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USC Event Examines the Games People Play

USC Event Examines the Games People Play
The USC School of Social Work hosted "Games in the Global Office," a Vision and Voices event.

It’s a pop quiz straight out of Workplace Relations 101.

Q. Tapping out replies to e-mail on your smartphone during a morning meeting will earn you a reputation as a:

A) multitasker intent on maximizing the workday
B) rude jerk who doesn’t care about others
C) It all depends.

Q. Flirting with that cute temp in your cubicle pod will lead to:

A) dinner and a movie
B) an emergency meeting with the human resources department for a mandatory sexual harassment refresher course
C) could be either.

Answer key: C, C

In reality, the way our actions are perceived within the office depends largely on the expectations and culture of those around us.

What goes over smoothly in one workplace, industry or even nation won’t necessarily go over well in another. It’s up to each individual to assess the boundaries and ground rules of the workplace and play accordingly.

And that’s not always so easy.

On Oct. 6, the USC School of Social Work hosted a Vision and Voices event that explored the hits and misses of interoffice communication with “Games in the Global Office: Insults, Compliments and the Edge of Violence.”

Moderated by USC School of Social Work professor and serious-games innovator Maryalice Jordan-Marsh, the university-sponsored arts and humanities program featured a panel of experts discussing the mental “games” people play in an increasingly global workplace and the misunderstandings that can arise when people from different cultures and countries come together.

Panelists were also game (pun intended, of course) to drawing parallels between social interactions and digital video games – and the potential role of video games in an office setting.

Social work and business professor Michàlle Mor Barak, the author of Managing Diversity Toward a Globally Inclusive Workplace, began the evening at the Davidson Conference Center with a discussion of personal behavior in the office.

Oddly, it’s often the nonconsequential actions that get us in the most trouble at work, Mor Barak said.

“It’s basic incivility,” she said. “Very small behaviors like doing your e-mail in a meeting or looking sideways when someone is talking accumulate over time.”

To illustrate the blurry lines between flirting, courtship and sexual harassment within a work setting, Mor Borak showed the audience a scene from the interactive video game series “World of Warcraft.”

A popular feature in the game allows online players and their digital avatars to attempt to “flirt” with others online.

In the selected clip, an amorphous male character launches into a flurry of pick-up lines that include telling a female warrior, “I love your body armor; I’d love it even better on my floor.”

His entreaties never result in the positive response he desires. In fact, one nonamused, giant bird-like character gets close to attacking him.

The takeaway lesson: “Just because the character can flirt doesn’t mean the other party is receptive,” Mor Barak said. “And what is perceived as harmless flirting in one culture might be perceived as harassment in another.”

South Korean management expert Sangmi Cho, who appeared via teleconference, discussed her research concerning conflicts between Korean employees and their American bosses and co-workers.

Cho said most misunderstandings boil down to starkly different work cultures.

Because of Korea’s collective and hierarchal society, decisions are rarely made by an individual.

A lower-level employee rarely would tell her boss if she believes a decision is wrong. So it can be very hard for a Korean worker to speak up in a western-style work setting that expects that level of proactivity from its employees, Cho said.

On the other hand, an American boss may perceive the employee as nonengaging when the worker is attempting to be deferential.

Cho said Korean companies often have an attitude that loyalty is worth more than efficiency or effectiveness. Employees are expected to stay long hours. Their social lives often revolve around the office, with co-workers going out most evenings after work for drinking and karaoke.

Meanwhile, Americans typically are less involved with their co-workers and more focused on outside activities. This can offend their Korean counterparts.

“Sometimes the Koreans feel all Americans want us for is work,” Cho said.

Kevin Brown, art development manager at Sony Computer Entertainment America, drew a literal parallel between the first day of work and the “God of War” video-game trilogy.

The game’s main character, Kratos, is a warrior in service of the gods who wants to overthrow his boss Ares and become the god of war. Players must help him achieve his bloody goals.

To succeed, players must use their controllers to survey the landscape, learn the characters who will affect his journey, figure out the expectations and navigate the organization.

“It’s just like the first day at any new job,” Brown said.

At the end of the evening, panelists broached the possibility of offering video games in the workplace for team building or to relieve stress.

One member of the audience said that while working in South Korea, his co-workers began playing the video game “Starcraft.” It brought them closer together and allowed people to share emotion. But at the same time, it reduced motivation to work and alienated the people who did not like video games or couldn’t play well.

After the event, Jordon-Marsh discussed the potential to invent new video games that could serve as valuable training tools and conflict-resolution exercises in the workplace.

She envisions a world where serious games replace boring sexual harassment classes, and cooperative video games foster camaraderie among employees and help relieve tension around the office.

“We are living in stressful times, and video games can be a wonderful outlet,” she said. “But, first and foremost, they have to be fun.”

USC Event Examines the Games People Play

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