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Shall We Play A Game? -- Congress Can Ban Games, But Staffers Will Find New Ways to Waste Time

Guest Column Jim Berry

American bureaucrats have a new distraction in the workplace. Along with hanging out at the office water cooler and taking extra-long coffee breaks, our nation's bureaucrats have discovered a new way to waste time and taxpayer money. As the personal computer has become an essential tool for people in the workplace, computer gaming has become a savior for lazy government employees and a headache for bosses.

Thank goodness for federal regulation. Over the summer, Senator Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina (R) proposed an amendment to a Senate appropriations bill that would eliminate all computer games in the federal workplace and ban the purchase of computers with pre-installed games. According to The New York Times, Faircloth was outraged at the amount of time that his staff spent playing computer games. He responded with the amendment, which passed the Senate unanimously. A conference committee is currently deciding whether to include it in the final bill.

What motivated the first-term North Carolinian to propose such legislation? At first glance, the move seems like an easy way to gain recognition. Faircloth and his colleagues in the Senate would lead one to believe that the government is "getting tough" on federal employees. Through disallowing computer games, they are forcing employees to be productive and will save billions of dollar s in taxpayer money.

Perhaps the first-term senator from North Carolina may be all too eager to pad his resume for his re-election bid in 1998. The legislation is merely enforcing the idea that government employers are incompetent at overseeing their employees' activities. There is no reason Faircloth couldn't have made his staff stop wasting time without proposing federal legislation. In the private sector, if you're not productive, you're fired.

What's startling about the legislation is that an anti-big government Republican has proposed a bill that would only add to a growing amount of government regulation of the workplace. Even more bothersome is that apparently Faircloth is not the only one in the Senate who can't handle his staff. The amendment passed the Senate unanimously, gaining full support from Democrats and Republicans alike. This move brings to our attention the unsettling reality that, whatever they may say, no one in the Senate is really committed to cutting down on government size and regulations.

It doesn't make sense that banning computer games in the workplace will somehow cause federal employees to stop wasting time. While the amendment eliminates one workplace distraction, no doubt government workers will find another. They will merely find substitutes for their all-too frequent breaks of Minesweeper, Internet-surfing, and use of personal e-mail. It would certainly be absurd if Faircloth proposed federal regulations on all types of workplace activities, from coffee breaks to trips to the bathroom. However, after noting the broad support for Faircloth's amendment, we can't eliminate such action from the realm of possibilities.

Here at MIT, there is no dearth of opportunity to slack. Every workstation on campus contains tons of games to choose from. It is also true that students here (author included) spend countless hours playing them. But at MIT, we are faced with a problem: Waste too much time, and grades suffer. We are measured by the quality of the work we do; no one looks over our shoulder to force us to be productive. Failing classes can be a direct consequence of spending too much time playing the games. People here understand that, and usually it dissuades us from wasting too much time in front of the computer screen.

Why can't government work that way? If employees aren't producing, they should be disciplined or fired. Employers, government included, who already face a slew of labor regulations don't need to be burdened further with more rules and red tape. They should be responsible for making their own rules. Besides, computer games can be a way to relax in the middle of a stressful day at work. Some employers feel that a limited amount of computer games actually helps their employees stay productive.

Through related appropriations legislation, Congress is trying to sneak in a modest 2.3 percent pay raise, its first since 1993. It's absurd that they would tack on to the same legislation an amendment that shows their inability to run their individual offices. They certainly don't deserve any extra money if they have to pass a federal law every time they need to discipline their staff members. Perhaps they should take an example from MIT: If staff members don't produce, kick them out.

Our legislators need to learn to run their offices efficiently. That they can't handle their staffs undermines public trust and brings into question how well they can run our country. Federal employees need real consequences for not being productive, like the rest of us here in the real world. They certainly don't need legislation to tell them how to waste their time.

Jim Berry is a member of the Class of 1999.