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Is that a spreadsheet on your screen - or solitaire?

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 18, 2005


In the computer era, one game is ubiquitous, a humble standard on nearly every computer in the halls of international commerce.

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The game, of course, is solitaire.

Here in North Carolina, the perennial favorite that was adapted so beautifully for the little screen has become a flash point between taxpayers and state employees. Goofing off on the cubicle computer may be today's version of the coffee break. But now some state lawmakers want the fun and games to stop - at least on company time. Saying taxpayers would be "outraged" to know how much work time is frittered away by insurance-commission secretaries and DMV employees honing their solitaire and Mine Sweeper skills on the state's 50,000 computers, Catawba County Republican Sen. Austin Allran has sponsored what may be the country's first anti- solitaire legislation.

Senator Allran wants the state to erase the free game modules from all its computers - the digital version of throwing the deck in the trash can. The plan, he says, will save taxpayers millions in gained productivity - not to mention soothing their angst over secretaries and executives' long hours clicking digital decks.

The solitaire crackdown here, though perhaps rare in its specificity, is part of a behind-the-scenes battle over personal time that's affecting not just unionized state workers in North Carolina, but sales reps in Washington and phone-bank workers in San Francisco. It goes straight to the issue of distractions from long days at the office and, more fundamentally, how much of their employees' time and concentration employers can reasonably expect to own.

For many companies, workers' habits of playing computer games like solitaire are an outrageous affront: Employees, they insist, don't get paid for sorting Jacks from Kings and Queens. But for the country's burgeoning crop of workers who spend their days staring into computer screens, the notion of taking personal downtime on the company machine - and the company dime - can be an expression of individuality in a world where work and play are increasingly blurred. And sometimes, they say, it's the only way to muddle through the daily grind.

"We can't expect people to be saints in the office, but once the fingers have been pointed and the accusations made, there does have to be a standard established for how people use software games and when they use them," says Peter Sepp, a vice president at the National Taxpayers Union in Alexandria, Va.

A question of balance

The solitaire flap, experts say, is a spasm of a corporate and bureaucratic culture struggling to come to terms with the role of America's newest worker class, the information-technology (IT) professional. It's an army of foot soldiers that has allowed technology to reshape its lives. On one end was the image of Play Station-toting dot-commers in the mid-1990s. Now the pendulum has swung the other way, some experts believe, as cellphone usage is curtailed, personal e-mail at work is under fire, and politicians are worrying about the games workers play.

Beverly Burris, a sociologist at the University of New Mexico, says she has tracked an anecdotal increase in restrictions on e-mail use at work in cities from Washington to San Francisco.

In Las Vegas, for instance, an industrial supplier restricts the use of company cellphones to business matters and audits employees' cellphone bills.

And in the Meat Grading & Certification section of North Carolina's Agriculture Department, a local directive is already in place to discourage goofing off. "Each division already has their own policies on game-playing," says one employee, who did not want to give her name.

But research done by the IRS has shown that over 50 percent of the time an IRS employee goes on a computer, he or she also hooks up to the Internet to shop, gamble or play games.