Over-the-top violence in such video games as Mortal Kombat and Doom drew hand-wringing moral outrage from worrywart parents and government scolds throughout the ’90s. Minesweeper—in which players click around a rectangular grid of squares trying to avoid hidden mines, using logical rules to interpret numbers—seemed like it should be safe from controversy.
Yet somehow the game was central to a minor moral panic that formed around pre-installed computer games as Windows spread through offices in the ’90s. Together, Minesweeper and Solitaire were seen as an unwelcome office distraction at best and a dire threat to worker productivity at worst.
That fearful response didn’t start right away, as Minesweeper didn’t receive much critical attention during its initial release in 1990. Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card came closest to predicting the moral panic to come. In a 1991 Compute! magazine story, he called Minesweeper “the most diabolically addictive game I’ve seen lately.” He recommended the game only to Windows owners who had “enough iron self-control to get your real work done before you play.”
Themes of addiction and self-control would become common among writers exposed to Minesweeper in the years to come. Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, for instance, wrote in 2004 that she used Minesweeper as a replacement addiction when she was trying to quit smoking. (She went on to boast that she had “become rather good” and achieved a record of 101 seconds on the expert level.)
And among a certain segment of America’s leadership class, the conventional wisdom was that Minesweeper, Solitaire, and other similar computer games were responsible for billions of dollars in stolen wages and wasted taxpayer dollars. More than that, the games themselves became symbols of the anxiety some felt about how quickly the computer revolution was changing how Americans worked and lived.
Worries about workers using paid time to goof off predate the personal computer revolution, of course. President Bill Clinton reportedly didn’t need a computer to shirk his duties. A 1997 Associated Press report relayed a rumor that he was “addicted to solitaire, albeit the old-fashioned…version played with actual cards.” A New York Times story that same year placed the presence of computer games at work in “a grand tradition of employee behavior that includes playing cards, lingering at the water cooler, and making personal calls.”
Around the same time, former Office of Management and Budget official Franklin S. Reeder told The Washington Post that in the 1960s, “many agencies did not give employees a telephone connected to an outside line” because of worries about workers making personal calls. That policy changed, Reeder said, “in part because officials acknowledged that workers should be treated as responsible adults and because it made no sense to have people leaving their desks to find pay phones when faced with child-care or auto repair concerns.”
For many ’90s companies, though, the idea of employees as responsible adults didn’t seem to register. Not when faced with the prospect of pre-installed computer games on every desk.
The department store Sears Roebuck had all built-in games deleted from its employees’ Windows machines, telling The Wall Street Journal in 1994 that it “blam[ed] employees playing computer games for tying up its internal computer network.” (Sears gave a different story to the Charleston Daily Mail, saying the move was “mainly to save disk space.” That seems like a red herring, considering how little disk space the games actually required.)
Boeing, Ford, and Aetna were among the national conglomerates that followed Sears’ lead, alongside untold small businesses dotting the country. Boston’s Garber Travel Services went one step further, deleting Windows’ built-in drawing program, Paint, from 700 company computers. I have to wonder if pens and paper were similarly barred because they might also encourage employees to doodle on company time.
The syndicated cartoonist Tom Toles addressed the anxiety in a cartoon titled “Government Efficiency Report.” In the first panel, a ’70s functionary is shown playing solitaire with a real deck of cards at “six games an hour.” In the next panel, a ’90s worker sits at a computer where he can play as many as “17 games an hour” of Windows Solitaire.
For a generation used to conducting business with typewritten memos, these games contributed to a sense of unease over these new machines invading workers’ desks. While computers were sold to corporations throughout the ’90s as an (expensive) way to make workers more efficient, the built-in games were held up as prime evidence that these interlopers were actually reducing efficiency.
“Sad but true, the computer, which is supposed to make us so much more productive, is filled with impediments to productivity,” OfficeSolutions magazine’s Edwin Powell wrote. “Whose brilliant idea was it to include games like Solitaire and Minesweeper as part of the Windows operating system?”
The Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen wrote in 1997 of a study showing that computers did little to increase worker productivity. To be fair to Cohen, this was when computers were still relatively expensive, largely nonportable, and harder to network together. In the years since, other studies have shown that investing in more modern computers can supercharge office productivity.
Still, Cohen was firmly among the skeptics regarding computing’s effect on the workplace. “We can talk about the computer revolution,” he wrote, “but if you ask people what they did during it, they will not answer as Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes answered [in the midst of the French Revolution] when asked what he had done during the Terror: ‘I survived.’ Instead, they will say, ‘I was playing Minesweeper.'”
Attempts to quantify the size of the “computer games at work” problem throughout the ’90s generated a wide range of estimates. A study by the research and consulting firm Gartner, quoted by The Wall Street Journal in 1994, suggested that computer games as a whole cost 26 million hours of employee time, worth almost $750 million a year. A 1993 survey of 6,000 computer users by SBT Corp. estimated America’s total “wasted” work time at a whopping 500 million hours annually, representing $10 billion of wages.
But things seem much less dire when you dive deeper into the computer habits of the estimated 40 million Windows-equipped workers of the mid-’90s.
In the SBT survey, for instance, surveyed workers spent an average of only “15.3 minutes per week on games during work hours.” Most of the hours of total “wasted” computer time came from other tasks, according to the study, such as “waiting for the computer to copy a file, print a report, make a modem connection…using fancy formats to enhance letters and other documents [and] helping colleagues use their computer.”
Employers still offered plenty of anecdotal reports that removing games helped their office productivity. The Tulsa lawyer Ken Bodenhammer told ABA Magazine in 2000 that “we decided to take all games off the computers; we did that and found that we are getting about 30 percent more work out.”
But reading through contemporaneous coverage, it’s also easy to find managers who were skeptical that a crackdown on games was the key to improving employee performance. “I don’t think it corrupts anyone who isn’t already on the delinquent side,” Marty Engle of the Ballston Center for Computer Training told The Washington Post in 1994. “You have to ask: Would the same guy be doodling or talking on the phone? Would he be picking his nose or what? He would have wasted time in some other way.”
“Most people are so busy they barely have time to eat lunch, let alone play Solitaire,” Douglas Stewart, a consultant with the Institute for Business Technology, told Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper in 1997. While Stewart added that “he’d rather see people out taking a walk,” he admitted that “if they choose to rest their weary brains while playing Minesweeper, then Minesweeper serves a perfectly good function.”
Social scientists who looked into the issue also found some evidence that removing games from office computers could be counterproductive. “Simply banning computer games…isn’t going to produce a dramatic gain in productivity,” Sabine Helmers, an anthropologist at the Social Science Centre in Berlin, told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. That’s because “removing games can be perceived as an ‘act of distrust’ that strains relations between managers and subordinates.”
Some studies even showed benefits from occasional office game playing. A 2003 study in the Netherlands found that it could increase productivity and job satisfaction. Frank Henninger, director of the American Studies program at the University of Dayton, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1995 about research showing that games taught important business skills. “Minesweeper, which provides clues that lead to the location of mines, teaches logic,” he said. “Even Solitaire, a game of cards, sharpens the mind.”
Rather than risk employee ire, some managers seemed content to let the new fad burn itself out. By 1997, Computerworld was quoting Ken Lemons, Global Management Systems’ director of business development: “We’re actually seeing a decrease in the playing of games where they’re available. You can only play so much Solitaire.”
Away from the private sector, jurisdictions large and small ordered games removed from government offices. For some of these agencies, the worry about built-in Windows games was as much about appearances as it was about actual misuse of tax-funded equipment.
“If taxpayers walk into offices and see this, they’ll wonder, rightly, what the hell is going on,” Syracuse, New York, Finance Commissioner John White told the A.P. in 1997. Dalene McCann of Kentucky’s budget office struck a similar note in another A.P. story two years earlier: “We’re sitting here in public offices, open to the public, and I would not want to have to explain” an employee at play.
When Virginia Gov. George Allen ordered games removed from all 103,000 state government computers in 1995, there were some signs that the state was singling out computer games over other ways of wasting time in the office. Deputy Press Secretary Melissa Herring Dickie suggested to the A.P. that if workers “wanted to play solitaire, they could bring in their own deck of cards to play on their lunch break.” It’s not immediately clear why physical cards would be a preferable way to waste time, but the implication was clear: When it comes to workplace distractions, there’s a hierarchy of virtue, and computer games were at the bottom.
The federal government wasn’t immune to the anti-game fervor. The Labor Department issued a game ban after a 1995 visit from the Office of the Inspector General, issuing a staff-wide memo that bluntly declared: “The playing of computer games is simply not in the interest of government, and games should be removed from all computers.” The Justice Department imposed a sweeping ban, then partially rolled it back after what Computerworld described as “workers hoot[ing] and howl[ing] and rant[ing] and rav[ing] until they got their way.” One Justice Department contractor told the magazine, “You can’t discipline attorneys. They’re out of control.”
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, there were attempts to remove Solitaire, Minesweeper, and their ilk from every federal computer. Those efforts were led by North Carolina Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth, who introduced the Responsive Government Act in 1997. The bill’s chief purpose was to ensure that government agencies provide a real, live human being to answer phone calls during business hours. But tacked at the end was a “prohibition of Computer Game Program[s]” from all federal computers. That would mean the removal of such games within 180 days of passage, a ban on the installation of any game (except those “required for the official business of the agency”), and the “prohibition of agency acceptance of computer equipment with computer game programs.”
That last clause would have been a headache for Microsoft, which would have had to provide a game-free version of Windows to work with government contractors (or for the I.T. managers who’d have to remove Solitaire and Minesweeper from every government Windows installation). Luckily for the company, and for lightly loafing federal workers everywhere, the Responsive Government Act never became law.
By the turn of the millennium, desktop internet access had largely replaced casual Windows games as the productivity-killing boogeyman of choice. And in the gaming realm, moral crusaders gave more and more attention to concerns over kids’ exposure to violent and sexual content in the likes of Mortal Kombat or Grand Theft Auto.
But if nothing else, the widespread worries about Minesweeper and its ilk throughout the ’90s shows that fears over video games’ impacts extended to adults as well as children.