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Virtual White Elephant 101: How to host and play this holiday game virtually

By Preethi Jathanna

Senior Writer for HR and Remote Work

Virtual White Elephant

Some of the things most of us looked forward to during the holidays are gifts, food, and games. And the favorite game for those who almost always eyed somebody else’s gifts is the White Elephant. But with restrictions in place both professionally, and in family circles (no thanks to the pandemic), one thing a colleague brought up recently in a discussion was about playing virtual white elephant. 

The question is, how do you steal a gift when you can’t get to it in person?” 

Web conferencing platforms have stimulated our creativity in ways that would have been unimaginable pre-covid. We also got creative and took advantage of the internet to virtualize our beloved holiday games. Not just White Elephant, you can play almost any of the holiday-themed activities like virtual trivia, virtual White Elephant, virtual scavenger hunt, etc. virtually.

Read the article on the best virtual Secret Santa ideas to discover innovative and delightful ways to celebrate the holiday season.

So, back to the topic - your very own expert’s tips on how to play virtual White Elephant.

1. What is a Virtual White Elephant?

Virtual White Elephant means playing the game of White Elephant virtually – either over an actual White Elephant platform or over Zoom, Teams, etc. You get to exchange gifts virtually - gifts that are silly, fun, and sometimes impractical. Unlike the usual holiday gifts exchange, in White Elephant, you get to ‘steal’ someone else’s gift. What makes it fun are the gifts in themselves that can be defined as strange yet desirable.

1.1. Why is it called White Elephant?

Let us first understand what White Elephant is. The term White Elephant evolved to be known as “Useless Gift”. It originated in Siam (Thailand) where a white elephant was considered a very sacred gift but would be useless to receive one. As they were sacred, they were not allowed to work and required special treatment, food, and living space – I mean, who would want to spend that much time, money, and effort on a gift they received!

In today’s era, the game of White Elephant is played during the Holidays wherein amusing and sometimes impractical gifts are exchanged and/or stolen as a fun endeavor. For the uninitiated, please do note that this is not the actual gift exchange, but just a game.

1.2. What Is The Difference Between White Elephant and Dirty Santa?

Though both terms are used interchangeably, “White Elephant” usually refers to exchanging gag gifts for amusement, and “stealing” is optional. “Dirty Santa” however promises the game to be dirty wherein more often than not, stealing is always involved. It however includes nice, unique and valued gifts (which probably is why stealing is a part of it).

2. How do you play Virtual White Elephant?

If you are going to be the host of this virtual White Elephant, then you are in for a lot of careful planning and even more careful hosting. Here’s a handy checklist that you can refer to for online white elephant – 

2.1 Before the game

  1. Identify the players. Is it going to be your family, co-workers, or close friends? Based on that you can tweak the rules and set up to be more family-friendly, professional, or have it absolutely-no-holds-barred type.
  1. Set the price range. Ensure that the amount is feasible for everyone playing the white elephant game online. You can also mention if that budget includes shipping costs or not.
  1. Choose a platform to play online white elephant on – Zoom, Skype, Teams, whichever suits you.
  1. Collect the players’ email and addresses and maintain it on a spreadsheet for white elephant remote game.
  1. Send an invite that also includes instructions for playing the white elephant game online  -
  • The invite should include details on date, time, platform with the conference joining link.
  • Have them purchase the gift and wrap it. If it is a digital gift then they can have a pseudo-envelope ready for the purpose of the call.
  • Design the card identical to the theme of your activity and send invites to everyone over email or over messaging platforms. You can also create an event on social media and ask the players to RSVP.

2.2. During the game

  1. Gather around virtually on the D-day. 
  2. Conduct a few icebreakers to ease into the white elephant remote game
  3. Instruct everyone to have their virtual White Elephant gifts ready
  4. Choose a picking order – you can use an online randomize tool to make your job easier and to give a good visual effect.
  5. The person called out will hold up the present
  6. The recipients pick a present and the gifter opens it on video
  7. Now stealing can begin! Do note that since it is virtual, you can select members one after the other for them to choose to unwrap the next present or if they wish to steal the one in the spotlight.
  8. Keep a tab on who has stolen what, and how many times. You can also set a limit on the number of steals one participant can do.
  9. Once the game concludes, display the final list of who gets what gift and follow up with the gifter so that they send the virtual White Elephant gifts to the rightful recipients. 

If you wish to use a pictorial representation instead of actual gifts on video, you can use this brilliant virtual White Elephant template.

If you feel all this is too much work for you on a holiday, then just sign up with White Elephant Online and let everything happen through them.

3. Ground rules for Virtual White Elephant Game

It is never out of place to have ground rules for anything. Here are some basic ones to make sure everyone has fun during virtual white elephant game;

  1. Stick to the budget. Give everyone a range so that the monetary value is equalized.
  2. It might be a gag gift game, but it is still a gift. Respect the theme and the recipient
  3. The gifts should be sent only after the game is over, and not beforehand.
  4. Do not exceed the set steal numbers.
  5. You cannot steal back an item. At the same time, no player can refuse a swap completely.

4. Pro Tips! Snazzy virtual White Elephant gift ideas.

Who doesn’t love great ideas? Here is a list of unique, snazzy, and gag-gy gift ideas for your virtual White Elephant.

  1. Funny quotes coaster

For those times when you’d reach out for your coffee to calm down, and see the coaster and the calming effect is double the time faster!

  1. Star Wars chopsticks

Gift these pair of lightsaber chopsticks so they can fight over food, literally.

  1. Toothpaste bits

Helpful for those who skip brushing teeth twice a day, or are always on the run. You can also joke about people mixing up toothpaste and shaving cream tubes while trying to brush teeth while half asleep (It happens!)

  1. Moon lamp

For those cheesy lovers who claim to “bring the moon to you”. These moon lamps are dimmable and best suited for a romantic movie night, or even to those singles who wish to read under the moonlight.

  1. Toilet Night Light

If you struggle to find the toilet in the dark, these night lamps light up the bowl through motion sensors. So all you have to do is walk into the bathroom, and the path will be lit for you!

  1. Bean Boozled jelly beans

Muggle variant of Harry Potter’s Bertie Botts every flavor beans. It is always fun to pass off a fiery flavor as a sweet one and enjoy the expressions on the “victim's” face.

  1. Heat change mug

Heat brings out a different shade in a person, and it does with this mug. There are options galore to choose from - wacky, funny, movie theme, night sky, even customize it with the recipient’s face!

  1. Karaoke microphone

Connect these microphones over Bluetooth and turn any place into a mini karaoke session.

  1. Slang flashcards

Help the millennials and Gen-X catch up with today’s slang and dare them to converse with the teenagers with what they have learned.

  1. Poo-Pourri

Yep, the tagline reads “before you go”. But we have found it to be useful in many stinky situations too. The best thing we like is that you can carry it in your pocket discreetly. 

  1. Adult coloring book

Yep. NSFW. Unwind a particularly rocky day by nudging the creativity and helping to vent out at the same time.

  1. Passive Aggressive notepad

Apt for those who go on a guilt trip every time they miss something they had scheduled. Because this is sure to get further under their skin!

  1. Dad jokes book

“What do you name a camel with no humps”


And more just bad dad jokes!

  1. Funny snack & dip set

For those eccentric souls who never want normalcy. Add a bit of zing to their flair with these dino-shaped snack and dip sets. 

  1. Baguette pillow

If you know someone who bites into their pillows to scream or just because they like to eat pillows - give them the visual representation too! Or even to those who wish to take their food to bed. *wink*

  1. Cold beer vests

Best companion for those who want chilled beer, but don’t want their hands to be cold.

  1. Cocktail-inspired soaps, essential oils, and candles

Our personal favorite - for those times when you cannot have that booze, but want to soak in the smell for faux satisfaction! 

  1. Mug with a hoop

Shoot those mini marshmallows into hot chocolate, or those berries into your cereal milk bowl - we got you a hoop!

  1. Banana peel phone stand

Add some colour and fun in the life of a boring always-grey-wearing desk professional to help lighten the mood as they set their phone against a banana peel while they take their conference calls

  1. Adulting Award Ribbons

For those who excel at major adulting tasks like putting on pants, self-proclaimed beer expert, the record holder for most selfies, etc.

5. FAQ

5.1. How to play White Elephant virtually?

Virtual White Elephant can be played online through any of the web conferencing platforms like Zoom, Teams, Skype, etc. You can host your own game - Just plan it, send the invites, gather around on the scheduled date and time, unwrap, exchange, and steal gifts virtually. Once all gifts are unwrapped, you can conclude the game and then send the gifts to the respective recipients. Alternatively, you can also sign up on the White Elephant Online Platform and play from there.

5.2. How do you make White Elephant more fun?

Here are some great pointers on how to enliven your virtual White Elephant

  • Have a theme for everything – dressing up, the gifts, food & drinks, etc.
  • Have everyone ‘pinky-swear’ to keep everything a secret
  • You can have others guess your present before you unwrap it, based on the clues you provide
  • Combine it with other games like Secret Santa, Happy Hour, Murder Mystery, etc.

5.3. How much do you spend on White Elephant gifts?

It is best to gauge your group and set a price range for the gifts. Generally, in-person or virtual White Elephant gifts range from $20 - $35.

5.4. How does White Elephant end?

Technically a White Elephant game ends when a player declines to steal a gift or when all the gifts are unwrapped. But to keep it more fun, you can have a mini potluck or virtual wine tasting as the finale. You can even have the theme of the gifts to be edible gifts or cocktail gifts only, and after unwrapping and stealing, you can also have a virtual cocktail party too along with your white elephant virtual event.

5.5. How to do a online white elephant gift exchange?

To play white elephant virtually, you can use a numbered system to do a online white elephant gift exchange. Every gift is assigned a number in this process and everyone gathers together on a video conferencing call. You use a lottery system to see which gift has to be opened first . Open the gift corresponding to the number and then the players have an option to either steal the gift or move onto the next one.


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