Posted by Brian McCullough
In the pantheon of at-work-timewasters, computer solitaire has to stand alone in the first rank.
Sure, there’s also Minesweep and now online soduku and Facebook Scrabble, but surely more work hours have been wasted playing that stupid included solitaire program on your Windows PC than anything else.
Except maybe online porn. But you have to really be brave to surf that stuff at work.
It’s funny how even computer solitaire is a reflection of the last 20 years of the real world computer industry, complete with Microsoft monopolistic chicanery. Check out this comprehensive history of computer solitaire by Slate: Why We Can’t Stop Playing Computer Solitaire.
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. (…) 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 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?