The Toy Story: How to Play at Work


OK. Admit it. You still like to play with toys.

High-tech companies such as Google and Microsoft have encouraged playful creativity by turning their workplaces into virtual playgrounds where employees are encouraged to take play breaks. The legacy of the dot-com boom era includes foosball tables, ping-pong tables, X-box stations where employees can engage in multiplayer gaming via networks, Wii stations, and even roller hockey leagues in the parking lot.

“Many of our most creative ideas come when we are playfully engaged in creating, exploring, experimenting,” says Mitchel Resnick, professor of learning research at the MIT Media Lab. “So it’s important for workplaces to encourage playfulness — that is, encourage people to try new things, test boundaries, take risks and explore new ideas.”

Toys take off
Long before Google became a household name, its founders tapped into their love of toys to create low-cost cases to house the hard disk storage at the heart of its search engines. Sergey Brin and Larry Page built the storage cases out of simple plastic interlocking Legos. Now randomly interspersed Lego stations invite creative play at Google offices. Some employees even banded together to purchase Silly Putty in bulk.

These group play stations and playful attitudes have inspired us to take things further, personalizing our cubicles with greater levels of sophistication. Common Star Wars action figures and basketball hoops are being overshadowed by higher-tech toys, such as stealth helicopters and fighting robots. Web sites such as Engadget, Gizmodo, and Boing Boing report on new gadgets and toy trends. Other sites, like ThinkGeek and Kleargear, have become online sources of these gadgets.

What’s hot in cubicle play
ThinkGeek began in 1999 by selling T-shirts and stickers, and business snowballed from there, says Shane Peterman, director of public relations at the Fairfax, Va., company. ThinkGeek’s most popular item is a Wi-Fi Detector shirt (about $30) with glowing bars that change as the Wi-Fi signal around you fluctuates. Other in-demand items: black stealth helicopters that can be flown around the office (or into other people’s cubicles), Nerf rocket launchers that can fire over six meters (powered through batteries or a computer’s USB port), and a connected basketball hoop (again, through a USB port) that detects baskets and tallies the score.

“It’s all stuff that we’re interested in,” Peterman says. “Some of it is useful, and some things are purely for fun.”

As the technology advances, and the cost of creating these high-tech toys decreases, cool new items are constantly coming on the market, says Rafe Needleman, editor of Webware, who has two helicopters and a Nerf missile launcher in his office. “For around 20 to 60 bucks, you can buy a helicopter that hovers in midair,” he says. “It’s incredibly cool, and good for blowing off steam from time to time. It’s kind of magical, it’s fun. Then in ten minutes, my life goes back to the same misery that it usually is.”

You’ll pay $$$ for the coolest
For some of the most cutting-edge, high-tech toys, you have to pay the price. Robot Brothers’ RoboPhilo (which stands for Programmable Humanoid in Lifelike Operation), is a 13-inch robotic humanoid that lets you program its arm, leg, head and joint movements from your PC. At almost $500, it’s a pricey cubicle toy. The RoboPhilo comes prebuilt or as a kit. Other programmable robot kits are even more expensive, with the Robonova-1 from Hitec costing about $1,000.

Recent advances in animatronics are inspiring the creation of realistic-looking monkey and Elvis heads that can be programmed from a PC. A chimp head from WowWee, at about $150, can be controlled like a puppet, via remote control. Besides carrying high price tags, some consider them a bit creepy. “I wouldn’t want one,” Needleman says.

ThinkGeek sells the ProLaserFX Showcube (about $2,000), a programmable laser projector that can produce light shows. The Optimus Maximus keyboard (about $1,600), with tiny LED screens on each key, can be programmed to show your CPU usage or identify which iTunes song you’re playing.

From your own fun to your co-worker’s annoyance
Entertainment seekers beware: There’s a fine line between fun and annoyance, between good taste and being offensive. “Around our office, we don’t take anything seriously,” Peterman says. “There’s no surprise whatsoever if I’m sitting at my desk, and someone walks by and shoots me with a Nerf gun.” In some places, it could be a problem, he admits. “People need to know what’s OK in their workplace.” At the same time, you should take caution to respect the boundaries of those who are on deadline or who don’t want to engage in play. Any cubicle warfare that could hurt others is, of course, also a no-no. One site sells a launcher that shocks you if you get hit, for example.

And here’s another idea that takes things too far: mobile webcams that spy on co-workers — and possibly violate their privacy. Although workers don’t have many privacy rights in the workplace — employers can monitor email and use surveillance videos – co-workers should refrain from infringing on the rights of each other.

An atmosphere of playfulness
When it comes to good, clean fun, Google seems to set the pace for other companies, says Michael Kwun, senior intellectual property attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a former Google attorney. “The founders are big into games and toys, and this playfulness extends in gifts given to employees and partners.” One year Kwun received a lava lamp decorated with a faux Google legal logo, with the inscription, “Thanks for a good year.” “Toys and gadgets are an extension of your personality at work”, Kwun says. “I think there’s something about identifying your cube as yours. Standard corporate furniture is not all that personal. But you arrive, see the culture, and think, ‘Gee, one day I want to have that, too.’”

And toys make work more fun. “Who wants to sit in a cube? Nobody. No one wants to go to meetings that are about meetings,” says Heather Gold, a comedian and Silicon Valley satirist at Subvert. “I feel sorry for people who don’t have toys or don’t have fun. Besides, the mindset of play is absolutely the best way to problem-solve.” the end

Jodi Mardesich is a former staff writer for Fortune and the San Jose Mercury News. She has written about technology for 20 years and has been published in The New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Advocate, and Yoga Journal.

Image credit: James Whately

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