Lauren works the late shift. In countries that span more than one time zone, the 9-5 of the daily business shuffle gets padded on either end. As an East Coast worker, Lauren’s shift starts later and ends later, accommodating the 9-5 of her West Coast customers and colleagues.

One day, after putting in a solid half-day of work, Lauren pulled her lunch from her desk drawer and munched away for a full hour while playing a game at www.freearcade.com. Unable to install anything on her computer because of locks put in place by the system administrator (heck, her computer didn’t even have a CD-ROM drive), online games were her salvation. When her hour was up, she went back to work, uninterrupted until late in the afternoon.

“Lauren, can you come by my office when you have a minute?” The classic line from her admittedly classic boss stopped her heart mid-beat.

“Sure.”

A few minutes later, she walked into her boss’ office and closed the door behind her.

“Hi, Lauren. Nothing big, don’t worry. It’s just that we had a senior manager here in from another department today, and, well … it doesn’t look good to have employees playing games in the middle of the afternoon. I know it was your lunch, but … if you could not play anymore that’d be great.”

My Bill Lumberg-esque paraphrasing aside, his point was clear: Playing was off limits because of the image (that of perennial symbiosis of gaming and goofing off) it conjured. The effect is similar to that of a dress code violation, whereby the mere visual presence of something seemingly unprofessional is perceived as detrimental to the company.

If your job involves continuous work where you chip away at what can be likened to a self-regenerating iceberg (perhaps a large call center), your time spent playing is time you could have spent taking calls, which overflow onto your colleagues. Yes, you’re welcome to take breaks from time to time. But if there’s any kind of rush, you know that your colleagues are suffering, and you can help, but you don’t. The situation is the same for any kind of break, but the guilt is that much more painful when you’re playing.

One day, at my old job I created a miniature version of my work station – out of office supplies – during my lunch break. I made my desk from a big white eraser, and constructed myself out of pushpins, scotch tape and paperclips. Most of the people who didn’t explicitly say, “Boy, you really have too much free time here,” showed it in their faces as they walked by. Interestingly, as much as your boss may be irritated by your fun, there’s a good chance your colleagues will be, too. Put simply, if you’re having a good time while they’re working, it’s hard to avoid friction.

But if your job is project-oriented, or your employer has decided that a certain result is worth a certain amount of money if achieved by a certain deadline, they may just allow you to play whenever you want – as long as you get the job done. Most jobs (and most employers) don’t work this way though, believing work performed during work hours is more valuable, and what you’re being paid for.

But is it? Theoretically, you are hired because a trickle down effect of your work generates enough money for the company to justify your salary. But for a given day’s work, this trickle down effect isn’t necessarily visible. As such, other, more practical measures are in place. So what, then are you actually paid for? In a sense, the company has bought your time. But then again, a project can exceed an allotted time-frame. Maybe, then, you are paid simply for results. But in that case, you should be able to spend as much time playing games as you like, as long as you produce. Maybe it’s a question of effort. Maybe it’s a combination of all of these, and more?

The definitions are fuzzy, and lead to misunderstanding. At the end of the day, the parameters are shifted in such a way that the company gets the most out of you. Case in point, many employment contracts include a company’s right to ownership over ideas you come up with on the job. But who really owns the rights to this “brain real estate”? In a multi-tasking day with a thousand connected thoughts, what is theirs, and what is yours? What about an idea you have for the company while lying in bed one night? Who owns that idea?

Setting the debate of appearances and brain real estate aside, there’s still something special about Lauren’s situation. There was no claim to be made that these games were going to help or hurt her work. This was her unpaid lunch hour. Why would an hour of gaming at lunch at your desk not be permitted when going home for lunch and playing there is?

I decided speak to a senior manager at Lauren’s company about this paradox. “Conversations around the cooler, smoke breaks, long lunches, personal phone calls, leaving early to pick up your kids: all OK.” he said stoically. “But two minutes of ‘beep beep’ at lunch time and you are a slacker.” His words confirmed my suspicions: None of those “acceptable” practices make it look like you aren’t working. If you’re not there, you can’t look like you’re actively slacking; if you’re on the phone, it could very well be with a client; but playing a game is a clear visual sign that you’re doing something else.

Other problems associated with the five-minute and lunch time gamer were explained to me by our company’s system administrator. Despite being a gamer himself, he was obstinately against allowing games to be played at work. As much as he appreciates the idea of being able to have some fun, he’d rather not deal with repairing, formatting and re-installing PCs belonging to colleagues who accidentally installed spyware or viruses, or who botched the game installation itself. To him, people don’t know what they’re doing, and with too much freedom get themselves into trouble.

Not that I really blame him, but to me, banning all gaming at work because of viruses is like banning cars because of drunk drivers. Although, for the limited time available for play, perhaps the benefits are minimal enough that allowing gaming might not be worth the hassle. Of course, this problem could be side-stepped entirely, with an employee bringing in a portable gaming system for lunch hour play, bringing the question back to appearance of gaming.

Irish clergyman and philosopher George Berkeley once wrote, “Esse est percipi,” or “to exist is to be perceived.” I would add that the nature of existence lies in the nature of perception. Lauren’s case displays how outsiders perceive gaming at work and how those perceptions actually define the act. But support or condemnation based on perception extends into worker-boss relationships and inter-colleague relationships, as well.

Lauren’s story rang familiar bells, reminding me of places where games are still barely accepted culturally, never mind in the work place. But there are exceptions. I currently work for a videogame company, having shed my game-fearing ex-colleagues. Between 12:01 and 12:59 pm, most of my coworkers don’t leave their desk. Instead, they put their company-provided headphones on and escape to an hour of networked MMOG or FPS gaming.

All to say, perhaps the perception of gaming at work is an extension of the perception of gaming in general. Gaming is play, and if anything is antithesis to play, it’s work. Perhaps, to many who populate the world’s cubicles, games are goofing off, wasting time or kids’ activities that in no way belong in an environment of professionalism. For Lauren and others like her, office-gaming will have to remain either non-existent, or at best covert. As for me … I think I’ll use my lunch hour to get some sun and fresh air.

Simon Abramovitch is a philosophy graduate and freelance writer, and currently maintains a blog about the purpose of humankind at www.thehumanpurpose.com

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