Virtual warfare rages in the City

Rachelle Thackray meets the bankers and traders who unwind by zapping the boss on screen
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The Independent Online
THE WEEKEND warrior has cast aside the combat fatigues and paintball gun.

After having to endure meagre rations and healthy doses of heartiness on employer-sponsored outdoor activity courses designed to improve teamwork, City traders and merchant bankers are gratefully embracing a quieter, cleaner alternative: an evening at a computer terminal playing the intense virtual reality combat game Quake II. There is the added advantage of being able to blow up your boss in company time, all in the name of improving your professional skills.

Cybernetic Productions, established last year by former investment banker Paul Flanagan, has already attracted companies including Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Andersen Consulting and MTV, and is set to draw others with the introduction of a City Cyber-League for companies to compete against each other in the networked game.

Mr Flanagan became interested in the concept after watching an elderly New York banker "machine-gunning Nazis" in a similar 3-D game, and noticed how addicted banking colleagues had become. "People play these games in the City after hours and it's frowned upon; it's not been acceptable. But the reaction I'm getting from older bankers is, 'Wow, this is amazing'."

He claims to have already converted sceptics at his sessions, held at a Holborn cybercafe. "It's a great form of social interaction - people will come out of a game and run to each other and talk about how exciting and fun it was. There's a prejudice that women don't like playing, but when I was testing this out, the most successful player was a woman consultant. It's very addictive."

Players are linked by headsets in the open-plan cafe, using a joystick to move around and destroy other teams during the 3-D play time on 17- inch screens. They use the headsets to communicate what their next moves will be, and to plan team strategy. There is also a wide Quake II vocabulary, developed by those who play regularly over the Internet: to "frag" is to kill an opponent; "ping" is the time taken by a player to react, and "powered up" refers to a state of near-invincibility.

Bankers of different nationalities exhibit different tendencies, according to Mr Flanagan. "I had some Japanese bankers; there were five of them playing and the boss wasn't doing so well and he was getting a bit irritated. He literally said, 'Hey guys, remember who's the boss'. The others were really enjoying blasting him."

Simon Guild, chief operating officer at MTV, admitted he was also a novice when he took some colleagues to a Holborn session. "I thought it would be difficult to make it work with different levels, but actually it didn't make much difference. It wasn't so much the winning and losing; it was the taking part."

He said companies were looking for more innovative team-building ideas. "The idea of going and rafting the rapids in Wales was what you did in the 1980s, but I think for traders, particularly, with that hyper-competitive edge, Quake II is probably something they quite like. If they've got down-time we might just send them down to play and relax."

Tony Todd, director of investment management ompany Enigma Capital, added that the sessions were attractive to City traders because, unlike normal team-building, there was no time lag in getting the action going. "Usually, you've got an hour or two to solve a problem, whereas in Quake II you have to work in a team in survival mode extremely quickly."

The sessions also appeal because of economies in time and cost, he said. "Team-building used to be an annual event; you'd disappear off into the countryside doing something highly active, like hovercraft racing or sheep- herding. It's typical to take a day or a weekend. But with this, you can finish work at 6pm and it's a sociable evening. I thought it was going to cost a lot on top of the base cost in terms of food and drink, but people didn't eat anything; you couldn't tear them away from the screen."

Mr Flanagan, meanwhile, hopes to expand his business to hosting corporate events, as well as team training sessions. One of the main advantages of the game, he says, is the ease of incorporating its lessons into office life. "With other training programmes, people say, 'It was good but I came back and couldn't implement it'. It really comes down to just communication. So often in big organisations, people don't talk, and problems develop because rather than phoning up someone, they'll just send off a poisonous e-mail."

He recommends that companies allow employees to indulge in regular Quake II sessions to build on lessons learned. "You can be an overweight banker and be as good as the best athlete, or a small, slight woman. Normal life has so many rules, whereas on screen, you think: that's my boss, I'll go after him."

Contact Cybernetic Productions on 0171-229 3618