Q. You have noticed several of your colleagues playing online games at work. Does this mean they are slacking off'
A. Not necessarily. Kathleen Hall, chief executive of the Stress Institute, a research organisation in Atlanta, said that just as some employees might gather at the water cooler for periodic breaks, other employees may engage in brief online game sessions as a way to recharge.
“We all love rewards,” Hall said. “Knowing you can play a game for 10 minutes if you accomplish certain tasks is a great way to motivate and get things done.”
Q. How many people are playing online games at work'
A. A 2006 study by Forrester Research estimated that four of every 10 adults in North America played online games. This summer, a survey of more than 7,000 randomly selected people by PopCap Games, a game developer in Seattle, indicated that 24 per cent of respondents said they played such games at work.
Jim Greer, founder and chief executive of Kongregate, an online game company in San Francisco, said its statistics indicate that peak game times are in the middle of the workday. Greer said that the site topped out at 8,00,000 users around 1 pm each day, and added that the site registers a significant drop-off in traffic after 5 pm. “We don’t know for certain that all of those people are at work, but most people work between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm,” he said. “You do the math.”
Q. Why have workplace games become so common'
A. Easy access, for one. Many Windows-based computers come standard with solitaire games like FreeCell. The Internet offers hundreds of other choices — from Sudoku to no-stakes poker to role-playing games like World of Warcraft, and many of these are free.
Online games in the workplace also seem to be driven by an influx of younger workers. Ken Kerr, chief executive of Kettley Publishing, a software company in Newport Beach, California, said that because many twenty-somethings grew up around Nintendo GameCubes or Sony PlayStations, they were more likely to play games as a diversion at work.
“Games are the norm for Generation X and Generation Y,” Kerr said. “Today, this is the way they live.”
Q. How have businesses responded to the trend'
A. Some companies forbid game-playing. Others have not taken a firm stance or have decided to allow some games but not others, using Internet filters to block access to some sites.
Simeon Spearman, an analyst at Social Technologies, a consulting firm in Washington, said a handful of companies had embraced the trend by setting up separate game areas.
Spearman cited Critical Mass, an interactive services firm in Calgary, Alberta, as one company that has established an entire room devoted to gaming.
He said that other businesses, including Google and the Washington law firm Banner & Witcoff, have recently done the same.
“It’s the modern-day spin on the ordinary break room,” Spearman said. “The idea is to develop a place where employees can interact with their co-workers, compete and have a short little spurt of excitement during the workday.”
Q. What are the drawbacks of these games at work'
A. For people with certain types of obsessive personalities, games can become addictive. For others, abusing the privilege of playing online games at work could start a pattern of procrastination or a recurrent struggle to concentrate and fulfil day-to-day responsibilities.
Alan Allard, president of Genius Dynamics, a training and development company in Lawrenceville, Georgia, said excessive game-playing could also hurt a worker’s reputation, particularly among colleagues who refrained from games.
“There will be people observing every move you make,” he said. “No matter what the reality might be, playing games online at work will be perceived by others as neglecting work and not being engaged.”
In some cases, particularly when users must download software to play, games can wreak havoc on a corporate network, sapping bandwidth and slowing overall performance considerably.
Q. In general, how much game-playing at work is too much'
A. That depends on the employee. For salaried workers who put in 12-hour days, it may be perfectly acceptable to take three or four breaks to stay sharp. For hourly employees, however, spending more than 10 or 15 minutes playing games at work might constitute underperformance.
John C. Beck, co-author of The Kids are Alright: How the Gamer Generation is Changing the Workplace (Harvard Business School, 2006), says that when it comes to workplace games, moderation is important.
“What might be too much for one employee may be just the right amount for someone else,” said Beck, who is also the president of Northstar Leadership Group, a management consulting firm in Phoenix. As long as employees can get their work done and do not break office rules, he said, “I don’t see much harm in it every now and again.”