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

Share story

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

The game, of course, is solitaire.

Goofing off on the cubicle computer may be today’s version of the coffee break.

But now some North Carolina lawmakers want the fun and games to stop — at least on company time.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Saying state 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.

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 in North Carolina, though perhaps rare in its specificity, is part of a behind-the-scenes battle over personal time that’s affecting not just state workers in North Carolina but workers all over the nation.

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.

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 who have allowed technology to reshape their lives.

On one end was the image of PlayStation-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.

Research done by the IRS has shown that more than 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.

“If you go back to the middle of the 19th century and the writings of Karl Marx, workers under the factory system would lose a considerable amount of their identity and a sense of ownership with what they were doing,” says Bill Snizek, a work sociologist at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg.

“What employers today have to decide is whether permitting employees at certain prescribed times to gain some amount of psychic enjoyment by playing games will make up for some of the lost identity and pride in work.”

A central question is whether playing a hand or two of solitaire has a dramatic effect on the bottom line — or if it actually helps productivity by giving workers a low-stress outlet in otherwise frantic days.

IT workers in North Carolina say lawmakers are playing the wrong hand.

Calling the proposed law a slap in the face, they say it plays into what they say are undeserved stereotypes of bureaucrats doing their jobs with blank faces and zombielike shuffling across the floor. Now, say some, government is doing what private industry has long practiced: expecting more work from fewer workers. That leaves little time in the workday for twiddling thumbs.

Labor experts say the efficiency tack is reminiscent of factory-efficiency studies in the 1920s, where analysts tried to break down the mechanics of assembly-line behavior — why does it take a certain amount of time for a worker to tighten a bolt?

“Managers lost sight that workers are real people, not robots,” says Scott Kirwin, the founder of the IT Professionals Association of America in Wilmington, Del.

“Managers, and in this case politicians, don’t know how to effectively utilize the people they’re in charge of — and that’s one cause of offshoring these jobs,” he says. “… If someone is so bored that playing solitaire is stimulating, then the problem is not with the game, it’s with the job.”