Taking Play Seriously

Pretty soon we’ll be having our Riot Games summer picnic, called the Summer Olym-picnic because it involves all sorts of fun-but-competitive games along with the normal picnic fare. In the afternoon, I’ll be one of several senior leaders sitting in a dunk tank as Rioters take aim to try and send me underwater. Rumor has it that there will be ATVs. The whole experience should be a hoot.

Meanwhile, I had an interesting e-mail interchange with a candidate for a senior Talent role. Before we proceeded to a day of interviews, he wrote, he wanted to make sure we were aligned on two very important points: First, his potential for wealth creation at Riot. Second, doing amazing work (in this section, he outlined a role significantly larger than the large one we had been discussing in person).

I don’t usually mind people talking about compensation early in a hiring process, and obviously we want everyone to want to do amazing work at Riot and have a huge impact. But this guy’s e-mail made me reflect on the two in-person conversations I’d had with him, and I suddenly realized why it felt like we were grinding gears in our interchange.

He wasn’t fun. Passionate, yes. Ambitious, surely. And absolutely creative and talented. But he didn’t feel like a Rioter in a very important way: I don’t think that “fun” was at all a part of why he worked.

Cheesy as it is, we try very hard to live our Riot Manifesto. Part of that Manifesto reads:

Take Play Seriously

  • It’s never just a game.
  • We play lots of games and proudly call ourselves gamers. Even at work, we make time for daily play and fun.
  • We’re professionals, but don’t take ourselves too seriously.

I’ve talked previously about why we hire gamers and when and why we might bend that rule. Part of the reason we’re gamers is because we’re a player-focused company and the best way to have empathy with our players is to be players ourselves. Another–rather large–part of the reason is because we actively and regularly play as part of our work.

The Summer Olym-picnic is a big expression of our orientation towards play and fun. I fully expect to see Rioters and their significant others running three-legged races, spiking volleyballs, swimming, and throwing horseshoes. The day will be full of silliness and laughter, including a line of people trying to dunk me (and lo, I will be taunting them while they try!).

But the picnic is in no way our only moment to play with co-workers. All throughout each day, Rioters in Los Angeles play pick-up games of basketball, match wits with the various game stations around campus (chess, Connect4, and Jenga, to name a few), and spend time in our arcade (with lots of classic games, plus air hockey, billiards, and console games). And then of course there are PC games–countless League of Legends battles every day, plus Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and any other game we’re individually or collectively playing these days. Once a week I meet up with Rioters to play Magic: the Gathering. We routinely have Talent team board game nights. Honestly, I don’t think I could properly catalog the constant and varied ways that Rioters express their playful selves every day.

To say we take time out of work to play is framing it the wrong way. “Play vs. Work” is a false dichotomy, at least for us. Play is integrated into our working lives.

We’re a game company, so maybe our focus on play is obvious. There are good reasons why play is important for adults for all companies, though. More and more research suggests that healthy play leads to healthy adulthood. As Psychology Today recently noted, “play is a banquet for the brain, a smorgasbord for the senses, providing nourishment for body and spirit: sad then that as a society we seem to be starving ourselves of it.” The idea that we age out of play, that we at some point calcify into creatures focused on earning money and pulling hard on the oars, is simply wrong. Also, the idea that we clock out of work to go play by ourselves or friends equally strikes me as silly because it’s trapped in that false dichotomy.

Which is why, I realized, I’m looking so closely at candidate’s facial expressions and body language when we bring them onto our campus. Play is oozing out of our organizational pores. For some people, there is a wide-eyed, is-this-really-happening? sort of look people get that tells me Riot might be a haven for them, a place where they can thrive. Equally, some people look past our silliness or, worse, appear disconcerted by it. For these people, I spend extra time understanding why they want to join Riot.

There’s obviously a balance to all of this play, because each of us has deliverables and deadlines we need to meet for our players. Making time for play does, for example, mean I can’t answer e-mails as quickly all of the time. We expect people to be weaving play into their days in a way that is enhancing, not distracting. Staying hungry, too, is part of the Riot Manifesto. We all have stuff we need to get done, and done with both urgency and quality.

But my experience at Riot has convinced me that making time to play throughout each day leads to better work, not worse. It’s part of what gives me deep wells of energy each week, and a big reason why I feel more connected to Rioters than I’ve felt to other collegial work teams. Play hasn’t just been good for me, but I fundamentally believe it’s good for Riot and part of our secret sauce.

Now, please excuse me while I go grab my swim trunks and goggles…


One thought on “Taking Play Seriously

  1. Fun post; I appreciate the section about the games everyone’s playing (air hockey to HotS) since it takes me back to when I first started regularly playing D&D. With fellow Rioters.

    Keep up the developments on culture! Love what I’m seeing in the Riot manifesto, and the new digs should be extremely conducive to enjoying this “Olym-picnic” tradition.


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