Eager for an alternative to Zoom, executives are getting together in video games, to bond, brainstorm or rampage.
The ask-nice approach had not worked. Lewis Smithingham, an advertising executive in Brooklyn, was trying to land a virtual meeting with an analyst at an investment management firm, who he hoped would be both a source of potential clients and information. Dates were agreed to and then postponed, rescheduled and rescheduled again. So Smithingham had an idea. He would end the brush-offs by emailing a cheeky invitation:
"Let's go rob a bank in Grand Theft Auto."
Soon, Smithingham and the analyst were tearing around a fictional version of Los Angeles, submachine guns in hand, in one of the world's most popular and raucous multiplayer video games. The analyst lacked the skills for a bank heist, but the two did some carjacking, ran over some unlucky pedestrians, eluded some cops, drove off a cliff and died a few times.
"He isn't a great gamer, so I had to sort of be the point person for all of the shooting," said Smithingham, a director at MediaMonks, which is based in the Netherlands. "But now we text each other regularly, and when I get on a call with this guy, I'll be like, 'You remember that time we ran from the cops and crashed into a highway divider?'"
With Zoom call fatigue setting in and boozy lunches out of the question during the coronavirus pandemic, housebound executives are finding new ways to meet and bond in video games. The goal is to break up a day that is crammed with get-togethers that generally look, sound and feel identical. And for people like Smithingham, an outing in virtual space is a chance to form memories with people he has never met, which is a crucial part of developing relationships, business and otherwise.
"It's my golf," he said. Unlike golf, video games come with social distancing built in. It is back slapping without the slapping or the back, ideal during a pandemic.
Nobody knows how many executives are meeting in video games, including game publishers, but examples are popping up on Twitter and other social media platforms. In May, an author and artist in Britain named Viviane Schwarz wrote a series of tweets about meetings she was holding with an editorial team on Red Dead Redemption 2, a Western-themed game set in the American frontier of 1899. The setting has upsides, she explained, including the mountain wilderness landscapes and a campfire the team can sit around while wolves howl in the night.
But there are complications. A posse might interrupt, looking for a gunfight, and a character named JB Cripps often hovers around playing the mouth harp. For some reason, he cannot be shot dead. Then there are the technical glitches.
"Sometimes the meeting table doesn't exist for everyone, and sitting on the ground is the same button as attempting to strangle the nearest person," Schwarz tweeted in May. "Still beats Zoom."
The idea of holding business meetings in a virtual world enjoyed a certain vogue about a decade ago. More than 1,400 organizations had a presence on Second Life, an online realm with everything an avatar would need, including auditoriums and beer. There are still plenty of businesses, nonprofit organizations and universities operating in Second Life, says Ebbe Altberg, the chief executive of Linden Lab, the San Francisco-based creator of the world. But hundreds of companies have left, including IBM, Coca-Cola and Reuters, which had a Second Life bureau.
Today's in-game pioneers have scaled-back ambitions. Erik Heisholt, the founder of Heisholt Inc., a marketing firm in Oslo, was simply looking for a novel setting when, in 2016, he built an office in Minecraft.
That office was deleted last year, because of inactivity, but as the pandemic set in, he built a new one. In mid-July, he offered a tour of the premises to this reporter, who had never before set virtual foot in Minecraft, a game with more than 125 million monthly users. It was a memorably bizarre way to spend 90 minutes.
"Hello and welcome to the office!" Heisholt said. Actually, it was the online avatar of his tech guru, Martin Bruras, and Heisholt was not speaking aloud. Communication in Minecraft happens via text, which adds to the sense that life here unfolds at half speed, at least for a neophyte trying to figure out simple tasks, like how to walk through a door. When Heisholt "spoke" it was via Bruras, who was essentially taking dictation.
"Come inside before the monsters come," Heisholt wrote.
Hold on. Monsters?
It turns out that when night falls in Minecraft, which happens three times every hour, an assortment of deadly skeletons, witches and zombies roam the world. Happily, like polite dinner guests, they do not barge into buildings, so we were undisturbed once inside the office, other than the sound of snarls coming from just beyond walls.
"How do you get any work done?" I typed.
"We can't work if we get eaten and killed," Heisholt wrote. "We sit at our computers and discuss, just like in the real world."
The first Heisholt Inc. office in Minecraft was built four years ago, soon after the company conceived the first concert in the game, for an annual tech festival in Norway called the Gathering. The show was a virtual and simultaneous version of a live performance by the electronic duo AlunaGeorge. The motion of the musicians was mirrored, as closely as possible, by the blocky, Lego-like characters that populate the game. About 3,000 viewers were expected.
"More than 100,000 showed up, and it would have been six times more if the servers had not crashed," Heisholt said in an offline phone interview. "A lot of the meetings about the concert and about the promotional campaign for the concert took place in the game. We would meet with gamers there, and they ended up putting up posters for the show inside their buildings and houses in the game."
Inspired by that experience, Heisholt Inc. built an office in Minecraft, which Heisholt described as far posher than any the company could afford in the real world. A video of it shows what looks like a sleek, seaside hotel in the Brutalist style, with several floors and swimming pools, along with cows, sheep and a company dog named Palecod.
The staff members began to have regular meetings at the office, then invited clients for business pitches and brainstorming. It was in the game that the company conferred with representatives of the World Wildlife Fund to discuss a campaign to save Norway's wolves, which a group of farmers wanted to start hunting. Heisholt Inc. created a video inside Minecraft that showed a few dozen wolves in a concrete pen getting mowed down by an unseen character with a crossbow.
"Wolves in Norway are listed as critically endangered" read a chyron toward the end of the 50-second spot. Then Crossbow Guy shot the last wolf. (The wolf fight in Norway is continuing.)
As the company grew, and brought in bigger clients, it stopped visiting the Minecraft office, which is why it, and Palecod, vanished. The new space looks like a starchitect's take on an oversized sauna. There are a lot of tiered, dark-wood benches, a bunch of torches on the wall and pixelated artwork of Bruce Lee about to punch a giant hand. As daylight broke during the tour, we walked to the second-floor balcony and gaped at what looked like a verdant prairie with a lot of lakes. A gold merchant idled outside with two llamas. The llamas bleated and stared up at us.
Minecraft is, in part, a "sandbox" game, which means you can choose to do nothing at all, other than avoid death by monster. Before we visited the office's main conference room, Heisholt offered some lunch.
"I'll just have to kill a chicken, be back in a second," he wrote. The meal looked like a plucked chicken carcass. Then he answered questions about how this office held advantages over his physical one in Oslo.
"Having a brainstorm session here forces you to think," he wrote, holding what he later explained was a piece of rotten meat left by a monster. "To think different. We're in a totally different mindset in here. Especially if we talk to random players. They sometimes give you absurd answers that can lead your thinking in totally unexpected directions."
He cited ideas gleaned from passersby in Minecraft who had suggestions about the design of the Viking ship where AlunaGeorge performed the virtual concert. Mostly, though, it seems as if Heisholt enjoys a dose of anarchy in his daily routine.
"Working in Minecraft can be dangerous and nerve-racking," he later wrote in an email. He urges employees to stay undevoured, he said, but also sees the mortal threats as a way to introduce an invigorating element of risk that heightens the senses.
As the tour wound down, he walked outside to take a closer look at the llamas, one of which spat at him. Then night set in. The sound of sinister hissing and grunts rose, sending us scrambling toward the office door, though not quickly enough. Zombies killed us both.
"You died!" the game exulted. There was an option to "respawn" and reenter the game, but Heisholt was late for a rehearsal with his band in real-world Oslo.
The experience underscored that it would be hard to zone out in Minecraft. It might be just as hard to focus on work, at least for anyone who lacks proficiency. Ben Decker, the head of game services marketing at Microsoft, says he often checks in with fellow employees while pairing up with them in a game called Destiny. Each player is an armed protector of Earth's last safe city, which sounds like a job that would require total attention.
"But when you play a game a lot, it's sort of like gardening," he said. "It becomes part of your daily routine, and there's a certain rhythm to it."
Decker spends most days in the basement of his home in Seattle, which has led him to rediscover Sea of Thieves, a pirate-themed game which, naturally, takes place on the ocean. He holds a regular business meeting in the game with an executive from Discord, a digital distribution platform, and the two catch up aboard a galleon in what looks like the Caribbean.
"You can kind of hear the breeze and the birds, and the animation of the water is just beautiful," he said. "The sailing mechanism is close enough to reality that you kind of feel like you're rolling across the waves."
For Smithingham, of MediaMonks, different games offer advantages for different clients. Gunplay and mayhem is not always the right fit. He is a fan of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a new version of a long-popular Nintendo game, which was released in March. It deposits players on cartoonishly colorful private islands where they can decorate their homes, trim trees, catch fish, chase critters or visit others and chill out.
It also facilitates a singular kind of gift giving, the online version of picking up a lunch check. Goods such as flowers, furniture and bait for fishing can be acquired, typically through time-consuming tasks. If you do not have time, however, there are alternatives.
"I basically went on eBay and spent $10 buying 400 fish bait from somebody in Japan," he said, referring to one of Animal Crossing's most popular staples. "Three minutes later, I watched the seller come to my island with, like, a mask on and dropped off the fish bait. I think he was trying to be creepy. But the first time I met this one client, I gave her 100 fish bait, which is a crazy extravagant gift."
A screenshot of a recent meeting with this client shows Smithingham fishing with the client. He appears to be a perfectly coiffed young man in a matching black shirt and pants, sporting a spiffy pair of red-and-white sneakers — which gets to another reason that now, more than ever, he prefers video games to video chats.
"My production value is now considerably better in Animal Crossing than it is on Zoom," he said. "My wife is cutting my hair. And she's a nurse, not a barber."
Written by: David Segal
Photographs by: Benjamin Norman
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES