Why Solitaire Is Still the Game to Beat Slate's Josh Levin details the history of computer solitaire and explains why it remains so popular despite the advent of newer and fancier games.
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Why Solitaire Is Still the Game to Beat

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Why Solitaire Is Still the Game to Beat

Why Solitaire Is Still the Game to Beat

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Now a BPP riddle. What activity, which by definition must be done alone, was once considered shameful, has been linked to repetitive stress injuries, but now has proponents claiming it clears the mind and teachers valuable lessons about the functioning of often mysterious equipment? Solitaire, I'm talking about computer solitaire. What else could I...


Nothing. Nothing! That's what I'm thinking.

PESCA: And it's part of a recent series on procrastination, which I haven't got around to reading. Slate Magazine took a look at the history and enduring popularity of computer solitaire. We liked the piece so much that we're going to do something we called Ripped Off from the Headlines...

(Soundbite of "Law & Order theme")

PESCA: Or the RSS feed, in this case. Joining us now is Josh Levin, associate editor for Slate where he wrote the piece. Hey, Josh.

Mr. JOSH LEVIN (Associate Editor, Slate.com): Hey, Mike. How are you?

PESCA: I'm good. How are you doing?

Mr. LEVIN: Pretty good. I'm happy I got around to writing the piece.

PESCA: I know. God, it's one of those pieces that just keeps giving jokes or the whole special procrastination episode. So many jokes...!

Mr. LEVIN: I know. It was really hard to transition from playing solitaire to writing about it.

PESCA: And was the deadline actually built in? Or did the top editor know you'd just blow past that deadline on getting the piece to print?

Mr. LEVIN: Well, luckily, everybody else who was writing for the issue filed late, so I got to have an extra weekend to play solitaire.

PESCA: That's excellent. So let's start at the beginning. Who invented computer solitaire, when?

Mr. LEVIN: The first guy that I ran across who invented a solitaire game on the computer was a guy named Paul Alfille, who actually invented the game FreeCell in the late 1960s, and then he programmed it in an early computer system at the University of Illinois in the late 1970s, and one of the things that he wanted to put in there was a statistics tracker. If you've played FreeCell, you're familiar with the fact that it can keep winning streaks. And he said not long after he put the program in, he was seeing people with winning streaks of 5,000 games and was very disturbed.

PESCA: Did that FreeCell look like the FreeCell that's on computers now?

Mr. LEVIN: No. I mean - so these were pretty early terminals and this is a sort of pre-Internet computer network. You could have maybe a thousand people on it and, you know, if you used a computer back in the late '70s, you're probably familiar with the sort of primitive look of graphics, but that was a reason why solitaire was a pretty popular game and one of the first to be programmed on a lot of platforms is that it's not too difficult to program or portray cards on a computer screen.

PESCA: How did it migrate from that one computer, or a couple of those computers, onto every - is it every PC that you buy has to have all sorts of solitaire games?

Mr. LEVIN: Well, a Windows machine, you know, not every PC has Windows, but Windows has a huge percentage of the market. Windows, Microsoft that is, put solitaire on Windows 3.0 for the first time. That was in 1990, and at that point it was pretty much at every new computer, you know, or every new PC that was sold in the country at that point.

PESCA: And what did the original programmer make a lot of money off of that? And if I know Microsoft, I think I know the answer to this.

Mr. LEVIN: No. They made probably close to nothing actually. Yeah. Alfille, the guy who coded FreeCell, told me that he didn't give Microsoft any permission, and the University of Illinois, who is the copyright holder, didn't give them permission to put FreeCell in Windows '95 and, you know, the guy - the Microsoft intern who coded the original Windows Solitaire, I don't think got any extra for his efforts, despite making probably the most used computer program in the history of the world.

PESCA: That is amazing. And so what is the appeal of it? Is it just that it's a procrastination? Or is there something particular to the type of procrastination that appeals to people?

Mr. LEVIN: My theory is that it's just an incredibly flexible experience. I mean, it's not even always sort of used as a game, you know, you might use it just - say I'm on the phone doing a radio interview and I'm a little bored, maybe it'll just help me, you know, get through the interview, or maybe...

MARTIN: What are you trying to say?

Mr. LEVIN: No. I'm saying - this is going really well, but hypothetically.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. LEVIN: You know, if I'm on a conference call - if, you know, I'm working on an article and I need to get through it or, you know, if you want to...

PESCA: Right. Talking a guy down who just, you know, took over a hijacked plane, had to perform emergency heart surgery.

MARTIN: But see, this is my thing about solitaire. It's less a game. You're not really trying - I mean, it's more of a meditation right?

Mr. LEVIN: Yeah. I mean, there's hundreds of variations of solitaire, so the other point is that you can get a sort of different experience if you play the standard Windows Solitaire, which is called Klondike, that's sort - it's sort of subconscious because we've played it, a lot of us, so much that it's not even really like a game. But there are other ones like Spider Solitaire, which is now actually the most popular of the Windows Solitaires, is more of a strategy game, so you actually have to think about that a little bit.

PESCA: I saw online, there was YouTube video of how to cheat at computer solitaire. My question to you is, what kind of maniac do you have to be to cheat at computer solitaire? It's like hiring someone to work out for you.

Mr. LEVIN: Yeah. I think he'd be the kind of maniac who would hire someone to work out for you. That's a good analogy. I've never done it and I never would.

PESCA: Because that ruins the meditation aspects.

Mr. LEVIN: Totally. Totally ruins the meditation.

PESCA: How about this, what kind of person do you have to be to buy an advanced version of the game that they give to you for free?

Mr. LEVIN: I don't know. Maybe like an executive at a solitaire company. I really don't know.

PESCA: Well, actually, our producer - our editor Tricia bought such a game. Tricia...


PESCA: In one sentence, why did you pay for solitaire?

MCKINNEY: Because I wanted to play 40 Thieves and they didn't have it on the standard menu of free games.

PESCA: Do you know this one, 40 Thieves, Josh?

Mr. LEVIN: I don't. That is a creatively-named one, though.

MCKINNEY: It's awesome!

PESCA: Is it because you're stealing time from your company?

MCKINNEY: It's super hard and you can never win. That's all I have to say.

PESCA: Is that - do people want to win at solitaire? I mean, what's the prize, that the cards bounce on your screen?

Mr. LEVIN: Yeah, and that's really awesome. Especially if you're thinking back to like 1990, think of like the visual stimuli of your computer screen. You know, you had Microsoft Excel and you had like cards bouncing around. Which one is more fun to look at? But a game design theorist I talked to, a guy named Eric Zimmerman, made a good analogy.

He said that solitaire is sort of like a slot machine in that you don't win that often, but you have these sort of incremental victories. Like, you might get two cherries, or you might built up like six cards at the top of the screen, and so it's those sort of incremental successes that get you to keep playing. And then when you finally do hit the jackpot and get either, you know, a hundred thousand dollars, or say, cards bouncing on the screen, it's super exciting.

PESCA: Josh Levin, associate editor for Slate Magazine. Get back to work, Josh.

Mr. LEVIN: Thank you, sir.


MARTIN: Stay with us. It's the BPP from NPR News.

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