Play is deeply engrained in tech. Look at the spaces of Silicon Valley startups, sprawling campuses of tech giants like Amazon and Google, or the creative offices depicted in the recent Hulu series about WeWork, and you’ll see a common thread. What you’ll see in all of them are work environments built around the perception of “fun,” with quirky corporate amenities like nap rooms, ping-pong tables, and neon signs that read “Work Hard, Play Harder.”
In the ’90s, table tennis caught on in offices due to its reputation as a brain sport. The game has since has become synonymous with tech culture. So much so that articles from Vanity Fair and The Wall Street Journal suggest that ping pong table sales might even be a barometer for the health of the tech industry.
Silicon Valley giants and small startups alike have embedded these once-unconventional perks into the office. On its blog, WeWork boasts about its unexpected amenities. Those include rock climbing walls, hammocks, mini-golf, and even a lap pool with poolside seating that doubles as an “inspiring spot for informal meetings.” I’ve seen ping-pong, unlimited craft beer, and even a slide for traveling floor-to-floor, all inside of West Michigan companies.
Culture isn’t a ping-pong table.
While these perks may be well-intentioned, they can also be problematic. More recently they have become associated with un-inclusive environments and manufactured culture. They’ve become associated with companies that place more emphasis on keeping people at work longer rather than focusing on employee happiness or work-life balance.
Companies are now starting to phase out table tennis. The pandemic was a wake-up call. The leap to remote work reminded employers and employees alike that culture is not about the workplace, it’s about people. In 2021, Fast Company reported, “a new study finds that these snazzy office benefits aren’t what young workers really want.”
Company cultures that allow for play are better.
Despite the bad rap ping-pong tables have gotten, It might not be time to ditch games at work altogether. I believe that facilitating intentional play is still incredibly important to creating a human-centered work environment. Here are a few reasons why.
1. Playing games can improve our mental health.
Numerous studies show the positive effects playing games can have on mental health. Games can help to reduce stress, manage depression, and combat burnout.
“When you play a game – whether it’s a board, card or video game – your body releases endorphins. These natural feel-good chemicals combat stress and make you feel happy. You’ll instantly feel more productive and in the long run, you may be less likely to burn out .” –Bicycle
In her TED talk on “The game that can give you 10 extra years of life,” game-designer and author Jane McGonigal talks about the science behind these psychological effects. She includes one study which reported that online games can even outperform pharmaceuticals for treating clinical anxiety and depression.
2. Playing games can help teams work better together.
You may want to consider playing video games with your team before you kick off your next project. Teams can use collaborative video games as a tool to increase productivity according to a study reported by Forbes.
“…teams that played a collaborative video game together for just 45 minutes were able to increase their productivity on a task by 20%. Company cultures that allow for play are better able to tap into the best in their employees, and employees themselves can bring more effectiveness into their work.”
In an article on the “5 Things High-Performing Teams Do Differently”, the Harvard Business Review found that “the best teams aren’t more effective because they work all the time. On the contrary: They invest time connecting in genuine ways, which yields closer friendships and better teamwork later on.”
3. Play can help build a more inclusive culture.
Playing games together can help members of your team feel more comfortable being themselves. They help build empathy and stronger relationships by allowing players to uncover things they have in common with one other.
“There are tremendous benefits when we can bring our full selves to work and when we can get to know others more fully. Even those of us with the most introverted preferences for working and living value our fundamental connection with others, and play is a way to create stronger connections. Through play, we have a new lens on those around us—what entertains them, what motivates them, and what we have in common with them.” – Forbes
Companies can benefit from making space for play.
The CEO of Stakester, an online gaming company, found that productivity levels increased significantly after creating a policy allowing every employee to spend one hour per day playing games. The company even set up a Slack bot to randomly pair employees for gaming sessions and encourage building relationships across departments.
While I don’t foresee it becoming the norm for employers to allocate an hour per day for gameplay, I hope we will see more teams making time to play games together in the future. Even when games take away from time teams would otherwise spend working, that time might be a worthwhile investment.