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Gaming As Corporate Team Development

Erik Kersting

Completing the puzzles of Trapped in a Room With a Zombie makes you feel like you know your teammates much better than you did before -- at least in terms of working together and problem solving.

A few weekends ago a few friends and I went to a live-action version of the “Escape the Room” genre of video games. This one was called Trapped in a Room with a Zombie: Still Hungry. For the uninitiated, “Escape the Room” games are a form of puzzle game in which the player is locked in a room and must escape. Often times the room will at first appear normal, but over time and after exploration of the room, the player finds clues and riddles that will lead them to a means of escape. The live-action equivalent, which I had not heard of until a friend told me about it early this summer, is very similar, but instead of being set in a virtual space, it is set in a physical one.

What makes the live-action version much more tense is that there is a time limit and often the puzzle is far too grand for a single person to solve in a reasonable amount of time. Thus, a group of players must work as a team if they want to escape. The extra twist in the version that I experienced, Trapped in a Room with a Zombie: Still Hungry, was that the room included a guy dressed up as a zombie who would remove any player from participating (outside of standing in the corner and talking) in the game if he touched them. He was chained to the wall, but his chain would grow longer every five minutes. So, the players had to not only solve the riddles but avoid the zombie in the process.

Going in, I didn't know what to expect, from room size to clue type to even the tone of the game, and while the version of the game that I ended up playing was rather silly, it was a great time. In our rather large group (ten-ish people), no one was useless or didn't help solve the riddles and puzzles set before us. The room that we were in only had a 30% success rate, but we were able to solve it just in time and avoid the zombie while doing it. Overall, the game was a very satisfying experience.

But what surprised me was how they sold the game, especially considering how silly it felt. Instead of talking it up as a great experience to have with friends, the major selling point was that it would be great for “corporate team development.” Multiple times the people in our group were encouraged to talk to our bosses or to bring our coworkers to experience the game and have a team building experience. I was -- and still am to an extent -- skeptical, thinking that this suggestion is just a marketing ploy (getting big groups to come in is obviously important to the game as a business), but after some thinking, I can definitely see what they are getting at and why this game would be beneficial to a workplace.

Just like League of Legends, Dota 2, or any other team-oriented video game, Trapped in a Room with a Zombie requires the players to play different roles. Without spoiling too much, some players had to focus on solving riddles, others had to translate cryptograms, others had to complete challenges, and others had to distract the zombie. While people could jump between roles, as I certainly did, those who were better at certain things gravitated towards those things. My wife and I in particular worked well as a team as she safely stayed back and connected the dots to complete the cryptogram while I solved a riddle and inputted a code on a briefcase with the zombie nearby.

If your team does not have at least one person good at or willing to perform these crucial activities in the game, or if you had players who were not putting forth their full effort, I doubt that you could complete the challenge in time. Like a machine, each cog is needed to produce the end result. Remove one, and the whole thing breaks down. On top of that reality, it is obviously a very stressful experience in that you are racing against the clock and also trying to avoid the zombie. And since the many puzzles across the room were interconnected, communication was key to winning. One or two people may have the solution for a puzzle that they have found across the room, but if they don't share that information, they may never get to use that information.

I think these qualities emphasized in the game are exactly what is needed in a competitive work environment. People need to know their role, whether it is salesman, accountant, secretary, a member of the human resources department, etc. Sometimes it is good to step outside of one's role to help, but often times in a team, a person needs to put his or her head down and accomplish a specific task, trusting that others will accomplish theirs. Workers also need to be able to stay calm in stressful circumstances. While I doubt most work environments have dangerous zombies lurking around or ominous time limits looming, stress is a factor in almost any workplace. When one person handles stress poorly, resulting in shutting down or getting loud and angry, the entire workplace can suffer. Thus, managing one's own emotions in the heat of conflict is important for the development of a team. Lastly, communication is extremely important in any team environment, whether it is work or gaming, and learning to communicate often and with clarity will result in a team working exponentially better together. All of these qualities were emphasized within the game, making it truly a team building exercise that upon leaving made you feel like you knew the people in the group much better than you did before -- at least in terms of working together and problem solving.

Does this mean that I think that the average workplace should start investing time into playing Dota 2 together? Not really. Most video games of that nature require skills that will certainly alienate people who don't play video games regularly. But I do think that in terms of “Escape the Room” games, we may see video games with the specific purpose of team building develop. Games that have less technically difficult obstacles and ones more based on universally understandable and accessible ideas. Perhaps someday soon, your workplace environment could incorporate video games in an attempt to create the most efficient workplace possible, and it will be perhaps more interesting to see how video games morph to fit that role.

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