Network: How to kill your boss and not get the sack

Paintball is passe and golf is definitely off, thanks to the latest thing in corporate team building - playing Quake 2 with your co-workers. By Matthew Burgess
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THE IDEA that work and play can be complementary bedfellows is nothing new. It wasn't until the "greed-is-good" days of the Eighties, though, that the more aggressive corporate-bonding exercises came to the fore. Rather than a gentle game of golf with the department manager, executives would find themselves engaged in orienteering expeditions or paintball battles in order to sharpen their teamwork skills and ability to work under pressure.

Although this may have been fine for the more energetic employee, it was not so appealing to those more used to their expense-account lunches. Realising this, Paul Flanagan, who formerly worked with Citibank and JP Morgan, decided to transplant the concept into a virtual environment. Flanagan's company, Cybernetic, uses a customised version of the 3D shoot- em-up game Quake 2 on a network of high-specification PCs to provide companies with a bonding exercise that is more accessible - and less painful - than paintball, while still providing the necessary adrenalin-fuelled action.

Multiplayer computer gaming is nothing new to the companies that make up the majority of Cybernetic's clientele, with the huge networks and fast PCs at the centre of such companies' operations proving ideal for after-hours (and during-hours) gaming sessions. Indeed, it was speculated that the seminal network game Doom was the number one cause of lost working hours in the City during its popular heyday in 1995, and it was this culture that Flanagan saw as being able to provide a constructive service.

"I wanted to organise events for people from different teams and get them working together," Flanagan says. "Quake 2 is a great leveller - it relies more on mental skills and reactions, and people can just sit down and play."

Quake 2 places up to 64 players in large 3D arenas replete with buildings, passages and a variety of heavy weapons. Players can fight singly or in teams, but either way the object of the game remains simple - kill as many of your opponents as possible, and try not to die. Cybernetic has customised the standard Quake 2 program with a Capture the Flag scenario, where each team must accomplish said task while defending their own flag from the enemy. The teams (usually four to eight members) are given a map, and are also given time in which to allocate roles and discuss strategies. They are also given headphone/microphone headsets so that they can give and receive tactics and information.

Players are given a brief tutorial on how to use the game, then it's headlong into battle. It is common for the first few games to be rather tentative as people accustom themselves to the controls, though the basics can be easily mastered in about half an hour's play. After that, however, it's all down to teamwork.

"If you want to be successful in our sessions, you have to work as a team," Flanagan explains. "It's not like the usual Quake all-against-all mentality, and if you go in there like John Wayne you are going to lose. The winning teams always tend to be the ones that play together."

Alex Lancksweert, from Andersen Consulting, was initially sceptical about Cybernetic, figuring that as his team spent most of their working day in front of computers, they were unlikely to give up their evenings for what seemed to be a similar activity, especially as it was unlikely to offer the thrills of paintball.

However, after a few hectic hours on the virtual battlefield he had changed his opinion enough to recommend the game to his team as an equally stimulating and enjoyable alternative to paintball. Lancksweert took a group of 35-40 people from England and Sweden, who had been working together "virtually" for six months but had spent little "real" time together.

"It was extremely interesting to watch the different teams operate: some would spend a great deal of time discussing defence and attack plans, while others just waded in," Lancksweert says. "The headset was a key piece of equipment. At times, the communication channels were jammed with consultants shouting instructions. On one occasion there was an eerie silence throughout the whole game and the performance of the team reflected this lack of communication."

The City is by no means the only large, competition-driven institution to recognise the potential of computer games in training its workforce. The US Marines used a version of Doom to train infantry fire teams. Modified to include real-life weapons and scenarios, Marine Doom proved an invaluable way to beta-test and refine battlefield tactics before embarking on costly real-world exercises.

With the advent of more and more graphically lifelike games, Cybernetic is promising experiences of ever-increasing realism.

Due later this year is Quake 3: Arena, which includes avatars (in-game characters) with individual facial characteristics. Cybernetic claims that it will be able to map the faces of their clients on to these characters, allowing put-upon employees to take revenge on their bosses with a few well-placed shotgun blasts.

The downside, however, is that the office assassin also loses anonymity. Those who wish to curry favour with their bosses would do well to hold their fire - repeated harassment with automatic weapons is fairly good grounds for instant dismissal.