200 people, starting at $500 for teams under 100 people and $1,000 for a customized session. A Luna Park game show is a production, complete with rapid-fire minigames and HQ-esque comedian hosts who rib on contestants. The platform is spaceship themed and features flashy, sometimes goofy graphics. At a session I sat in on a couple of weeks ago, a giant kitten floated by and squished its face on the rocketship screen.

The goal is to make Luna Park “something you would do even if your boss didn’t force you,” Marmel said. It’s a high bar. Getting employees to log into virtual, company-mandated events is a feat, even if the event is supposed to be fun. Still, Anderson and Marmel think video games have the power to win over employees.

Gaming has long been a staple at tech companies. Think of the offices filled with ping pong and foosball tables, designed to encourage workers to hang out and, as an added bonus, stay at work longer. We’ve been talking about the merits of playing games at work for years.

Still, not every company is sold on video games as the next best way to socialize at work, particularly old-school companies. Anderson and Marmel were hesitant to market Luna Park as purely a gaming platform at first. “We’re trying to speak a language that these companies understand,” Anderson said. “I think if I said, ‘Hey I got this video game for you,’ that would be a bit of a turnoff. So we packaged it as a live-hosted event.”

A gif of a Luna Park game show session. Luna Park's ultimate goal is to make people comfortable and help them create memories.Gif: Luna Park

But they’ve certainly been leaning into the video game pitch recently. Anderson published a blog post in March about video games being integral to the future of work. Much of Luna Park’s focus has been on game development, ensuring the games are accessible to everyone — from a 22-year-old engineer in Brooklyn to a 50-year-old accountant in India, Anderson said. Jonathan Gottlieb is Luna Park’s game creation lead and works with writers and developers across the world to develop games that resonate across cultures (though Luna Park’s programming is entirely in English). He gravitates to games that don’t require specific cultural knowledge.

“You still want to be part of the cultural zeitgeist and pull from things,” Gottlieb said. “But if it takes more than two sentences to say what the game is about, then it’s probably not a game idea we want on Luna Park.”

Some favorites are “Eat Your Words,” where teams generate as many words as possible from a scramble of letters in alphabet soup, and “Space Race,” where teams race to coordinate keyboard patterns. Some games are inspired by Quiplash and require creative answers to funny prompts. Any boss who has ever thought that the secret to virtual team bonding was as simple as downloading Jackbox games knows that entertaining your team without being cringey is much more difficult than it looks. The key is to offer a variety of games because people have wildly different preferences. Comedian and Luna Park host Ahri Findling said he pays close attention to how people respond to each game, so that the team can make adjustments for the next session.

“It’s like you’re in a car in the 90s and you’re trying to find and fine-tune that radio station,” Findling said.

I shadowed the session Findling hosted for location data company Radar a couple of weeks ago. He likes to heat up the competition, generating rivalries between co-workers. But every host has their own style, he says. The ultimate goal is to make people comfortable and help them create memories. In one game called “Alien Abduction,” Luna Park took cartoonized images of several Radar employees’ faces and generated dozens of floating employee heads. The teams then had to quickly guess which co-worker was abducted by aliens the most often.

“They’re there with their colleagues, talking, and there’s funny jokes that are happening, and the host is bantering with people,” Anderson said. “Sometimes the best games are ones that really resonate with a subset of people.”

Live game shows aren’t for everyone, however, especially introverts. Some remote workers might not want to be forced into a showy event like Luna Park. Pfeiffer said this might be one problem with Luna Park’s concept, especially because workers are locked into the game show’s structure. Personally, she would prefer a Dungeons & Dragons session between co-workers.

“Unlike true video games, participation is much more structured and compulsory [in Luna Park],” Pfeiffer said. “The games become competitive within the approved corporate hierarchy, and serendipitous collaboration is extremely difficult.”

The next step for Luna Park is to convince companies that games should be a part of their everyday tool kit. Anderson and Marmel have been working on a new product called Luna Park+ that would give company leaders access to hundreds of games. Then leaders could host DIY Luna Park sessions and “integrate this more seamlessly into your typical workday,” Anderson said. It’s early days, but they think companies’ appetite for video games will only increase as the workforce grows younger.

Pfeiffer agrees that companies might benefit by opening their minds to video-game-esque work tools. But it’s important, and difficult, to incorporate tools in a way that feels authentic and not kitschy or distracting. When she introduces colleagues to a new tool, she acknowledges concerns that the tools are “toys” or a waste of money. Then she explains why she thinks they’re crucial.

“I share my perception of why these technologies, ideas and the atmosphere of experimentation they require are important to the future of work and to the future of our company,” Pfeiffer said.

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