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GET BACK TO WORK!: Employers Banning Computer Games at the Office

January 12, 1995

The state of Virginia recently suffered a high-tech headache that is striking many employers these days: computer games.

The cure turned out to be a few taps on the delete key.

When some workers complained about colleagues loafing at their keyboards playing computer solitaire, the state banned games and ordered removal of those that come with new Windows software.

As with free pencils and private telephone calls, some bosses say help yourself when it comes to computer games in the workplace. Others just say no.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. banned games nearly three years ago, mainly to save disk space, a company spokesman said.

Others fear computer viruses and lawsuits over copyright infringement if workers copy their own games onto office machines. But the reason employers cited most often for banning games was that it looks bad to customers.

A week after installing new computer software in June 1993, Boston-based Garber Travel Service yanked the games and banned all external software.

``All it took was one guy playing games, and a missed phone call or something. Someone saw him playing solitaire and so the volcano erupted,″ said Rock Blanco, who is in charge of technology for Garber, an international travel agency with 450 employees.

Blanco said the company never worried about computer games consuming work time. He estimated that far more time is lost on smoking breaks.

``If they played games as much as they smoke cigarettes, there’d be no tobacco industry,″ he said.

Nowhere is the need to look industrious taken more seriously than government.

Kentucky’s Office of Management and Budget adopted a policy last May barring its 1,700 employees from playing _ or even having _ computer games at work. Similar policies exist in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

``We’re sitting here in public offices, open to the public, and I would not want to have to explain″ someone at play, said Dalene McCann, assistant director of Kentucky’s budget office and co-author of the no-games policy.

Now Virginia’s state workforce of 110,000 people can’t play games on its 103,000 computers. Melissa Herring Dickie, deputy press secretary for Gov. George Allen, said the ban ordered a month ago by Allen’s chief of staff was a response to ``dozens of calls″ from upset workers tattling on their colleagues.

Joan Dent, head of the Virginia Governmental Employees Association, said she was unaware games were causing a ruckus. But ``we haven’t had any complaints about removing it, either.″

The games quandary literally comes with the technology.

Windows, Microsoft’s popular software for operating computers, comes with solitaire and Minesweeper, in which the user finds bombs on a grid.

Windows has included games since 1987, and objections are rare, said Brent Ethington, product manager for Windows at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash. Removing the games is easy; instructions come with the software.

``From the majority of customers we talk to, it’s not an issue,″ Ethington said.

Still, a suspicion lingers that computer games pose a distracting menace.

In a survey last year by SBT Accounting Systems of San Rafael, Calif., 6,000 computer users reported wasting an average of 5.1 hours a week on computers.

Maybe five percent of that _ 15.3 minutes _ was playing games during work hours, said David Harris, head of sales and marketing at SBT, a software publisher and management consulting firm.

The chief time-waster was waiting _ for the computer to copy a file, print a report, make a modem connection. Second was using fancy formats to enhance letters and other documents. Third was helping colleagues use their computer.

Playing games was last.

``Human beings need downtime,″ Harris said, ``and this might just be the current type of downtime.″

Meanwhile, for Virginia workers feeling game-deprived, the governor had a suggestion, Ms. Dickie said.

``If someone wanted to play solitaire,″ she said, ``they could bring in their own deck of cards to play on their lunch break.″

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