Smile, You’re on Faceball Camera

You’re toiling away at the keyboard when, out of thin air, a DayGlo beach ball smacks you in the chops. This is Faceball, the summertime sport craze that’s set to sweep Silicon Valley, and you just lost.

Rules are simple — two co-worker opponents sit 10 feet apart and take it in turns to throw a ball at each other’s face. A direct hit scores a point and gives the right to shoot again; miss, and it’s your cubicle buddy’s turn to take aim.

Faceball was conceived by employees at Yahoo, but staff at companies like Google and Apple seem to be catching the bug, if not the ball. It’s the workplace time-waster of choice for a growing number of webmonkeys.

Rest and relaxation

Faceball emerged at Yahoo’s San Francisco offices when employees looked for ways to let off steam after a long day’s coding. Google may have a killer cafeteria, but Yahoo has the joy of hitting colleagues in the face, square-on, with a pink or blue ball.

“It came about because we had so many of those balls being hit around our office,” said Dunstan Orchard, a Flickr designer credited with popularizing the game at Yahoo. “Accuracy competitions evolved between a couple of us and the end result was Faceball.”

As yet, Faceball has no television coverage and no significant spectator numbers. Instead, co-workers take photos and post them online for fans to browse. Here, Faceball inventor Orchard takes one on the forehead.

A competitor at a Flickr meet-up in Klagenfurt, Austria, prepares to fire at his opponent. Image: Courtesy of Georg Holzer.

Oops upside your head

If the pink and blue shades look familiar, note the Flickr color scheme. “Faceball is the product of people who work at Flickr and, until recently was played only at Flickr, but officially it’s got nothing to do with the company,” Orchard told Wired News.

Designer Orchard and engineering manager John Allspaw, two of the most die-hard exponents of the sport, keep colleagues on their toes at Yahoo’s San Francisco headquarters with regular Faceball face-offs, and a company league table. “That said, it’s one of the games we play on a fairly regular basis (the other being Dart Wars), so it’s certainly become part of the Flickr culture. We’re lucky enough to have a boss like Stewart Butterfield who lets these kinds of things flourish.”

Photo finish

Half the fun of Faceball is photographing the moment of collision, and laughing at your colleague’s contorted appearance. With a decent exposure setting, snap-happy players can capture the full horror of a direct hit.

Is Faceball dangerous? Critics compare it to happy slapping. “It’s always just a bit of fun,” Orchard told Wired News, “but you certainly want to do your best.”

Yahoo technologist Tom Coates captures the velocity of a Faceball ball heading for a colleague’s chin. Image: Courtesy of Tom Coates.

Safety first

The quintessential comedy of watching people get hit in the face by a ball has a long and proud tradition. One early variant saw friends kick the ball at each other’s faces — a nod to what they call “funny pain.” Faceball is sadistic, but softer.

Youngsters have been posting videos of a Faceball version for the last couple of years — often with much heavier, more damaging balls and plenty of velocity.

Faceball helps Silicon Valley’s finest stay motivated during a long day’s coding. Image: Courtesy of Daniel Catt.

A player draft

Faceball is on the move. Yahoo wants to popularize the game outside the Flickr office. Orchard and Allspaw have created an official website, complete with quick-start instructions, designed to recruit new players around the world.

Already, some Brits have cottoned on, with face-offs at Yahoo’s London Hack Day event in June and outside the Tate Britain gallery earlier this month. Flickr’s users are also beginning to take the necessary sporting equipment (two balls, two chairs) along to regular meetups.

“It helps that it’s actually enjoyable getting hit in the face by your opponent,” says Orchard. “And when half the office gathers around and the guitars come out and people cheer you on, it’s an excellent way to relax and have a laugh.”

Faceball’s co-inventor, John Allspaw, is caught out by a Faceball delivery from the left. Image: Courtesy of Daniel Catt.

Taking one for the team

Faceball is often more a case of camaraderie than competition. But don’t let that fool you. Official Faceball instructions come with a league table chart for offices to keep score.

“I think I might have the upper hand,” says Orchard. “However, John was triumphant in our inaugural tournament in April, and I was beaten in the semis by rising star Paul Lloyd.”

A Faceball player on a Flickr meetup in Austria gets a taste of beach ball in his mouth. Image: Courtesy of Georg Holzer.

Faceball: a sport on the move

Faceball is cliquey, but what started as a Yahoo coffee-break moment is now emerging as a mano-a-mano team sport amongst staff of several rival tech giants. “It seems as though a fair number of people are playing in their homes and offices now, and, having spoken with friends last night, I think staff at Google, Apple, and Twitter will be playing soon,” says Orchard.

Dunstan Orchard gets ready to take a direct hit, but lives to fight another day. Image: Courtesy of Daniel Catt.

No padding required

Faceball rewards accuracy over aggression. “It’s more fun to play within that rules that outside them,” says Allspaw. “It uses light balls, which not only don’t hurt but which can’t be hit accurately at great speeds. So people who try to play Faceball in a needlessly aggressive manner find themselves losing to gentler, more accurate players, and are thus eliminated.”

The smile on Flickr community manager Heather Champ’s face suggests evil intent. Playing a Faceball derivative without chairs at a recent London gathering, Champ unleashed the blue beach ball with venom. Image: Courtesy of Tom Coates

The lady is a Champ

Faceball got its first overseas outing when Yahoo staged its London Hack Day in June. The occasion was an excuse for colleagues to slack off with a quick round of the new game. “Bunking off to play Faceball outside with the locals — outdoor, Faceball has its own peculiar set of challenges,” said Hack Day organizer Tom Coates, a Yahoo technologist. A Faceball face-off was also laid down on stage.

This one’s genuine, but some recent converts to Faceball use an unofficial application to superimpose balls onto photos. Harmless fun or cheats and frauds? Image: Courtesy of Georg Holzer.

New balls, please

At Yahoo’s London Hack Day in June, one enterprising developer engineered a hack that automatically Photoshops a ball en route to a participant’s head. If Faceball is a sport, this is like to using steroids to cheat.

“It lets some people live the dream without having to go through the hard work and training required for real Faceball competition,” Dunstan says of the hack.