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6 minute read

Office Role-Play? Meet The People Who Pretend To Work At An Office Together

The weird and wonderful world of BLARPing.

[Photo: Flickr user Bernd Zube]

To: All Office Drones
RE: Subject: BLARPING
CC: All

You're stuck at an office all day, deleting all-staff emails and futzing with the office printer. But imagine if you were also part of an online group, pretending that you were in an office all day.

That's what's happening at one of the latest cult Facebook Groups, Generic Office Roleplay. Over 2,500 members from around the world fill its virtual pages with posts that mimic office-wide emails. There are passive aggressive notes about food stolen out of the fridge, mandates about office dress and office supplies, and tips for improving synergy. Think TV's The Office meets David Rees’s clip Art cartoons, My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable meets live action role play (LARP), all happening on Facebook.

The term of choice for its practitioners is BLARPing—business live action role-play.

Inside the BLARP, people have fake roles—from the Head of Generic Operations to Executive Kitchen Coordinator. There have been parking disasters, nuclear meltdowns, office injuries, take your pet to work day, office parties, and more. An iguana population has claimed sovereign territory of the fourth floor—before the lizards were all made redundant. There are nearly 2,500 people participating in the group, running the gamut from a high schooler to actual corporate suits.

While they have created a business world in miniature, it is less role-play than the name suggests, and more just plain satire. There is little to no overlap with the regular live-action role-play scene. The idea is more about making fun of the mindless maze of cubicle culture, and all of its ROI, synergy, spitballing, helicopter views, leveraging, productivity, and "circling back" glory.

But even in this whimsical office world, tempers flared. The future of Generic Office Roleplay is very much up in the air—it seems that pretend work politics aren't so different from real life corporate takeovers.

The Early Days

The group was founded by an Australian teenager, Thomas Oscar, on a whim last August. He and his friend Jarra Vlasto were wasting time online, competing to see who could join the most "wack" Facebook groups. Oscar got the idea to start one of his own. "The idea literally just happened, I didn’t think it over for more than one minute before creating the group," says Oscar. "An office just seemed the easiest thing to role-play, take the piss out of senseless bureaucracy." (When I ask Oscar how he would describe it to another person, say someone’s mom, he notes that "basically I don’t talk to my mum (or any mums if I can help it." ) He created Stackswell & Co, whose business model is to "move units" and sent invites to his friends in high school and the local punk scene. He established rules: new members had to submit resumes before they were given positions and added to the virtual payroll. It took off.

Thomas Oscar

In just two days, it went from about 200 to about 1,100 members, completely surprising Oscar. He had been spending about three hours a day posting and moderating the site, but it got too much for him, so he passed it off to David Worboys, a bartender who plays in hardcore bands, and one of the first members. "I remember sitting in my car after work accepting over 100 people at a time," says Worboys, "I ended up turning off notifications on my phone because it was constantly vibrating. It kinda came out of nowhere."

"Right at the start people [made] spreadsheets and graphs and took it very seriously," says Worboys, who was originally the Conflict Resolution person, charged with the duty of escorting people out of the building. "It's cool seeing the back and forth but it's amazing seeing someone take the time to design a word art poster for a mandatory seminar on synergy with a spreadsheet full of data of the units we've shifted."

Click to expand

"I’m a design student, so making awfully designed stuff in PowerPoint 2000 on a Windows 98 Machine is disturbingly fun," says Mitchell Sheldrick, Stackswell’s Intranet Administrator, Design, Short Rental, Synergy Control, Iguana Observationist, #art, Fleet & Greeting Management, who joined a month ago. "I don’t really spend a consistent amount of time on duty at the business, mainly when I start procrastinating from university work."

Odd as it sounds, Generic Office Roleplay isn’t the first of its kind. Most notably is Synergon, a satirical website about office language and culture told in the form of a D&D game. Instead of casting a spell on an elf, you go up levels by doing things like discussing KPI, RFP in a meeting or with a frenemy in the elevator. It wasn’t originally intended as a game, but as a critique. "Some people think LARPing is absurd. But frankly, BLARPing is far more ridiculous," says the website’s about section. "LARPers know it’s just a story (well, most of them anyway), a fictional role they play. BLARPers, on the other hand, think the show is real, which is actually dangerous."

The Pivot

The website took on a life of its own as the D&D crowd realized they could actually play the game with dice in hand.

In the same way, Generic Office Roleplay has taken a weird turn that Oscar never anticipated or frankly even likes. The corporate workers—exactly the people whom Oscar was making fun of—started running the show.

Scrolling through the high school and university students, there are more and more middle managers who are posting from their office cubicles. "I get comedy out of it and the ability to laugh at my own situation sitting in a pod on a floor of pods with people in the same situation, Monday to Friday, 9-to-5," says Stuart Peace, a graphic design Team Leader at QSuper Limited in Brisbaine, Australia. "If it wasn’t funny it would be very sad because the reality is you are actually doing that with your life."

It can be almost therapeutic. David Baker, who is the "facilities manager" at Stackswell online, and at one of the biggest buildings in Dubai in real life, goes so far as to make the analogy to combat vets who play Call of Duty to deal with post-traumatic stress. "Odd but it seems to work," he says. "For me it’s an escape," says Baker, who often checks the page while at work even during conference calls. "You get to be creative in your replies rather than ‘yes of course we are actioning, thank you for taking the time to inform us’ stuff."

David Baker

"It’s the opportunity to respond the way you would love to at meetings in real life. Instead of flipping out at work, they write about it on (Generic Office Roleplay). Super effective," says Thomas, an "executive leadership team" in Melbourne (who didn’t want his last name used.) Thomas spends about 15 to 20 minutes a day posting and reading the page, time he considers mental health breaks. "There are some funny people out there and they are tired, frustrated, and caught from, by and in corporate. This is a genuine escape and an opportunity to empathize with people from around the world," he adds.

The group has become a window into the world of surviving the workplace. "I find it amusing that the reality of the actual office is in fact mirrored. It is scary that it is so similar," says Peace, who usually posts during his bus commute or while at work. "Perhaps it takes working in an office to really understand the humor."

"People either get the site or they don’t," says Baker. "It’s kind of alternative."

But the teenagers who were first involved, notably Oscar, don’t think the new people get it. At first Oscar thought it was amusing how the page took on a life of its own. "There are weird trends and fads on it I no longer understand anymore (iguanas?) which is pretty cool." But that changed last Sunday night.

A feud has broken out, and many of the original members are rebelling, lashing out, and leaving the group. It’s been taken over by the people who they were making fun of, who they say, are ruining the fun. A new CEO, David Frew, a real-life lawyer, has replaced Oscar.

And the adults are continuing with their office world—IRL and on Facebook.

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