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How to Host an Engaging Virtual Game Night at Work

February 22, 2021
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People professionals get asked to wear a lot of hats. You’ve probably played the role of therapist, mediator, researcher, policy writer, cheerleader, and more. After 2020, you were asked to add a few more hats to the list: IT expert, remote working advisor, wellbeing strategist — I could go on.

Suddenly, those pre-pandemic board game nights that ran themselves or trips to the karaoke bar near the office seem almost ludicrously simple by comparison. You’d just send a calendar invite and some people showed up. Easy.

Now, you’re still trying to keep engagement and relationship-building alive, but you have to keep everyone safe and healthy as you do it. Now you’ve got a new hat to add: virtual event host. In that spirit, let’s focus on one particular type of event: game night.

Hosting a Successful Game Night

Playing games can be a lot of fun, whether with friends, family, or colleagues. That fun is conditioned on everyone coming along for the ride. The moment a game fails to include someone, the fun evaporates — at least for that person and sometimes for everyone else, too. For this reason, you need to follow three key steps to take to host a successful games night.

1. Choose a game and conferencing platform.

There are tons of virtual board games. Some free ones we like include Codenames and Carcassonne. For a more complete list, take a look at this round-up of virtual games that a colleague and I put together. Make sure you know the recommended group size for each game in advance and think about whether you’ll all be able to play together or instead will have to use breakout rooms.

You’ll probably want to meet on a conferencing platform such as Zoom or Teams. I recommend using the technology your group is most familiar with since the game itself may be new to them. Remember, the games come with their own learning curves — you shouldn’t need to add another new system to the mix.

2. Explain the game effectively. 

When players don’t understand a game and are colocated, it’s easy for them to ask casual questions — sometimes of the group or the person they’re sitting next to. They’re able to do this without disrupting the game’s flow because of all the physical cues. By contrast, it’s more mentally difficult for players to ask even minor clarifying questions on Zoom. You need to take the time to explain the game in a thoughtful, structured way. That means you should:

  1. Start by explaining the goals and objectives of the game. In other words, what do people need to achieve to win? Do they need to collect a certain number of points? Do they need to be the last person standing? Try and make a comparison between the game you’re about to play and a game your team already knows. This gives them context that helps lessen the learning curve.
  2. Cover the mechanics. Once they know what winning looks like, they’ll need to know how to get there. You need to take a deep dive into how the game works, exploring its mechanics.
  3. Explain the game’s content. That includes the game’s theme, story, motivation, and logistics. 
  4. Lastly, always do a practice round. The practice round gives you a clear signal of whether people understood your instructions. It tells you if there's something you could make clearer.

Let’s use Cards Against Humanity as an example. The objective of the game is to collect more points than anyone else.A round is played by selecting a  “decider” and having them read aloud from one of their black cards, which contains a Mad Lib like, “I stopped loving fishcakes when I realized I could eat...”). Every other player selects the white card from their hand that would complete that sentence (like “my feelings,” “sawdust,” or “Kentucky”). The decider then picks their favorite, and that player gets a point.

3. Find a great facilitator (they don’t have to be you). 

Of course, not every People professional will need to be the host or facilitator — you can certainly ask for volunteers. That said, whoever is going to play the role needs to do a few critical things.

  1. Greet each person by name as they join the virtual call. If someone walked into the room you were playing games in, you’d likely wave, smile, and say hello. Doing so verbally or in the chat, with the person's name, is the only way to do that now.
  2. Maintain a friendly demeanor. As a host, no request should be unwelcome. You won't necessarily be able to fulfill all requests, but the central idea is to project the sense that almost nothing is too much trouble. Imagine going to Disneyland and being greeted by a low-energy Mickey Mouse bemoaning his day. Side note: At Disneyland Paris, I once saw a Donald Duck smoking a cigarette and yelling at a coworker.
  3. Check in with participants. Pause occasionally to ask, “How’s it going?” or “Can I do anything to make this more fun?” Maybe the group wants to play an easier or more challenging version of the game. Perhaps they don’t want to keep score. Imagine that you’re playing music at a party and notice the energy dipping. In that situation, as host you’d check in and see if you need to change up Lionel Richie for some Dua Lipa.

HR teams have a lot on their plates, and you might feel that hosting game night isn’t part of your responsibilities. Still, I’d recommend that you give it a go — the goodwill, energy, and positivity you can create through games is surprisingly enduring. That goodwill can fuel your team and keep them going through the hard times.

About the Author

Rachel Ben Hamou is the Director of Talent Development at PeopleStorming and a Resources for Humans community ambassador.

Rachel has been growing happy, healthy, and high-performing teams for around fifteen years. She believes that how we work is as important as what we do, and this has kept her fascinated by workplace collaboration. Connect with Rachel on Linkedin.