Gaming Our Way Through the Remote Divide: Remote Culture at Gateless, Part 1

Gaming Our Way Through the Remote Divide: Remote Culture at Gateless, Part 1

It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed - Charles Darwin

One of the traits common to all the best teams I’ve been a part of is a commitment to building a good work culture, based on the premise that good work culture is just as important as individual talent in building a truly effective team. It can be a difficult challenge, especially in the context of remote teams. How do you build rapport, trust, and other elements of good work culture when team members spend weeks or months physically isolated, or may have never met in-person at all? This is especially relevant after 2020, when COVID forced more companies than ever before to allow employees to work remotely.

As a fully remote organization, Gateless is no stranger to this challenge. We’ve found regular online game nights and movie nights to be very helpful for facilitating closer connections between team members. Every Gateless team has daily stand-up meetings conducted over Zoom that help folks put faces to names. But when you’ve fought off aliens alongside someone, or trash-talked them while shooting them full of flaming arrows in a supposedly-cooperative game of Minecraft, well, you start connecting with them on a different level.

In less than two years, Gateless has rapidly grown from a single 10-person team to almost 100 members spanning multiple specialized teams. And it has become increasingly easy to log in, log out, and only interact with your small direct team. Before you know it, it’s been 3 months since you talked to former teammates, and there are large swaths of the org chart you’ve never met or even knew about. Game nights and movie nights provide opportunities for people across the organization to connect, unwind, and have casual non-work-related conversations.

At Gateless, we’ve held monthly game nights and movie nights for more than a year now, and have learned some valuable lessons along the way.

Minimize Barriers-to-Entry

Ideally it should be trivially easy for anyone to join the event, whether it’s a game night or movie night. Things that work well in this regard include Jackbox Party Pack games (trivially easy to stream over a variety of platforms, and only the host needs to have the games installed), (a completely free online implementation of Settlers of Catan), and Amazon Prime Video (many people already have Amazon Prime membership, and the built-in watch party feature works like a charm).

Examples of higher barriers-to-entry include Valheim (only runs on Windows, so participants must have a working Windows install or a GeForce NOW account) or games requiring VR headsets (asking people to make a multi-hundred-dollar purchase to participate in company game nights is a tough sell). In general, the more hoops you make people jump through, the smaller the turnout is going to be, which goes against the whole point of the exercise.

Keep It Simple

A game might be incredibly fun to play, but if it requires 30, 45, or 60 minutes for players to learn the rules and mechanics, that’s not time well spent. One notable example of this was our attempt at playing Among Us, a popular online social deduction game similar to Mafia and Werewolf. We had all played social deduction games before, so we thought this would be very easy to pick up. But in practice, Among Us involves quite a few different mini-games that were not always clearly explained in the tutorials, so a lot of time was wasted flailing about trying to figure out foreign mechanics, and it wasn’t a great experience for the group as a whole.

Jackbox Party Pack games succeed in this aspect as well by being truly easy to pick up. But it’s also important to note that what is “easy to pick up” can vary depending on the audience. A group of experienced Settlers of Catan players might be able to jump into action right away on, whereas Catan amateurs or newcomers might require significantly more ramp-up. The important takeaway here is to know your audience and pick activities that allow them to jump to the fun parts ASAP.

Variety is the Spice of Life

A 2004 paper on game design ( postulated that there are at least 8 types of fun possible through gameplay. Each person generally has a different subset that appeals the most to them, and they can often be in direct conflict with what someone else finds fun. For example, one person might prefer games with compelling pre-written narratives, while someone else prefers open-world sandbox games with no built-in plot. One person might love the sense of collaboration from cooperative games, while their team lead prefers the challenge of player-vs-player combat.

Because of this, we try to rotate through games that offer a variety of gameplay experiences (cooperative, competitive, open-world sandboxes, fighting games, etc.). It's also why we started doing movie nights in addition to game nights, because some folks don’t enjoy playing games at all, but love to watch a good movie (or a bad movie while cracking jokes on the side, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000). No activity will appeal to everyone. Having a variety of options broadens the appeal and makes the events more inclusive.

Opening the Floor

Building an effective remote work culture is tough, and there’s a lot more to it than just holding regular social events. We’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of game nights and movie nights over the past year, but we’re always on the lookout for new ideas. What does your organization do to build a good work culture? What do you think works well, and what do you think can be improved on? We would love to hear from you, please feel free to send any comments, suggestions, or questions to Cheers!

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