Let's Shoot Foam Arrows at Each Other!
By Sue Wilson

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Remember your last Truly Great Idea? What if, while you teetered on the cusp of it, the director of marketing slowly, silently, crept into your cubicle and unloaded his clip--of rubber bands, mind you--on the back of your hard-working head? Would you curse and draft a brusque letter to his supervisor, or with lightning speed lunge for your own trusty shooter, 'cause now it's payback time? Your gut response says a lot about whether you belong in some Silicon Valley companies.

Guns that shoot plastic disks, foam arrows, rubber bands, Ping-Pong balls, and even water can be found in startups all over the Valley. Duane McGowan of Kidell McGowan Associates, a toy-gun marketer in Virginia, estimates that an amazing half of the toy guns they sell are bought by adults, and California high-tech firms are among their best customers. Most guns used in office play come from workers' private collections, but some companies, like The Man.com, actually buy weapons for employees. With this in mind, Michigan entrepreneur Ennis Berker has begun to sell the Original Burp Gun (so called because of the sound it makes as it expels Ping-Pong balls) by the case for conferences and business meetings.

Fans of toy guns point to their ability to puncture seriousness, level hierarchy, strengthen community, and reduce stress in the workplace. Right. Yes. Of course. But what they're really thinking about is the gee-whiz thrill of diving into a cubicle to pop a cap in a co-worker's butt. Like short pants or the dog under the desk, the toy gun has become a trapping of the wacky workplace culture that no self-respecting tech firm can do without.

Perhaps because gunplay could strike outsiders as unprofessional--or worse--many companies are reluctant to confirm or deny reports of interoffice warfare. Several tech companies did not return calls, and, after a few days of hesitation, a representative of Netscape said she must have been mistaken about the toy guns she thought she had seen lying around the place. CEO Calvin Lui couldn't deny the presence of Nerf guns at his firm--they were pictured twice in a recent Time profile of his soon-to-be-launched guy shopping and advice site, TheMan.com--but he was careful to point out that gunplay is just one way to get the juices flowing and increase productivity in a creative business. Plus a Nerf fight now and then keeps the troops happy.

Officials may be skittish, but sidle up to an employee and you'll hear war stories--often told with an unabashed enthusiasm that borders on glee. Most gunplay occurs among friends. "It's actually an affectionate act. You can shoot me, I'll shoot you, and we'll run around and have a little war," says one engineer. Less frequent--but all the more prized--are all-out battles between departments. To welcome the technical-support division into the fold, the engineers at one company staged a raid. "There was a bunch of them, and they came to our area," remembers one victim, "and they converged on us and kind of spread out and started shooting. It was great!" Tired of shooting the same old faces? One former employee of Lighthouse Design (since absorbed by Sun Microsystems) says workers used to drive to the headquarters of Persistence Software for gunfights.

Like most things in life, what's fun for some can be hell for the rest. If you don't feel like playing with a gun, say the experts, then don't shoot back, and after a round or two the shooter will desist. But if you never feel like playing, you might have problems in a gun-lovin' company. An engineer at an East Bay company notes, "You have to participate in whatever culture your workplace is providing; otherwise you're seen to be a bad egg." In some companies the bad eggs include a disproportionate number of women. One woman who treasures her gun admits nonetheless, "It's very much a boy culture. What do a bunch of girls do to be playful? We wouldn't say, 'Oh, how fun! Let's shoot each other, hit each other, throw things at each other!'"

Those who don't relish such shenanigans should take heart--gunplay eventually tapers off as a company grows in size and stature or is acquired by a larger firm with a more conventional culture. Those who do relish shenanigans should also take heart--for every company that outgrows the Nerf rocket launcher, another one is born. And it just might be the place to try out your new Super Soaker XP 90 with pulsating nozzle.

SUE WILSON is a writer and Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley.