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Free-For-All Of Pranks And Dares

The American workplace is truly a unique innovation, based on hard work, ingenuity, and finding any excuse for dicking around. The office prank is sometimes the only thing keeping us sane in the workplace, and just as businesses grow more creative and innovative, its workers' pranks have become more elaborate.

When's the last time you giggled at the office? Modern workplaces can be grim places, each employee staring intently at his computer as the screen bathes his face in an anemic glow. It's time we lightened up this leaden atmosphere. Many highly creative organizations encourage a culture of jokes and pranks, and the rest of us could benefit from a bit of the gleefully enterprising spirit that animates such hijinks.

At IDEO, the storied design firm that brought the world the Apple mouse, a culture of subversively entertaining stunts reigns. A boss goes away on vacation and returns to find a sheetrock wall where his office door had been. An executive returns from lunch and discovers that everything on his desk — pens, papers, a soda can — has been glued down with windshield cement.

Such pranks challenge the hidebound rules that can stifle creativity, explains IDEO general manager Tom Kelley in a book about the company's practices, The Art of Innovation. They also encourage the camaraderie that's so essential to fruitful collaboration. One group of IDEO designers, sailing around San Francisco Bay on a work retreat, realized the boat would pass right by their office — and together created a giant slingshot made of bungee cords to lob water balloons at the firm's windows.

Tony Wagner, the co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, sees pranks as an expression of a vital need. “Research shows that human beings are born with an innate desire to explore, experiment and imagine new possibilities — to innovate. How do children learn such skills? In a word — through play. And it's not just infants and children who learn through play,” writes Wagner in a new book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.

He quotes Joost Bonsen, an alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a lecturer at the MIT Media Lab, a hotbed of invention. “Being innovative is central to being human,” Bonsen tells Wagner. “We're curious and playful animals, until it's pounded out of us. Look at the tradition of pranks here at MIT. What did it take to put a police car on a dome that was 15 stories high, with a locked trap door being the only access? It was an incredible engineering feat. To pull that off was a systems problem, and it took tremendous leadership and teamwork.”

Indeed, the elaborate pranks regularly executed by MIT students (coaxing a cow onto a dormitory roof, inflating an enormous balloon reading “MIT” on the 46-yd. line of the Yale-Harvard football game) require close collaboration, calculated risk taking and a determination to bring into existence something completely new — all key elements of the kind of creativity that drives the 21st century economy.

Pranks are themselves a statement about what matters, claims André DeHon, an MIT graduate who is now an associate professor of electrical and system engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. “At MIT, intellect and its applications are valued and not, for example, athletic prowess,” DeHon writes in a collection of essays about MIT pranks, titled Nightwork. “It's not that we can run faster than you can. It's that we can manipulate the physical world to do things you hadn't imagined possible.” MIT's Bonsen seconds the point: “Pranks reinforce the cultural ethos of creative joy. Getting something done in a short period of time with no budget and challenging circumstances. It's glorious and epic.” Pranksters, Bonsen adds, “don't ask for permission. Not even forgiveness.”

That was certainly true of the 18-year-old high school senior who unfurled a giant banner during his graduation ceremony, picturing a hand with its middle finger raised. The year was 1972, and the mischievous mastermind behind the stunt was named Steve Jobs.

A good office prank lightens the office mood and unites coworkers. From hiding a coworker’s chair to decorating a manager’s office, pranks often elicit a hearty chuckle from instigators and their targets. However, how much is too much when playing jokes on coworkers? Have you or your coworkers pushed the unspoken limit and suffered repercussions? An office joke taken too far can offend coworkers and may lead to management intervention. While occasional jokes can keep everyone in the office in good spirits.

Office pranks should never be mean spirited. If you feel the urge to mess with a coworker’s space or a manager’s desk, keep the joke lighthearted. Even a joke meant to be innocent played against a coworker you’ve had previous rifts with can come across as confrontational and passive aggressive. As such, only play pranks on coworkers you’ve known for a long time and never play them on coworkers who you think may take offense.

When you sense that the target of workplace pranks is going from humored to annoyed, the pranks should be stopped. A target of office pranks who is tiring of the jokes can quickly become annoyed and may seek intervention from management to end the antics.

If you’re the instigator in such a situation, respect the wishes of your coworker and take a break from playing the jokester role. When you witness coworkers playing pranks on an annoyed employee, find a way to intervene and explain that the jokes have gone too far.

If you have any concerns about being discovered as the instigator of an office prank, then the joke shouldn’t be played. Anonymity has no place in office pranks, causing suspicions to quickly surround an otherwise innocent joke. If you intend to play a prank, you must also be willing to fess up to being the instigator. In doing so, you’ll keep the situation lighthearted and will give the coworker a chance to repay your original deed. 

Office prank wars can be difficult to end. What began as a prank against a coworker can soon become a back and forth battle with no endpoint between you and the original target. Although it can be tough to resist repaying a prank that was played against you, this is often what must be done. Pranks that continue too long can become tiresome and can annoy others around you who aren’t involved with the fun.

Office pranks are plotted in many offices against management and coworkers. If conducted successfully, an office prank can become legendary within a company’s history. If taken too far, a prank can quickly go from good natured to offensive. By keeping your workplace jokes lighthearted and sporadic, you’ll prevent coworkers from taking themselves and their jobs too seriously.

Is your job a hellish bore? Turn it into hellish fun with our game of nasty pranks. Grab a roll of toilet paper, shed your sense of decency—and see how much torture your coworkers can take. In any typical office in America—we’re frequently so bored that we throw interns out the window. (For the record, Peter, a chubby self-starter from Salt Lake City, bounced the highest.) Unfortunately, the police complained. And so was born…That Damn Maxim Office Game, a fast-paced free-for-all of pranks and dares that lets you abuse your colleagues, wear your necktie like a headband, start nasty rumors with breakfast cereal, and order pizza in the boss’ name—yet does not involve a prison term!

Pranks range from the elegantly simple (public burping) to the fiendishly complex (hiding tiny alarm clocks in your boss’ desk). Two to six coworkers can play. Under no circumstances can a player tell a nonplayer that he (or anyone else) is involved in The Game, no matter how desperately his behavior calls for an explanation. Yap to outsiders and you’re instantly disqualified. Not suitable for children!

On the day before The Game, each player contributes 20 bucks to the pool. Then, while clutching a stapler, he takes That Damn Maxim Office Game Sacred Oath. Though this is an emotional moment, no crying is allowed. Each player gets a copy of the prank lists, so they can form a strategy, and bring any props required from home. Make the 20 “Bag of Destiny” cards and place them in a bag. Store it in a player’s drawer. To conclude the opening ceremonies, staple the prize money together. Play begins at 9 a.m. on Game Day.

Eager to get started? Be advised: Play at your own risk. Maxim assumes no responsibility for the consequences of your actions—especially any sudden changes in, say, your employment status. The goal is to earn the most points—and win a pool of money—by performing the greatest number of pranks in a workday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Each player keeps track of the points he earns. On a notepad, he records each prank plus the victim/witness. Play stops at 5 p.m. No, really, we mean it. The final scores are tallied. A winner is declared and presented with the pool. Unless he is a total asshole, he then invites all players to the local bar and blows his winnings by buying countless rounds of frosty beer.

That Damn Maxim Office Game. Maxim [Print + Kindle] . October 2007.

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