Google's Pac-Man gobbled $120 million in productivity

A company that makes employee-monitoring software says employees spent 4.82 million hours diddling Google's Pac-Man doodle, for a productivity cost of $120 million.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the classic arcade game, Google changed its home-page doodle on Friday to a playable version of Pac-Man.

RescueTime, the developers of a software tool that allows businesses and individuals to track their time and attention, did some back-of-the-envelope calculations to determine how much time users spent on Google's Pac-Man, and how much it cost.

Under normal circumstances, people actually spend very little time on Google, RescueTime says. You do a search, and you go. Users spend only 4-1/2 active minutes on Google per day, for 22 page views, or 11 seconds per page view.

RescueTime sampled its users and found that they spent 36 seconds more on Google.com on Friday, when the Pac-Man doodle was available.

Figuring Google had 504.7 million users on a typical day (based on data from Wolfram Alpha), RescueTime calculated Google Pac-Man used 4.8 million hours of time, beyond the 33.6 million hours users typically spend on the search site. Figuring user time costs $25 per hour, that comes to $120,483,800.

"For that same cost, you could hire all 19,835 google employees, from Larry and Sergey down to their janitors, and get 6 weeks of their time. Imagine what you could build with that army of man power," RescueTime said.

The cost could have been higher. Most people probably didn't realize the doodle was playable, RescueTime said.

These kinds of calculations are fun, but they should be taken about as seriously as fortune cookies. For starters, even RescueTime admits that they're just back-of-the-envelope estimates. But even if they were done more rigorously, they'd still be baloney. The estimates assume that employees goofing off on Pac Man would be working productively if the game was not available, when it's just as likely they'd find some other way to goof off. Also, the study fails to take into account the value of rest and play -- just as an athlete performs better if he takes time out occasionally to relax and rehydrate, a knowledge worker performs better if she takes the occasional break during the day, and plays Pac-Man or looks at LOLcats or does something else to let the brain cool down.

The Pac-Man game freaked out some Firefox users, who complained about the noise and music and worried that they were infected by a virus. In initial versions of the game, Firefox auto-played the sounds, even if Google was open in a background tab or window or hidden iframe.

In case you have some productivity left over, Google has made Pac-Man a permanent fixture of its Web site.

On the bright side, Google released a report Tuesday claiming Google generates $54 billion in economic activity for businesses, Web site publishers, and non-profits.

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner.

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