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Sounds of gunfire and maniacal screams emanate from the engineering department. From somewhere among the cubicles, a gravelly voice says: "I'm coming after you, and I got a big gun."
But there's no lunatic loose in the corridors. It's just Rod Corder's team of engineers playing their favorite computer network game, a gut-wrenching science fiction combat free-for-all known as Doom.
"It's our way of dealing with stress," said Corder, co-founder of the computer components manufacturer and vice president of engineering. "We work at 90 m.p.h all day long. The games keep us working after hours."
Companies like Corder's see the benefits of computer games in the workplace. But many others say unchecked gaming can kill productivity, consume computing resources and even hurt a firm's image. Critics, who are viewed as party poopers by the advocates of game playing, also say computer games encourage addictive behavior and shoddy work habits.
"The corporate environment doesn't tolerate game playing for very long," said Richard Weinberg, a psychologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa who authored a report on computer games. "It doesn't pay to pay people to play."
Many companies have begun to create policies to control game playing, especially since Doom surfaced last December as a cult hit at computer firms, which have been especially prone to employee game playing.
The trend has grown because of changing technology. Unlike the older centralized mainframe computers, where an administrator could monitor every task being performed throughout a network, inexpensive networks of PC's allow employees to load and use their own software. Such PC's can play the same games as home PC's but with even better results, because they are more powerful.
And, played on these powerful machines, the games are also more realistic, and therefore potentially more addictive. New technologies and cheaper computer horsepower mean that multimedia games often appeal to adults as much as children.
At some companies, there is no debate. Once games are discovered, they're dumped in the electronic equivalent of the garbage can.
Turn your back, some bosses believe, and everyone from executives to clerks will play computer games. Some people say they get more satisfaction from games than their jobs.
American workers typically spend half a billion hours a year playing computer games at a cost of $10 billion in lost productivity, according to SBT Corp., a San Rafael, California, accounting firm that surveyed 6000 employees.
"The PC is like TV," said David Harris, SBT vice president. "It's whatever you make of it. It can be used for education, but many people are using it to goof off."
Simply banning computer games, however, isn't going to produce a dramatic gain in productivity, according to Sabine Helmers, an anthropologist at the Social Science Centre in Berlin who is studying computers in the workplace. Removing games can be perceived as an "act of distrust" that strains relations between managers and subordinates, she said.
"Was there no waste of time before the introduction of computers at the workplace?" Helmers asks. "The best way [to deal with game playing] seems to be to find out how to motivate people enough that they will find it more interesting to do their job than to play a dull computer game."
"On top of that, Helmers said, employers should consider the psychological boost that comes from game playing, rather than just fret about lost productivity. In any case, game playing is often a fad that runs its course quickly.
Using such arguments, many companies with laid-back management styles justify game playing. It is part of the milieu at places where fun policies, such as casual wear on Fridays, are welcome.
Sometimes, games can even be good for business.
Greg Arbuckle, 50, loves playing a tank battle game called Spectre VR during work hours. Players control tanks and shoot each other on a futuristic battlefield.
Arbuckle can get away with it because he's the owner of Arbuckle's Tattoo and Piercing Emporium in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In fact, Arbuckle said he has found that game playing helps draw a crowd to his store.
"I let our employees and our customers play the game with their own discretion," he said. "Sometimes we stay after work playing it for three or four hours. We have to stop and help customers when they come. But this passes time when it's slow."
Banned or not, gaming is considered a sanity saver by some beleaguered white-collar employees in Orange County's high-tech entrepreneurial belt.
"Playing games [after hours] is a kind of benefit here," says Richard Nadolny, a technical writer at NetSoft Inc. in Aliso Viejo in south Orange County. "People work here because they like an environment where you can wear tie-dye shirts. We don't have to come here, punch a clock and have our calls monitored. We do get our work done."
The latest gaming rage at TouchStone Software Corp. in Hungtington Beach isn't as violent as at New Media Corp. Nonetheless, it produces screaming; programmers have taken to nightly bouts with the network version of the card game Hearts. Sigmund Fidyke, TouchStone's vice president of development, says he joins the electronic card games because it builds team spirit.
As a salaried employee, Tam Pham, TouchStone's head programmer, doesn't get overtime pay when he and colleagues work late to meet a deadline. Thus, games are considered a fringe benefit when he has to stay beyond the typical 9-to-5 schedule.
Like many others, Pham picked up his computer game addiction in college; he used to skip classes to play so-called dungeon games with other students around the world via the global communications network known as the Internet. (Australia and some universities have banned multi-player dungeon games because they consumed too much of computing resources.)
Pham says he has tamed his obsessive side, but he still likes to play games because it soothes him so he can return to a frustrating problem with a fresh viewpoint.
Fidyke, Pham's boss, buys that argument, but other managers view such explanations as mere excuses for goofing off.
"I won't tolerate it because it sends the wrong message about what we're about," said Ken Forbes, president of Adaptive Software Inc. in Irvine. "If I allowed it, they would think I was playing gamed behind closed doors too."
A former Marine, Forbes said he likes to set a good example for his staff.
Managers have a good legal case against game-playing employees, said Howard Derman, an Irvine human resources consultant.
Derman said companies can argue that game playing is improper use of company equipment, an abuse of company time, harmful to the corporate image and even that it promotes potentially addictive behaviour.
Ron Seide, marketing manager for Kingston Technology Corp. in Fountain Valley, said games were not an issue at the computer board manufacturer until pirated games played during office hours introduced destructive computer viruses. Within weeks, all games were banned.
"Of course, not everyone goes along," he said. "But we do deal with the most egregious violations. In our case, the viruses brought the issue to the forefront and spoiled it for everyone."
Shaun, a clerk at a firm in New Zealand, said he played dungeon games on the Internet for 14 hours a day - starting at home in the morning and continuing at work - until his supervisor took away his account. Now he plays at home on a personal account that cuts off his access after 90 minutes of play.
Industrial psychologist Nancy Haller, president of Applied Psychometrics, a management consulting firm in San Diego, said one client played games at the office so often that it interfered with her work. Such behaviour is clearly addictive, she said.
"It gives her a sense of mastery when nothing else seemed like it was under control," Haller said. "It's an escape and a way to avoid issues."
Yet Haller stresses that not all game players are addicts. If the game playing doesn't affect work performance, it can be positive.
Today's managers also must deal with such other modern obsessions as employees who dial into computer bulletin boards to chat with people around the world, gaze at X-rated pictures on the Internet, and play adventure games over phone lines. Such activities, while seemingly benign, can expose the company to sexual harassment lawsuits or other liabilities. Overall, computer-related distractions can cost companies as much as $100 billion in productivity a year, according to the SBT survey.
The growth of games at work also reflects greater stress at the office. Under pressuer, addiction-prone people resort to games as an easy way to let off steam at their desks, said Joseph Cassius, a Memphis, Tenn., psychologist who has studied computer addictions and is co-author of the study "How Games Play People."
"For workers, it's a way of escaping from society," he said. "During working hours, employers have expectations and some people will rebel. It's hard to control everything that goes on in the workplace."
Because of the spread of PC networks into offices, game playing is no longer just the domain of programmers. Travelling salespeople can while away the hours on planes and in airports with the games stored on their laptop computers. They can play with no fear of being monitored.
Secretaries taking a break from word processing can pull up a game of Solitaire or Minesweeper, in which a player tries to uncover hidden land mines without being blown up. The games are standard programs in Microsoft Corp.'s Windows and Windows for WorkGroups office software packages.
Microsoft maintains that it isn't undermining its own productivity software. The free games it includes teach workers how to use a computer mouse and take the fear out of computing, said Tony Garcia, product manager of Microsoft's entertainment unit.
Companies' computer network administrators often serve as enforcers. Using special programs, they can detect which employees store games on their PC's. They can erase the games, but workers then sometimes find another way to hide them. This cat-and-mouse game goes on for a while until the employee gets the message: Quit playing or be fired.
People at offices have learned to be sly. They can use programs that have a "boss key', or a button that instantly switches the computer screen from a game to a work program when the boss comes near.
"It's something that management usually doesn't know about," said Tom Craft, president of T & T Research Inc., a computer engineering firm in Irvine. "Some of our people who left were pretty tricky. We didn't know they the games on their disk drives until they left."
Even game companies - where playing games can be considered research - have rules. At Interplay Productions In. in Irvine, playing games by modem, which results in hefty phone bills, isn't permitted.
"We let the employees play games as much as the boss plays games," joked Alan Pavlish, executive producer at the multimedia game company.
Pavlish uses the honor system. His employees are expected to play games only if it helps them professionally. If they play for fun, they are expected to do it on their own time.
The computer game companies say they are not conspiring to destroy American productivity. But some, like Id Software, have benefited from targeting games at the workplace.
Microsoft's Garcia says the next version of Windows will also have a game in it. He believes network games are a good testing ground for the interactive games that will be distributed on the information superhighway.