Are federal workers playing games just for fun?

Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-Colo.) and Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) have decided to
rid the federal government of the pestilence of computer games. Section 639 of S 1023, the
fiscal 1998 Treasury, Postal Service and General Government appropriations bill, directs
heads of federal agencies to remove computer games not required for official business from
agency computers and prohibit their installation on such computers.


Apparently word has gotten to the Hill that federal employees have been playing
computer games. They can be addictive time-wasters, something agencies can little afford
given the budgetary belt-tightening we've seen the past decade or so. Now supervisors will
have the force of law on their side.


The bill also amends the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949 to
prohibit heads of executive agencies from accepting delivery of information technology
loaded with game programs not required for official purposes. But the legislation waives
the prohibition if an agency head certifies to Congress that costs of compliance outweigh
the benefits.


It looks like Bill Gates will suffer his first software setback when solitaire and
Tetris become extinct in the federal workplace. Intended to educate computer-reluctants to
the joys of the Microsoft Windows user interface, these games have become mainstays on
bureaucratic desktops across government--and across corporations, too.


This legislative counteroffensive against lost productivity is certain to succeed. The
provisions are sponsored by two influential senators as part of a major appropriations
bill for several agencies, including the Executive Office of the President. Facing certain
ridicule, few if any agencies will attempt the cost-benefit analysis route. So prepare to
bid adieu to those trusty old friends that helped you wind down from those stressful staff
meetings.


Although the judiciary is technically not covered by this legislation, the
Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts tends to follow the executive branch's practices.
Apparently, only Congress will allow its employees to fritter their time away playing
computer games.


Not even powerful Microsoft Corp. would dare lobby on behalf of bureaucrats who goof
off while at work. Besides, Bill Gates has won the battle for the desktop over the more
intuitive Apple user interface. For a measly $150 million donation to ailing Apple
Computer Inc., Gates widens Microsoft's domination of the desktop. Even the Europeans with
their unique view of monopolies have been remarkably silent.


The European Community is more demanding than the United States that monopolies should
be opposed, even if they occur naturally. My guess is Microsoft will stop shipping games
with its operating systems but make them available free from its World Wide Web site.


Thus computer game addicts will be only temporarily thwarted. The smart ones will hide
their games while the novices will switch to the Web for ways to waste time. Supervisors
will still need to wander around to see what's on their employees' computer screens.


Soon we may see a new generation of educational software to replace the old standbys.
Here is a new market niche for Broderbund and others to cater to the desires of bored
bureaucrats. How could Congress object to games that teach how bills are made into law?
How could supervisors rail against software that taught English and writing skills in a
playful and entertaining manner? Even the Justice Department recently released a computer
game that teaches government ethics.


The boundary between computer games and computer-assisted education will become
increasingly fuzzy. Fortunately, the legislation does not define what a game is, leaving
that to the common sense of federal managers. So if solitaire is out, will Sim Health be
in at the Health Care Financing Administration? Will Tetris be shunned at the Air Force in
favor of Terminal Velocity? Will the Park Service try to subvert the commercial
proclivities of the Forest Service by sending free copies of Sim Park into the woods?


You can argue that computer programming is a game of skill between the programmer and
the computer with the compiler syntax as the rules of play. Others see the stock market as
a high stakes game. The automobile and entertainment industries have made their living
catering to the fantasies of otherwise sane adults.


No reason why the computer game folks can't respond to the senators with creativity and
enterprise.


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at www.cpcug.org/user/houser.


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