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How to Productively Slack Off

Games help coworkers get to know each other, and work better together, in a way you simply can’t replicate at the office.

Baseball is a team sport with all the pressure of an individual one. You may have twenty teammates but, when it’s time for your turn at bat or on the mound, you’re all alone. Everybody’s watching you, and nobody can help. If you screw up, there’s nobody else to blame.

To address the psychological pressure of the game, in 2017, researchers from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (SIUE) came up with an experiment. They approached their Division I Cougars team with a new way to prepare for games: virtual reality.

The hypothesis was that players might benefit from being away from the field — by practicing, instead, in a low-pressure setting. A virtual world where failure was acceptable, even encouraged, in the name of improvement. After the season was over, one freshman recalled the impact VR had:

“For me being a freshman at the division one level I was a little over eager to succeed right away. I was playing faster and harder than ever, and trying to impress my new team. The VR program was very beneficial for me [. . .] Not only is it convenient but it also helped me to relax and be calm in the box.”

The Cougars’ coach noted these kinds of improvements across his team. Brock Weimer, for example — a sophomore on the team — had just come off a very poor season at the plate: a .216 batting average, no home runs and just 6 runs batted in. Like his freshman teammate, he had mental barriers to get over. “For myself,” he recalled, “it was really mainly just about: relax and confident…were the two key terms for me.” Brock finished his VR season with a real-life average of .329, 15 home runs and 50 RBIs. He left SIUE two years later as the school’s all-time leader in homers.

What digital space offers — the comfort that you can make mistakes and try things, without the pressure of real consequences — can be rewarding and outright useful. But what if we take these same ideas and apply them to an even more abstract use case: video games?

A year after the Cougars’ breakout season, a team of information scientists at Brigham Young University rigorously tested whether video games could help people improve themselves and, crucially, their relationships with others. They began by gathering 352 complete strangers, and randomly grouping them into 80 teams.

At the beginning of the study, each motley crew participated in a group exercise that required effective teamwork to succeed. Then, for 45 minutes, they’d switch to one of three activities: quiet “homework” time, a “goal training” discussion, or playing video games together. (Rock Band or Halo 4.) After the 45 minutes, they’d try the same group exercise again.

Without any further explanation, the following chart will tell you all you need to know about the study’s findings:

(image via BYU)

How can we explain this? Why is a team that plays Halo 4 better at achieving a collective goal than a team that actually discusses achieving a collective goal?

Part of it is what helped the SIUE Cougars. In a virtual world the pressure is off, so you can be free to express yourself, try on different hats, and take risks without fear of serious consequences. In social games, this freedom lubricates social bonding. Open and playful game worlds allow people to interact and truly connect with one another, perhaps even better than they would IRL. A full decade before the SIUE, S&T and BYU studies, an IBM report explained why game worlds are a better place to learn and grow together than the office:

The structure of the games is such that failure is accepted as a cost of doing business, rather than a permanent black mark or a career killer. Whereas the Sloan Model refers to Inventing, this trait of games might be called “re-inventing.” True innovation requires trial and error, iterative approaches to solving big problems. This is understood in the online gaming world. But business environments in which this tolerance is not afforded will certainly suffer under the weight of their own conservatism. And employees who feel they cannot make mistakes and take risks will provide little in terms of innovative value.

These days you can find a game room at just about any coworking space, startup loft or Silicon Valley HQ. To the traditional view these are extravagances — the folly of companies with too much money and unmotivated employees. In fact, game rooms are where some of the best work gets done. Successful missions can lead to successful working relationships. High scores, high productivity.

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