General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

 
Volume 17, Number 4
June 2000

GAMES LAWYERS PLAY

BY Sheryn Bruehl

So you think you're the only lawyer who gets caught guiltily diving for the "close window" button on your Solitaire game when somebody walks into your office? Or who's ever whiled away a few minutes (or hours) playing games when you should be working on some other project? Oh, mais non! Truth be told, most of us who use computers in the course of our days have similar confessions...and lawyers, whose practices tend to live and die by the billable hour, are no exception.

An informal survey of more than 1,200 lawyers, including members of the ABA's Solosez and Lawtech List Serveers and the Oklahoma Bar Association's OBA-NET; a visit to the ABA TECHSHOW 2000; and interviews with some of the country's leading legal technologists yielded quite a few interesting responses.

"Games? What Games?"

Not surprisingly, many people responded that they simply don't have time for games. Lawyer and computer-type Ken Bodenhamer from Tulsa, Oklahoma, says that in his office, "It was Solitaire and FreeCell in a tie, with Minesweeper bringing up the rear. Then we decided to take all games off of the computers; we did that, and found that we are getting about 30 percent more work out." Carolyn Stevens of Missoula, Montana, also took the games off of her office computer, describing them as "a black hole for this personality." She does, however, admit to playing card games at home to relax.

Air Force patent attorney Harold Burstyn says he's simply not interested: "One of the possible divisions among people is between the reality-oriented and the fantasy-oriented. I belong to the former group." So, while he noted that many of his colleagues in private practice play computer games at work, Harold reports that he last played a hand of bridge-in Paris, roughly 50 years ago.

"Give Me a Break!"

On the other hand, many lawyers report using games to blow off stress and to make the transition from work to home. Laura Tharney, a lawyer from East Brunswick, New Jersey, says: "I developed an addiction to FreeCell when I first went solo. Working horrible hours, I found that I couldn't simply close up the latest file and go immediately home to sleep...no matter how late it was. FreeCell, for me, provided a way to zone out and detox at the end of the day." She has since discovered pinball, and claims that because her game is improving, it sometimes takes her far too long to lose so that she can get some sleep!

Others say they use games during the workday to while away time during boring telephone conferences, or to provide a much-needed "brain break" from regular work. Telephone conferences were by and large the most common answer to the when-and-why of workday gaming. Attorney Steve Presson, of Norman, Oklahoma, summed up the "phone game" the best: "I get stuck on countless phone conferences from hell, listening (or trying to listen) to people rant and rave about irrelevant issues, so I keep my sanity playing FreeCell until the call ends." And to keep from getting caught? Steve says: "Sometimes a client or another lawyer will say, 'What's that clicking?' I say, 'What clicking?'"

Perhaps the most extreme example of the "brain break" approach came from well-known law office computing consultant Ross Kodner of MicroLaw, Inc., in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: "I have a client firm who gave us what seemed at first blush to be a very odd request. We were upgrading their original network and when it came down to finalizing the workstation specs they said, 'By the way, we need to add the following to [one attorney's] PC: We need to upgrade to a 32 meg RIVA TNT2 3D video accelerator and a Sound Blaster Live audio card, and we need a Microsoft Force Feedback joystick.'"

"Now this is NOT a typical request for us, as you can imagine! They explained that this particular lawyer is an ultra high-intensity litigator who bills about 2,500 hours a year. To keep his sanity, every couple of hours he shuts his door and plays Half-Life or Quake III for 15 minutes. He completely loses himself blasting body parts out of alien scum. He opens his door, emerging fresh as a proverbial daisy, ready to bill another couple of hours. Personally, I've seen him emerge, and the look of serenity on his face is positively Zenlike!"

"It Came with My Computer"

The most popular games by a wide margin were the default games that ship with the Microsoft Windows operating system. Although there were a few exceptions (some have found better Solitaire games elsewhere), Microsoft's Solitaire and FreeCell were the hands-down winners over all other games, followed closely thereafter by Minesweeper and Hearts. Perhaps the most succinct answer to the question "What games do you play and why?" was an unsigned e-mail with the subject "Solitaire" and the message, quoted here in full: "Because it's there."

Most people had slightly more developed reasons for playing the games, however. Betty Outhier Williams, of Muskogee, Oklahoma, says she plays Solitaire to get her concentrating in the morning, and to relax in the evening, "kind of like an athlete's warm-up and cool-down." Alan Bail, of Playa Del Ray, California, says that for him it's "good ol' Solitaire. Simple stress reliever/meditation device, to get my head unstuck. Anything more complicated will tend to take me away a bit too far. Five or ten minutes at a time seems to work fine." In almost the same words, John Poti of Prattville, Alabama, says, "Good ol' Solitaire and Mahjongg. Great for stress reduction. Just a few minutes of either and I find I can focus better on a problem or issue."

One of the reasons those games actually exist on your machine, by the way, is-quite literally-mouse practice. In our office, new receptionists are routinely encouraged to play an hour or two of Solitaire or FreeCell on the lobby computer (where a traditional mouse cannot be used comfortably) in their first couple of days, to get used to drag-and-drop, and single-, double-, right-, and left-clicking with a touch pad pointing device. The look of surprise when their first instruction after the office tour is, "Here, play this for a little while, and let me know when you're comfortable with that thing...." is uniform. But the utility becomes clear when training on our software starts. Frustrated, flustered people don't learn well, and training goes much better when it isn't hindered by navigation problems. Still, it is amusing how guilty new employees look when other lawyers walk by while they're playing...and how surprised they are that nobody even blinks. Most think they must have found the world's best place to work!

"Die, You Alien Scum!"

By far, the next most popular games were the "first-person shoot'em-ups," where the primary objective is to navigate various types of territory and annihilate lots of enemy creatures; and variations we'll call third-person shoot'em- ups, where the primary objective is to navigate some kind of mechanized vehicle (spaceship or robot, usually) through various types of territory and annihilate lots of enemy creatures.

Most of the players of these games didn't feel it necessary to explain the attraction of shooting, crushing, cursing, poisoning, stomping on, or blowing up hundreds of objectively bad guys who would happily kill you first if you gave them half a chance...apparently thinking it would be self-evident. Suffice it to say that the primary criteria by which such games are judged include how realistic the graphics, action, sound, and gore are, and the length of play time the average user can get (usually in the hundreds of hours) before reaching the end of the game. The complexity of the game's strategy is only a secondary concern. In fact, most aficionados of such games routinely use "cheats" to let them get past levels that are too difficult, and to reach more exciting critters to kill.

Much of the computer equipment and software that sits on your desk today is a result of this type of game. Most of the games in this genre are descended from a handful of DOS-based games that used ASCII characters and keyboard symbols to represent good and bad guys, and text instructions to navigate (the granddaddy of them all was Castle Wolfenstein, for you nostalgic types). Truth be told, the quest for ever more realistic game play has been the ultimate force behind virtually every innovation in computer speed and power that has occurred over the past 15 years or so. Business applications have mostly followed along, taking advantage of the advances as they came along to become a little prettier, a little faster, and a little more powerful.

Popular examples of such games submitted by lawyers included Diablo (a "magic"-based game set in the bowels of an old church some 200+ levels deep), Quake and Doom (the first of a second generation of such games, with better graphics and action than the first generation), Descent (notable as the first of its genre designed to be played with a joystick in three dimensions, instead of two), MechWarrior (player controls a robot from inside, to fight other similarly-controlled robots), Half-Life (described by New Hampshire intellectual property lawyer, legal technology guru, and game aficionado Dan Coolidge as "the crème de la crème of games...the best first-person shoot'em-up ever developed....done brilliantly-it uses all the capability of the top-of-the-line sound and graphics equipment available today....highly recommended!"), Delta Force and Rainbow Six (both military operations games), Panzer General (a tank game), Redneck Rampage (pretty self-explanatory), and finally, Mortyr (described by one lawyer as Castle Wolfenstein in its third generation). Of course, the old die hard types still play early versions of the original CW in DOS or early Windows adaptations.

Lest you worry that these lawyers might be getting a little isolated in their strategic or pyrotechnic pursuits, online communities allow people of like minds to get together and play. Andy Dorner, son of Londonderry, New Hampshire, solo practitioner Bruce Dorner, demonstrated the online version of Rainbow Six at ABA TECHSHOW, expertly planning and executing hostage-rescue operations with participants from literally all over the world, including several whose online names were in Japanese and Korean characters. Lawyers also reported playing cards, word games, and even Scrabble with strangers in online communities.

"It's My Party"

Most of the rest of the games fell into a general category of adventure/strategy games, first-person puzzle games, and simulations. For the most part, these are far more time-consuming and thought-intensive games-that most lawyers insist they just don't have time to learn or play. Those that do, however, love them.

Adventure/strategy games generally involve fairly complex planning for battles of various sorts, assembling teams or armies and equipping them with weapons, protective gear, and so on, and then engaging in battle with enemy forces. First-person puzzle games involve solving various riddles, problems, and/or mazes to advance from level to level. Popular games mentioned in these two categories included Balder's Gate (a swords-and-sorcerers type of game, with orcs and bandits and the like), Age of Empire 2 (a strategy game/war simulation), WarCraft I-III (various iterations of a war simulation), Civilization and Civilization 2 (versions of a simulation game that can include war strategy), Myst (a first-person puzzle game), and Riven (sequel to Myst).

Simulation games allow players to create entire simulated worlds, planning for and dealing with the rippling consequences of each decision. These worlds can be anything from a theme park or hospital to a city, county, or entire civilization. Civilization and Civilization 2 (also mentioned above because of the significant war-planning element) fall into this category. The most popular simulation game today is called, simply, "The Sims."

Introduced at the ABA TECHSHOW by legal technologist and solo practitioner Bruce Dorner, The Sims is a smash hit in the gaming world. Made by the creators of SimCity, and the rest of the line of "SimX" games, The Sims allows you to create characters, choose their personalities, and then dress them, select their jobs, and then move them into a house in a suburban neighborhood, where you control every aspect of their lives...what they eat and drink, how they decorate their homes, whom they see, how they act, whether they go to work, and even how often they go to the bathroom. The game keeps track of the health and emotions of the characters, who respond according to their physical and emotional circumstances. There's no way to win-you just keep manipulating their lives, and see what happens.

The game has remarkable depth, and there is an apparently endless variety of situations you can create-marriages, divorces, affairs, fistfights, hot-tub parties, babies, etc. By way of example: If your Sim characters have a baby and fail to feed it or care for it for three days, a Sim social worker will come and take it away. You can buy or custom-build dream homes, purchase items like hot tubs and Lava lamps, control career paths, insult the neighbors...you name it. Websites have even begun to spring up offering downloadable add-ons, like home furnishings and designer wallcoverings, which can influence the health and well-being of your characters.

Says Dorner: "It's a dream for a family law attorney or a psychologist. You get to create a family, watch how they interact, and then watch how they get into trouble. You have to make sure they eat, use the bathroom, rest, work, and more. It's just like manipulating your own family. You even get some neighbors you can work with to really screw up the family. Talk about blowing off steam! Yeah, it's not as much fun as shooting the bad guys, but watching the hot-tub parties is, as a friend says, 'way cool.'"

"Honorable Mention...or ROFL"

Then there are the "honorable mentions." These are the games that didn't come up often, but were particularly funny...or at least just twisted enough to make you laugh, even if you don't want to play them. The primary criteria was at least one "ROFL" (rolling on the floor laughing, in the e-mail/List Serveer lexicon).

A year-round favorite with a seasonal theme that seems to have been e-mailed to virtually everybody on the planet at least twice is "Elf Bowling" (www.nstorm.com/games/elfbowl.cfm). The shareware game is exactly what it sounds like: a bowling game where you play as Santa, using a full rack of "striking" elves with bad attitudes as targets. It sounds sick, but after about five minutes with these mean little critters, you'll be trying to hit 'em.

Another single entry that made me laugh came courtesy of Jody Nathan, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, attorney. Edgy Wedgy (http://cob390.dn.net/Games/EdgyWedgy/Edgy_En.htm) is a simple clicking game in the spirit of the old "good guy/bad guy" shooting galleries. The goal is to yank a wedgy (defined on the site as "A practical joke in which the victim's underpants are pulled up tightly between the buttocks") on various people in and around a local school, including the school secretary, cheerleader, class geek, police officer, etc., while being careful not to get Granny-who will whack you soundly with her purse if you do, thereby ending your game.

And finally, the king of the honorable mentions-for pure twistedness-was DopeWars (http://pdaguy.com/dopewars/), a PalmPilot game submitted by David Pumphrey, a second-year student at the Indiana University School of Law, seconded by Ross Eagle, a Chicago criminal defense attorney-and promptly requested by a slew of other lawyers on the Solosez List Serveer. Mr. Pumphrey sums the game up the best: "The game starts the player out in debt to a loan shark and you have 30 days to avoid the cops (Officer Hardass) and do your bit to propagate capitalism in its purist form: selling cyber-dope in the heartland." The goal is to buy low and sell high, making as much money as possible in 30 days, and avoid being arrested.

After plowing through piles of responses and explanations, and listening to and reading anecdotal evidence from lawyer after lawyer, one thing is clear about the games lawyers and their staff play. Games involve more than just questions of productivity or entertainment.

For many lawyers, they are essential parts of a healthy approach to dealing with the inherent stresses of the profession. Virtually every response to the question "Why do you play?" included the word "stress" or its positive counterparts: relaxation, concentration, and sanity.

Mental Yoga

The games lawyers choose generally involve some sort of mental strategy exercise, be it simple or complex. The remainder, for the most part, involve variations on blowing things up while trying to avoid getting blown up in return. In other words, for these lawyers, computer games are the mental equivalent of the range of physical exercise from simple, peaceful yoga or tai chi to boxing and jujitsu.

How does an exhausted, distracted, or stressed out lawyer relax by doing even more thinking? The same way people get more energy by exercising regularly. They make themselves stronger and healthier by finding safe, pleasurable ways to stretch and strengthen their mental muscles without the stress of mandatory performance, deadlines, and real consequences for failure. Like those who participate in extreme sports or adventure to blow off stress physically, some lawyers find even more stress relief by doing extreme, adrenaline-producing things that real life doesn't allow an outlet for...like blasting the heck out of invading alien forces or instigating fistfights between obnoxious Sim-neighbors!

It may not be the right choice for everyone, but if you are a game player, give yourself a break...and if you aren't, perhaps you should try out a few and see what you think. Like any other stress-relieving device, including alcohol, and even exercise, computer games can decrease productivity and sap time and energy from work if they are abused. But for the most part, they are generally safe, positive, healthy ways to rest, relax, recharge, and rejuvenate. "Let the games begin!"

Sheryn Bruehl is a partner in the Norman, Oklahoma, firm of Bruehl & Chapman, P.C., where she practices workers' compensation law. She is a technology educator and advisor, and is active in the Oklahoma Bar Association, the ABA Law Practice Management Section, and the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division. She can be reached via e-mail at sbruehl@mmcable.com.

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