Trust falls and team backpacking trips are out — cooperative gaming is in. Don’t think embarking on group Minecraft missions could help deliver great software products? Think again. A 2019 BYU study found a 20% increase in office productivity after just 45 minutes of gaming.
Software engineering is a mentally taxing endeavor, and many developers are under mounting pressure to deliver. To destress, many software teams use gaming to unwind during work hours. Gaming, it turns out, has added benefits of improved morale, increased productivity and lowered ego around unofficial hierarchies within the office. Setting aside time to recharge with collaborative gaming could increase a workplace’s health and help software teams work together to deliver products more efficiently.
I recently spoke with Max de Lavenne, founder and CEO of Buildable, ally to the workplace gamer, to see why he embraces gaming as a regular part of his software developer team’s weekly regimen. Buildable adopted gaming and saw a notable impact; de Lavenne shared how other teams could similarly introduce gaming to improve performance.
Gaming in the Workplace
Traditional business environments don’t typically embrace fun activities on the clock — there is a clear separation between work and life. But at Buildable, gaming is integrated into the weekly routine. The Buildable engineers set aside about 45 minutes mid-week for collaborative gaming, typically on Wednesday or Thursday. The Buildable team, made up of about 20 software engineers, favors Rocket League and a modded version of Minecraft.
According to de Lavenne, gaming is a great way to foster collaboration and intuitive group thinking. “Getting recharged is really important,” he said. He encourages the team to adopt cooperative multiplayer games; no solo play. He also discourages violent and aggressive RPGs, like first-person shooters.
Workplace gaming isn’t unique, in and of itself — many teams at other companies will often play Haxball during coffee breaks or get into a Call of Duty: Warzone match from time to time. Yet, few leaders have the stomach to sanction gaming as integral to the developer’s workflow and overall team dynamic.
“Engineers collaborate best when they respect each other and have confidence in each other’s skillsets,” said de Lavenne. “They are individuals, but there’s a lot of groupthink in teams.”
Benefits of Gaming
Gaming has proven benefits. In fact, researchers at Kansas State University found that employees who spent one or two minutes during breaks in their day playing games such as Candy Crush on their phones reported being happier than their peers. Similarly, de Lavenne noticed improved mood and other positive outcomes from collaborative gaming at Buildable, including:
- Better team morale: Having scheduled gaming breaks to look forward to each week keeps attitudes positive. Software engineering can cause fatigue, which managers need to monitor carefully. “People get tired, and there’s only so much the brain can do,” de Lavenne said .
- More fluid communication: Collaborative gaming focuses a team’s effort on a collective activity free from monetary incentives, bonuses or other hidden agendas. Afterward, de Lavenne said he’s noticed more fluid communication emerge among the team.
- Increased collaboration: There’s satisfaction in doing something together, and de Lavenne reports that gaming has redefined collaboration for his team in unique ways. Employees take the cooperative, creative attitude fostered from gaming experiences and apply it to more structured, scrum-type environments.
- Increased productivity: Dedicating one hour for gaming per week equates to about a 2% loss of labor time. However, de Lavenne reported that the productivity gains afterward surpass that lost time and more.
- Reduction of ego: In work environments, unspoken hierarchies inevitably exist. Interestingly, collaborative gaming can completely reverse those social dynamics. Seeing senior engineers at the bottom of a gaming leaderboard can be humorous and boost confidence for younger engineers.
- Combating isolation: Throughout the pandemic, remote work has left many of us feeling lonely. For young engineers without families, a big chunk of social interaction may occur in the workplace. Games can help maintain good spirits by bringing teams together virtually.
Tips for Encouraging a Healthy Gaming Culture
The overall goal is to promote enjoyable, freeform shared experiences. To enable this, de Lavenne shared a few tips on integrating games into developer team workflows.
First off, gaming should not be mandatory, as making it a required activity would somewhat defeat the purpose. Instead, gaming should be fun and completely voluntary. If people would rather get in some physical exercise or check Instagram, they should feel just as free to do so.
Also, as much fun as gaming with the team could be, it’s helpful having the CEO removed from this activity, de Lavenne advised. This is important so that players don’t feel they’re constantly monitored. Yet, leaders may want to have a say in the type of game, as well as when it’s played.
Furthermore, the game doesn’t need to be an immersive RPG — it could be as simple and accessible as Jackbox. Cooperative board games like Dungeons & Dragons or Gloomhaven could have just the same effect as digital games.
Outside of encouraging collaborative gaming, leaders can take other actions to boost morale and productivity. One such action is leaving chat channels unmonitored, so that team members can engage with each other on whatever subject they want without oversight. Another way to affect morale is location, noted de Lavenne. As I’ve written previously, hiring interest is expanding outside of traditional tech hubs. Buildable, for instance, chose to headquarter in suburban McMinnville, Oregon, for its walkability, greenery and better work-life balance than in larger cities.
Gaming Is Where It All Began
Multiplayer video games, LARPing, and AR/VR environments not only offer an escapist retreat — they represent nostalgia. For many programmers, video games were a doorway to the computer science field in general.
“I’ve rarely met a software engineer that never gamed,” de Lavenne added. Gamers often seek out the highest-performing machines. And chances are, those kids with limited resources built their rigs from scratch. “This inspires you to learn about hardware, and you start to care about speed, compile and software activities,” said de Lavenne.
From Atari to Minecraft, gaming has been a shared passion among generations of programmers. Recognizing this affinity can unite a team. Because at the end of the day, “building good software is all about people,” said de Lavenne.
Of course, software development takes extreme diligence, planning, and structure to deliver bug-free, user-centric products. But under intense pressure to perform and meet new digital innovation demands, software developers could get burned out without a bit of distraction. With gaming, “the team really comes alive,” de Lavenne said.
So, when things get slow, check out what’s hot on Steam. You may, ironically, just find your next productivity breakthrough.