In this time of lean efficiency and mean focus on the bottom line, the notion of "office games" may seem like a quaint relic of the dotcom era. You all know what I mean by office games: those little time-killers, often but not always discounted by guys in their 20s and early 30s, that are typically improvised versions of established sports like crumpled-up pieces of paper or erasers. The kind of thing professionals did in their youth years to pass the time in junior high study hall or detention, but on a grander and more inventive scale.
Based on my experience at a small company in the early-to-mid-2000s where office games were rented with the reverence and passion usually reserved for the Olympics, I say it is high time to bring office games back (within reason). They provide a crucial means of developing camaraderie and creativity while also providing a (typically) safe and healthy outlet for stress and frustration. Following is a brief review of two of the greatest office games I had a hand in creating at "Company X," a small producer of trade publications and conferences located in the Boston suburbs.
PenguinBall – The Apex of Trade Show Swag
One of the saddest impacts the economic crisis has had on the trade show industry is the severe curtailing in "swag" – the little freebies booths give out to get you to come pretent to listen to their spiel for five minutes. Many of our employees frequently attended trade shows during the swag boom years of the late 90s and early 2000s, and as a result the office was littered with foam and rubber toys of all descriptions. These included two small foam penguins bearing the logo of the Linux operating system and about 1,000 rubber balls.
What started as an aimless contest to see who could knock over one or both penguins from the longest distance with a rubber ball soon turned into formal tournaments "PenguinBall," a contest of skill and strength which was scored like a combination of bowling and football. PenguinBall spread through the office faster and wider than the hole in the Antarctic ozone layer, helping to build interdepartmental bonds in a company rife with factionalism and turf wars. Time spent late on Friday afternoon placing small bets on who could knock over the most penguins in a 10-round PenguinBall battle royale helped set the tone for more civil interactions on Monday morning. It built more teamwork than putting on a blindfold and falling back into the arms of a coworker you might normally loathe to touch ever could.
Youse Guys Wanna Play StarBall?
Like all good things, PenguinBall came to an end. The game became a victim of office politics (ie, a top executive who was a known killjoy caught wind and put the kibosh on it). The small group of employees who had invented PenguinBall took out their frustrations in a new game called StarBall, which was played much like stickball, but in the office parking lot with a Wiffle Ball bat and a wrapped piece of Starburst fruit-flavored candy as the ball. StarBall allowed you to relive the thrill of being an annoying 10-year-old, with bonus points for landing a Starburst on the roof of the neighboring post office and at least one instance of a candy rattling the window of the office building across the street and a pack of 20- and 30-something players scattering as an angry occupant leaned his head out the window to yell.
StarBall never became an interdepartmental sensation, but did provide a needed stress outlet for its select players. It was more cutthroat and dangerous than PenguinBall, with the risk of injury (one player received a massive rectangle welt on his chest) and property damage, and reflected the changing atmosphere of the American workplace.
I have been a self-employed freelancer for several years now, and office games are only a wistful memory for me. From what friends who still work in the world of cubicles tell me, they are also mostly a memory in the office world, as well. I highly recommend companies take a decriminalization approach to office games as long as they are played during scheduled breaks or after 4:00 PM on Fridays, in order to minimizeize productivity loss. After all, you do not want a more underground version of StarBall popping up in your parking lot.