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Congress aims to halt workers' games But it's costly to block, delete computer solitaire, industry experts warn

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Congress is determined to stop federal workers playing computer solitaire on government time -- but the cure may prove more costly than the problem, industry experts warn.

Legislation poised to pass this fall would force the removal of LTC games from more than a million federally owned computers and block purchases of new computers that have games built in.

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The reason: Federal workers waste time worth $10 billion a year by playing games, Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a primary sponsor of the bill, told the Senate recently.

"These computers are for work, not fun, and the taxpayers are footing the bill for fun on the job," said the North Carolina Republican.

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But David Harris, a computer expert in San Rafael, Calif., says Congress may be headed for a big mistake.

Harris wrote a study cited by Faircloth in making a case for the game search-and-destroy mission, but he said the senator missed the point.

Federal workers waste only about 10 to 15 minutes a week playing games, not the 5.1 hours estimated by Faircloth, Harris said. The cost to taxpayers is probably closer to $40 million, he estimates.

Removing all games from federal computers would cost at least that amount initially, with significant recurring costs each year to maintain a game-free system.

Critics say there are lots of reasons why legislation aimed at forcing games off all government computers might be futile.

One big problem is finding the targeted computers.

For the Army, which has at least 750,000 computers plugged in around the world, that would be an especially daunting task.

"You'd have to go around to every single physical computer and take the games off," said Ronnie Gerstein, who oversees the Army's policy and management control. "I'd consider that a phenomenal amount of time."

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"If this is what Congress wants, I hope they do it to themselves first," she added.

There are 2.5 million government computers, and as many as 1.7 million might have games on them, Harris estimates. That includes about a million with access to the Internet, where games can be downloaded, and others with operating systems such as Microsoft Corp.'s Windows and Windows 95 that include games in the package.

Even if the games were stripped from all of these machines, there is no way to stop employees who want to reload them after they have been removed.

"You can't just add up all the computers and multiply that number by 15 minutes of deleting programs and be rid of the problem," said Bob Dornan of Federal Sources Inc., a government-computer consulting firm.

Next roadblock: You've found the computer, and you're looking at all the files on it. But how do you know which ones are games?

You don't know, warned Jerry Slaymaker, who is in charge of all Environmental Protection Agency computers. Some games' file names won't indicate that they are games.

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Employees can also rename games with a file name that could make it look like a work-related document.

Furthermore, requiring federal computer suppliers to delete the games before delivery could increase costs in the future. Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray declined to set a dollar amount, but he said there would be a cost involved if the government required his company to deliver operating software without games.

Faircloth acknowledged these shortcomings, but he stands by his bill.

"This isn't going to solve all the management problems of the federal government, but it sends a message to taxpayers that we're trying," he said.

Pub Date: 8/04/97


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