Personal Business

The games people play

Ross Laver April 1 1996
Personal Business

The games people play

Ross Laver April 1 1996

The games people play

Personal Business

From solitaire to on-line chat rooms, computers have made it easy to waste time at work

Ross Laver

Among the many changes ushered in by the use of computers in the modern office, one is often overlooked: never before have so many workers wasted so much valuable time playing solitaire. Back in 1985, the software wizards at Microsoft Corp. decided to include an electronic version of the game with the company’s nowubiquitous Windows operating system—ostensibly to help neophytes learn how to point and click with a mouse. But as thousands of corporate managers have since discovered, computerized solitaire is much more than a teaching aid. For some people, it’s a serious addiction.

And card games are only the tip of the silicon iceberg when it comes to unproductive computer usage. In the pre-computer era, a worker who wanted a break from the daily grind might have grabbed a few quarters and marched down to the nearest pinball arcade. Now, that same employee can fire up a multimedia version of pinball on his desktop PC. Meanwhile, his co-workers can tee off on a leisurely round of computer golf, or pilot an X-wing fighter in a fast-paced Star Wars battle game. Hear footsteps in the hall? Simply hit the Alt-Tab keys and flip back to that boring spreadsheet you were supposed to be working on all along.

Another popular way of goofing off is to cruise the Internet and the chat rooms of the commercial on-line services, including CompuServe and America Online. “At one point this past winter I was spending six hours a day chatting to my friends on-line,” says Sorelle Saidman, a Vancouver writer and former partner in a public relations firm. “I got adept at toggling back and forth between the chat channel and my word-processing program, so I could pretend to be writing a press release if anyone came into my office.”

A few years ago, a group of California researchers came up with a name for this behavior: the futz factor. They estimated that PC users devoted an average of 5.1 hours a week to futzing with their computers—playing games, adjusting the look of their screens, sending personal e-mail and

otherwise wasting time. More conservatively, a study last year by The Gartner Group, a U.S. consulting firm, found that employees spent an average of 50 hours a year fooling around with their computers to no useful gain. “At $28 per hour,” the study concluded, “this amounts to $1,400 per employee per year.” The authors noted that while employee futzing did not originate with the introduction of computers, “the PC is a powerful enabler of this type of activity and it can lead to an infectious state of nonproductivity.”

Not every employer frowns on such frivolity. At Mackerel Inc., a software company based in Toronto, staff members frequently work off stress by playing Marathon, a violent strategy game in which players at different workstations try to kill each other with guns, flamethrowers and other weapons. “We try to keep it to two or three players at a time, but that’s only because it gets too noisy and slows down the network,” says Kevin Steele, a company founder. Cantax, a Calgary-based tax software firm, has adopted a more straitlaced policy, which prohibits the playing of computer games during normal office hours. Yet at the height of the tax season, when 15-hour days are unavoidable, “you sometimes see people staring into their screens playing mah-jongg,” says communications manager Virginia Pastway. “It’s a great way to clear your head when your brain has turned to mush.”

But what technology confers, technology can just as easily take away. Companies that don’t trust their employees to work alone at their computers can already choose from among several network products that surreptitiously scan each worker’s hard drive for games and other unauthorized applications. And next week, Torontobased SeQuel Technology plans to unveil a sophisticated new software package that will give managers the power to monitor and control their employees’ use of the Internet and other on-line services. With tools like that, corporate managers are going to find it increasingly easy to identify— and delete—computerized time wasting.