The Games People Play In The Office

Wes Cherry was just an intern at Microsoft Corp. in 1989 when he wrote a little software program replicating the solitaire card game. He had no idea what a fuss it would cause. Designed as a diversion to make people more comfortable using Microsoft's Windows software, Solitaire has been packaged with nearly every one of the 50 million copies of Windows sold since 1990. The results have been impressive, in a way. "People waste hours and hours on it," says Cherry, now a full-time Microsoft programmer who hasn't made a dime from his creation. "I like to think that I'm partly responsible for the recession."

There are no hard-and-fast numbers estimating how much computer games cost U.S. companies in lost productivity. But some of the country's biggest employers are worried enough about electronic gold-bricking to take action: Boeing, Electronic Data Systems, and the Defense Dept., among others, have decreed formal "no games" policies; some have even gone so far as to remove Solitaire and all other games from corporate PCs.

STRESS RELIEF. Most companies have no specific policies against games, but it's clear that many office workers are using their PCs for much more than drafting memos or massaging spreadsheets. In a recent survey conducted by Information Week, a trade magazine, 90% of 200 respondents to a questionnaire said they have access to computer games in the workplace. While 28% said they almost never play games at work, 42% said they play several times a week (charts).

At Garber Travel Service Inc., the problem got out of hand. Before this year, the 500 administrative employees at the nationwide travel agency, based in Boston, simply were trusted not to play during office hours. But when Rock Blanco, director of information services, discovered several of them wasting away the day, he cracked down. "The PC is for productivity," says Blanco. "If you let people play games on them, you may as well let them insert a TV-reception board so they can watch The Beverly Hillbillies." Garber has removed all games--including Solitaire--from its 500 PCs.

Some employers actually promote games in the office to reduce stress and increase productivity. O.K., so Citicorp, DuPont Co., and their ilk aren't among them. But Pollstar magazine, a music-trade publication in Fresno, Calif., is. "I think it's a great stress reliever," says Pollstar's Ivan W. Luk, a systems administrator. Paul Dawson, a programmer at Professional Computer Systems in Littleton, Colo., agrees. He admits to switching on the games between projects. His favorite: Wolfenstein 3D, an action game set during World War II. "If you're mad at someone, you can go shoot a few German guards," he says.

Office workers, such as Dawson, represent an enormous untapped market for game makers. Microsoft now sells Entertainment Packs--which include such favorite arcade games as Asteroids, Space Invaders, and Centipede--as add-on modules to its Windows software. Although intended for home PC enthusiasts, Entertainment Packs have been a big hit with office workers because the familiar video games of the past are simple to play.

THE BOSS KEY. Some of the hottest-selling titles from computer-game maker Sierra Online Inc. are being packaged in the Take A Break! series, which aims squarely at the 9-to-5 crowd. Its recent Take A Break! Pinball runs on a PC with Windows software and mimics pinball machines of yore. The Coarsegold (Calif.) company says it's marketing the software as something to do while talking on the phone or waiting for the next project at work. Its instruction booklet tells workers that playing the game will "keep your productivity and sanity in check."

Take A Break! Pinball has another useful feature. A touch of two keys on the keyboard quickly switches the player back to the Windows screen without ending the game. This feature, called the "boss key," was popularized by Spectrum Holobyte Inc., which distributes the addictive Tetris. Tetris players know that pressing one key will transform their fun into a mock spreadsheet.

Game-playing at work may soon become a team activity. Spectrum Holobyte's Falcon 3.0 can run on a Novell NetWare network so that up to six players can compete against one another. And market leader Electronic Arts Inc. is considering development of a similar setup for its flight-simulator game. With so much fun happening on the network, who needs to hang around the water cooler?

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