Where Xbox Meets Lunchbox
Video Games Are the New Foosball at Firms Where Young Workers Dominate

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.

On the screen, Norouzi's character, an energy-sword-wielding alien, runs around a corner and onto -- whoops! -- a grenade. It explodes, and his character sails over a wall and through the air. "This is not my level," he said.

As Norouzi's character came back to life, Settle's and Toscano's had an onscreen showdown, firing explosives at each other as they jump through the air.

"Rocket launchers," Settle noted with the voice of experience. "That's what makes this level pretty nasty."

Whoever racked up 25 kills first would win. They were averaging one or two kills per minute. Toscano led with 23 kills when the phone rang and the carnage came to a temporary halt: "Platinum Solutions, this is Mark Toscano." As he took the call, his co-workers took a few potshots at his vulnerable, motionless avatar.

Toscano tends to be at the top of the pack, except perhaps on Fridays when Richard Vanhook comes in. Vanhook, who won the company's Halo 2 tournament last year, doesn't usually work at the Reston headquarters, but he'll stop by to catch a little face time with his colleagues -- and to play some Halo.

The company went through a phase when office space was tight, but taking the video-game break room apart was never seriously considered. A move to a larger office is scheduled for August. If the new break room has enough space, they might even get a Wii, Rossi said.

The company's director of recruiting, John Capozzi, has the office next door to the current break room. He's a decade or two older than most of the staff, and he's no gamer. You could hear the guys yelling through the wall during a pre-lunch visit, as Capozzi explained some of the company's projects.

It should be annoying, but it's not a problem -- he's glad the game room is there. Capozzi has to find and attract young programming talent to the company, and the daily Halo match signals to prospective hires that the company doesn't take itself too seriously.

If it weren't for the Xbox, there's a chance that Conner McCarthy might not work there. It's his first job since graduating from Virginia Tech in December with a degree in business information technology. When he told his mother what companies he was thinking about working for, she checked them out on the Web. Then she called her son and pushed Platinum Solutions. "She said, 'I think this is the company for you -- they're into video games!' "

Not every office is. There are a couple of floors leased by Microsoft in this building, though no one at Platinum Solutions seems to know exactly what the people there do. Norouzi went down a few weeks ago to ask if they wanted to join the daily Halo routine. He left his card, but never heard back from anybody.

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