Where Xbox Meets Lunchbox

From left, Mark Toscano, Robert Settle, Adam Rossi, Navid Norouzi and Mikko von Kutzleben play Halo. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 7, 2007

"Contrary to how it sounds, this is a team-building activity," said Robert Settle, a senior software developer at Platinum Solutions in Reston. "There's just a lot of trash talk."

Settle was parked on a sofa in the company's small break room, engaged in intense Xbox warfare with co-workers Navid Norouzi, Mark Toscano and Mikko von Kutzleben.

Most of the time, the Platinum Solutions guys develop software with very serious purposes for very serious clients like the FBI, the FDA and a roster of other government customers. But every day, for a quick break before lunch, it's time for some Halo 2, the hit sci-fi "shooter" game that pits aliens against space marines -- or colleague against colleague, in this case.

At some young companies around Washington, the ones with employees almost entirely in their 20s and 30s, it isn't uncommon to find game consoles in break rooms. Though the Xbox isn't as ubiquitous as the Foosball table was at tech start-ups during the dot-com era, for some companies that don't have a softball team or the occasional happy hour get-together, office camaraderie can take root at the game console.

At Platinum Solutions, it's clearly okay with the boss, because it's his old Xbox they're using. Adam Rossi, who started the company in 1999, brought in the system when he got the newer Xbox 360 last year. Since then, the Halo matches have become part of the day's routine, bringing together everyone from the company brass to the guys who keep the network running.

Rossi might even lug in the new console one day. "I play more here than I do at home," he said. "There's always somebody around to play with here. At home, if you want to play with somebody, you log on to Xbox Live and there are all these little kids" -- the other online players -- "swearing at you."

Across the river, at the Connecticut Avenue offices of the online marketing firm Grassroots Enterprise, one of the workers brings in the new Nintendo system every month or so and hooks it up to a projector normally used for client presentations.

"Instead of the usual work happy hour, we have a Wii happy hour," said Kevin O'Neill, the company's director of online campaigns. Whether it's bowling or tennis or the system's other sports games, everybody gets into it. "It's not every day you can take on the CEO in a boxing match," he said.

At Mindshare Interactive Campaigns near MacPherson Square, the pickup Halo game begins whenever the day's work is done. Typically, the guys play for an hour or so, though that sometimes goes longer on Fridays.

"We play Halo pretty much exclusively," said Douglas Smith, senior vice president for technical services. "One of the guys tried to convert us to Madden, but this isn't the most sports-centric staff."

Video games are still largely off-limits at Washington's older and stodgier companies. One programmer who used to work for Platinum Solutions moved on to a larger, big-name federal contractor a few months ago. He told his former colleagues that when he tried to set up his Nintendo for a lunchtime break, his new bosses quickly shut him down.

Remember the episode of "The Office" when one of the characters is made fun of at work because he's not very good at the World War II computer game Call of Duty, but the rest of his office is obsessed with it? That's pretty much Norouzi's role at the Platinum Solutions pick-up game. As the only guy who doesn't regularly play video games at home -- the others are Gears of War fans -- he's at something of a disadvantage.

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