Why we can't stop playing computer solitaire.

A brief history of wasting time.
May 16 2008 4:46 PM

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.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

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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.

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