FORTUNE — For years, I’ve wanted to know what it’s really like to work at one of the companies I write about. Silicon Valley, where the average software engineer pulls in $90,000 a year and where startup equity is doled out liberally, has been a bright spot in America’s bedraggled labor market. But the good pay and bleeding-edge work pales in comparison to the oft-outlandish perks.
Much has been written about Zynga, the company behind games like Words with Friends and Castleville. The company says it takes a holistic approach to looking after employees. That is far from an original idea, but Zynga’s (ZNGA) efforts are more memorable for the lengths the company goes to: free gourmet meals, massage and acupuncture sessions, capoeira classes, not to mention a beautiful, wonderland-like workplace. In return, the company reportedly expects a lot out of employees. The New York Times argued such expectations breed a tough, data-driven culture where employees log long hours.
Earlier this month, I spent a day working at the company as a CityVille copywriter for a brief taste of what “Zyngites” experience. “We are a gaming company, and we are about play,” founder and CEO Mark Pincus explained to Fortune last November. “It should be loud and raucous.” It doesn’t matter whether you’ve worked in a traditional corporate environment or shared startup workspace, Zynga’s seven-story offices, nestled in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, are striking. They remain the stuff of idle chatter, the same way Google’s (GOOG) amenities continually evoke envy and disbelief. What follows is my account of working at Zynga:
When I get in at 9:30 AM that morning, I beeline to the Blue Bottle Coffee Bar for caffeine and a small bowl of oatmeal. My first agenda item of the day is a quick orientation with Cole Medeiros, CityVille’s senior game designer, and Sammy Wegent, the game’s copywriter. For years, Medeiros worked on Mafia Wars, another Zynga property, but now lends CityVille structure by helping create quests, or optional small tasks the players can play to earn things like experience, goods, or currency.
Wegent is a newer addition to the crew with an unorthodox background. Most days, he drums up the pithy text in the game, but for years he’s worked as a comedian and improvisation performer, appearing at comedy festivals throughout the U.S. and popping up in the occasional TV commercial. As he sees it, the same comic chops he honed onstage are also what made him a prime candidate to be CityVille’s copywriter. “Being able to think spontaneously — on my feet — is important for my job,” he says.
It’s Wegent I’ll spend the rest of the day working with, crashing his desk in CityVille’s shared workspace, which occupies a large chunk of Zynga’s top floor. Game posters with tag lines like “Dude, where’s my bridge?” hang from the walls, and a brown and white dog skitters back and forth, chasing after a tennis ball with gusto.
Wegent lays out three simple tasks for me to today. First: come up with names for 20 buildings and businesses that will appear in the recently-launched expansion area, CityVille Downtown. It takes more than two hours for me to think of titles like “Woofgang’s doggie day care.” I’m bizarrely proud until I find out the same task usually takes Wegent half-an-hour. That’s when I get the sinking feeling I’m already falling behind schedule.
Still, it’s already time for a break. I run off to drawing class, barging into the studio, much to the dismay of other employees there sketching a model in frilly period garb. Pachelbel’s Canon in D plays softly while she changes pose every few minutes, too quickly for the impatient amateur in me to keep up. Twenty minutes in, I make for the door and grab a quick lunch with Chase Payne, a producer for Zynga poker.
Much has also been made of the company’s culinary offerings. In late 2010, The Wall Street Journal wrote an homage about the food there, which at the time, included fare like beef tenderloin with fig balsamic reduction. Today, it’s a Chinese takeout theme with three-cup chicken, mapo tofu, and chinese coleslaw in ginger peanut dressing. I pile food onto two plates at once — much to the quiet disdain of the tan, buff guy behind me — and realize as I chew some Mongolian beef that the quality of the food really is better than Chinese takeout in my neighborhood. (Price for the meal: $0.00.)
“How do you guys eat like this everyday?” I ask Wegent when I get back to my computer. I’m sleepy and rubbing my stomach. His secret: an in-house nutritionist he sees every other week. He keeps track of what and how much he’s eating, and she helps him stick to a reasonably-portioned diet. My secret? 5-for-$10 Weight Watchers meals from Safeway’s frozen food aisle.
Even though I should be coming up with brilliant ways to expand CityVille, I chat up Wegent instead, asking him about his work. He allots himself a strict amount of time per task, and sticks to that schedule. That’s necessary to keep up with the pace. According to him, the CityVille team sometimes cranks out twice the content other Zynga games do. He says he comes in around 10 AM and often wraps up work around 6 PM.
“You may have heard these stories about employees feeling stressed out, but honestly I’ve never felt stressed — not once,” he explains. “I can’t speak for others here, however.” In fact, Zynga sometimes lets him take two days off twice a month to travel up to L.A. for improv work. So long as he meets his deadlines, the company is supportive of his other career.
That’s when I also hear about other company benefits, including full insurance coverage for pets. (Later, when I tell my mother this, she asks why I don’t contemplate a change in careers, and whether that coverage would extend to her two 7-year-old shih-tzus.) And lest they take them for granted, Zyngites receive an annual compensation report which itemizes each perk and provides an estimate of how much they save.
Later in the afternoon, I head down to the gym and spa area. It’s time for a 15-minute back massage. When Zynga first started offering massages, booking one the day of was no problem. But now that the company has grown, employees must book days in advance now. “If you work here, you’ll be coming here all the time to get those knots taken care of,” the masseuse jokes as she painfully kneads my back like a piece of dough. Heidi, we’ll call her, sees a lot of stressed employees come and go, upwards of 15 a day. As I leave, I run into an employee who backs up her statement — he was at work until 9 the night before.
I get back more relaxed than I left, until I remember there’s an afternoon meeting to brainstorm ideas. It’s too early to know how their first expansion is doing, but the team wants to expand further and roll out new areas next year. To that end, there’s a small meeting with Wegent, Medeiros, myself, and Frances James, a member of CityVille’s Player Insights team. James recently surveyed hundreds of players to hear which features, real-world items, and landmarks they like most and now projects the results onscreen. Turns out they love bridges, cruise ships, lake front homes, even military bases and igloos, so we spend the next few minutes brainstorming potential themes that include some of them. Because I’ve been engrossed lately by a little trashy ABC show called “Revenge,” I pitch the Hamptons — Lakefront properties! Larger-than-life personalities! — which I can tell the team isn’t sold on. Other ideas are tossed around, and we’re encouraged to think downright outré because, heck, CityVille may have to go there one day.
I try catching up on work after: dashing off a few potential tag lines for expansion themes, writing “feeds,” or messages that pop up during the game. It’s not imperative I finish everything — and why would it be? I’m not actually an employee — I wrap up everything while nursing a beer served up during CityVille’s weekly Happy Hour. It’s the least I can do given that I’ve eaten half my weight in three-cup chicken and M&M’s. Wegent, whose modus operandi I’ve quickly learned is extreme optimism even in the face of questionable ideas, copy, and inquiries, basically gives me a pat on the back and says mine is a job well done.
At 6:45 PM, I say good-bye to Wegent, who promises to tell me if my dream for an Area 51 area in CityVille ever happens. (Again, questionable.) I visit the gym, where I half-heartedly lift some weights because I’ve left my running shoes at home. Several yards away, a large group in the middle of freestyle basketball roars. I pick-up some dinner to-go from the cafeteria — tri-tip steak over brown rice — and as I saunter out the door at 8, I sleepily look behind me. Is this what every day is like for the average Zynga employee? Probably not. I’ve been lucky enough to stop by for a day, without the pressures and deadlines of most. But just scratching the surface of Pincus’ playground is fine by me. In this case, a glimpse of the reality was all I needed to see.