Solitaire-y Confinement

Why we can’t stop playing a computerized card game.

Read more from Slate’s special issue on procrastination.

Josh Levin chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

In a 2000 Wall Street Journal essay, Slate’s founding Editor Michael Kinsley wrote that this here magazine once “thought of adopting the slogan ‘Slate: The Thinking Person’s Solitaire,’ but rejected it as too honest.” This is a reasonable assessment of our audience—you are reading this alone; you are brilliant—but a bit uncharitable when it comes to solitaire. The canonical single-player game is an easy punch line, most often cited as the preferred hobby of the office slacker or the intellectual playground of dullards. (George W. Bush was known to play the occasional hand while governor of Texas.) But the poor, benighted game is also— according to a Microsoft employee who worked on reprogramming it for Windows Vista—the most-used program in the Windows universe. We mock solitaire because it is our secret shame.

Though on its face it might seem trivial, pointless, a terrible way to waste a beautiful afternoon, etc., solitaire has unquestionably transformed the way we live and work. Computer solitaire propelled the revolution of personal computing, augured Microsoft’s monopolistic tendencies, and forever changed office culture. It has also helped the human race survive innumerable conference calls and airplane trips. If solitaire is not the most important computer program of all time, it is at least in the top two, along with Minesweeper.

A long time ago, before the invention of the microprocessor, people played solitaire with real cards. The game, known as “patience” by the Brits, has been around for more than 200 years. It is thought to be French in origin, but it’s a matter of dispute whether Napoleon played while in exile on St. Helena. (Some say he preferred whist, a trick-taking game that would have perhaps better sated the tyrant’s taste for conquest.) Though solitaire always had its followers, the necessity of shuffling the deck after every hand could make the game a real drag and certainly a nonoptimal entertainment for anyone with access to books, the radio, or any form of human contact. (You could understand the appeal for Napoleon.)

The shuffling problem eventually brought solitaire to the digital world and to its present glory. In the late 1960s, 10-year-old Paul Alfille invented a new solitaire variant—there are hundreds, by the way—called FreeCell. Alfille loved his new game, but he really, really hated shuffling. By 1979, he’d coded up a version for the computer network at the University of Illinois, PLATO, which supported up to 1,000 users at a time on terminals connected to a central mainframe. (Alfille was in medical school at the time; he is now an anesthesiologist.) FreeCell soon went viral, joining the text-based role-playing game Avatar among the early online community’s most-used programs. Along with shuffling the cards automatically, the program kept track of players’ statistics; it was soon recording winning streaks as long as 5,000 consecutive games.

FreeCell caught fire in the early days of networked computing, Alfille says, because it was easy to figure out how to play. In those days, computers were new and intimidating; solitaire was a reassuring presence. For anyone who had played the real-world game—and that’s most of the grandmother-having population—there was no learning curve with the computer version. And once you mastered the computerized card game, doing some more serious-minded task on the machine didn’t seem so daunting.

As the university mainframes of the 1970s gave way to the personal computer, solitaire once again paved the way for a tech revolution. According to a 1994 Washington Post article, Microsoft executives wanted Windows Solitaire (a rendering of the game’s popular Klondike variant) “to soothe people intimidated by the operating system.” Solitaire proved particularly useful in teaching neophytes how to use the mouse. When Microsoft first preloaded solitaire as part of 1990’s Windows 3.0, clicking and pointing weren’t yet second nature. By dragging and dropping cards, newbies developed the mousing fluency required to use every other Windows program. (The game’s pedagogical elements were also a handy cover story. When a Minnesota state legislator got caught playing during a 1995 debate on education funding, she claimed she was merely doing “homework to improve her mouse dexterity.”)

Solitaire helped acquaint users with Windows, and it introduced the world to Microsoft’s special brand of business ethics. Paul Alfille says that FreeCell’s inclusion in Windows 95, and every subsequent version of the OS, was “nothing I did and nothing I condoned.” Now an avid Linux user, Alfille says he sold the rights to his version of the game to the University of Illinois, but Microsoft never paid the university a dime in royalties.

Just as Microsoft froze out Netscape, making Internet Explorer the world’s dominant Web browser, the three versions of solitaire that are now preinstalled on every Windows PC—Spider Solitaire, Klondike Solitaire, and FreeCell—have ascended to the pinnacle of the world’s computer-game hierarchy. In the pre-Internet era, much of solitaire’s allure came because it was the only game in town. Moving a black two onto a red three may not have seemed particularly enticing on its own terms, but compared with the visual stimuli provided by an Excel spreadsheet, a post-victory card cascade was an unimaginably rousing spectacle. It’s more surprising that these Windows solitaires, with their primitive delights, remain hugely popular despite now competing for our affections with e-mail, the Web, and thousands of online games. According to Microsoft developer-blogger Raymond Chen, the company’s usability research crew discovered that the three most-played computer games (solitaire or something else, Microsoft or otherwise, preloaded or user-installed) are, in order … Spider Solitaire, Klondike Solitaire, and FreeCell.

The game’s continued pre-eminence is a remarkable feat—it’s something akin to living in a universe in which Pong were the most-popular title for PlayStation 3. One reason solitaire endures is its predictability. The gameplay and aesthetic have remained remarkably stable; a visitor from the year 1990 could play the latest Windows version without a glitch, at least if he could figure out how to use the Start menu. It also remains one of the very few computer programs, game or nongame, that old people can predictably navigate. Brad Fregger, the developer of Solitaire Royale, the first commercial solitaire game for the Macintosh and the PC, told me that his 89-year-old mother still calls regularly to brag about her high scores.

The game has also maintained a strong foothold in the modern-day cubicle. Despite the easy availability of other cheap amusements, five minutes of dragging cards around on the screen remains a speedy route to mental health and a mild form of workplace disobedience. (Just don’t do it when Mayor Bloomberg is around.) Since solitaire doesn’t take up the whole screen, it’s easy to click over and play a hand or two when you get tired of data entry, then quickly toggle back over to your database program when your manager happens to walk by. This sort of multitasking, the ability to minimize and hide applications, is the most essential feature of the Windows OS. And solitaire taught us how to use it.

The ability to screw around while staring at one’s computer—a posture once exclusively associated with doing work—added new friction to the boss-employee dynamic. While people screwed around at work before computers—what did they do exactly, those poor souls?—the advent of PC-based leisure pursuits launched a national conversation about how much screwing around is too much. By the early 1990s, companies like Coca-Cola, Sears, and Boeing either removed Windows’ preinstalled games or enacted bans on engaging with them. In 1993, a travel agency executive educated Business Week on the prevailing wisdom: “If you let people play games on [office computers], you may as well let them insert a TV-reception board so they can watch The Beverly Hillbillies.” (For his sake, I hope this guy retired before they invented YouTube.)

Despite all of these upper-management freakouts—and despite regular, bogus productivity studies that estimated solitaire and its ilk draining $800 trillion dollars a year from the economy—you could make the case that the card game has actually been good for business. Before e-mail and the Web, solitaire introduced the idea of being chained to your desk. Consider that the rise of FreeCell coincided with the erosion of coffee breaks, cigarette breaks, and lunch breaks. Why leave the office when you can just eat at your desk and entertain yourself?

For the goal-oriented solitaire player, the entertainment value comes in pushing for the game’s outer limits: a new high score in Klondike, a record FreeCell winning streak. It’s this sort of private record-keeping that brings on the game’s addictive properties. Dr. Maressa Hecht Orzack, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, opened the first clinic for computer addiction in 1996. Her inspiration: becoming obsessed with beating her personal solitaire scoring record. “I kept playing solitaire more and more,” she wrote in a 2006 Washington Post chat, “my late husband would find me asleep at the computer. I was missing deadlines. I knew something had to be done.”

More than a decade on, Orzack’s game-junky treatment facility now mostly sees World of Warcraft and EverQuest fiends. Is this a sign that computer solitaire’s impressive run might soon come to an end? In the age where everything’s networked, and every game is massively multiplayer, solitaire is the ultimate anti-social experience. Eric Zimmerman, the author of The Game Design Reader, suggests that office workers who grew up with PCs and Super Nintendo might no longer have any need to play computer games, like solitaire, with real-world referents. After all, they’re probably just as familiar with Tetris and Mortal Kombat as they are with FreeCell.

Still, I don’t think solitaire will go extinct. It is the cockroach of gaming, remarkably flexible and adaptable. You can occupy yourself with an easy variant or one that’s almost impossible to win, stare at the screen for five minutes or five hours, and play with an eye toward strategy or with your brain turned off. The game also has a way of colonizing new technology: There are implementations for your cell phone, your PDA, your iPod and iPhone. (As a vanguard digital pastime, its only competition is pornography.) And if there’s one certainty in this world, it’s that office workers will always need a distraction. Solitaire is safe, then, at least until Microsoft starts loading Windows with rock-paper-scissors.