Lynn Phillips

Lynn Phillips

Dream On


Playing With One's Self

Shame, Shame, Shame! How Solitaire Made a Fool of Me

Posted Dec 04, 2011

Members of the Conn State House in session

photo by Jessica Hill / The Associated Press

The solitaire thing is a different creature. Even though I have not played a single game since early September, you might notice me sliding my cursor towards the bottom left of the screen at least once a day, seeking the solitaire icon that used to lurk in the Start Menu. When I do, it means that the little solitaire-playing monkey on my back is chattering, "Click it," and I am talking it down. I am reminding the solitaire monkey that playing computer solitaire won't muffle the boredom, the agitation, the incipient panic of being mortal, or alienated, or me, and it won't stay fun. It'll just kill time dead.

I've gotten good at anticipating what gets the monkey pesky. It  wakes up whenever one of Adobe's bloated programs takes too long to load, or when too many emails need to be answered at once or I'm swinging in the high branches of some corporate phone tree. Tedium = temptation. But challenges make me want to play too,

I recently took an online course in social marketing through Mediabistro, and while upbeat lectures were streaming at me about the importance of cultivating "visitor engagement," tweeting several times a day, and "drilling down" into analytic data I writhed like Laocoon beset by snakes to keep from drilling down into my computer's menus to find "solitaire.exe" so I could shortcut it.

I know it's in there, somewhere. Since Windows 3 various kinds of solitaire have been packaged with the operating system. According to's executive editor Josh Levin, who read it in a 1984 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."

He adds that "Solitaire proved particularly useful in teaching neophytes how to use the mouse."

The notion that solitaire is a balm and an educational tool isn't as deluded as it sounds. Playing solitaire is a kind of white noise for the mind, an escape from the clamor of the world. As Wallace Stevens wrote:

                "In the oblivion of cards

                One exists among pure principles."

Games historian David Parlett notes that back when the game was known as "patience," playing it was actually viewed as a virtue, "an exercise of patience--- in its literal sense." lBack in 2003, Professor Jeffrey Goldstein    and his team from the University of Utrecht studied occupants of both a nursing home and an insurance company. At "Level Up," the Digital Games Research Association conference in the Netherlands, they reported that their test subjects' cognitive skills and general sense of wellbeing ranked statistically higher after playing computer solitaire.

But outside the poet's head and the nursing home, we are not buying this cost/benefit estimate.Unverifiable estimates (1) of the time American workers waste on such monkey business go as high as 480 million man hours per year. In 2003, C|net estimated, players collectively spent 9 billion human hours on desktop Solitaire. Companies like Coca-Cola and Sears have had Windows solitaire games systematically removed from workstations. (But of course now we have phones to play on, so good luck with that.)

As with any drug, getting caught using can be more destructive than the time wasting thing itself. In 2006 New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg publically fired a struggling father of three (the genealogically well-endowed Edward Anthony Greenwood IX) after seeing the game  idling on his underling's workstation. And solitaire opprobrium isn't always top down: Congresspersons became viral villains when outraged Netizens circulated photos of them playing solitaire during what was rumored to be the national debate on health care. (According to's Tom Murse, the photo was actually of Members of the Connecticut State House of Representatives in Hartford, a depressing but less sweeping indictment of the state of democracy).

So although solitaire may calm the frazzled, even boost cognition, it has destroyed lives. So highly addictive and so adaptable to any platform or device has it proved to be that Levin aptly tagged it "the cockroach of games."

When I played, I often played well beyond the point of enjoyment. If you get hooked on solitaire, you  try for streaks, or, like Harvard Medical School's  Dr. Maressa Hecht Orzack who opened the first clinic for computer addiction in 1996, you compete with your own scores. "I kept playing solitaire more and more," she wrote in a 2006 Washington Post chat, "I was missing deadlines. I knew something had to be done."(2)

If mine had been a real addiction, like heroin or gin, or even Second Life, I could see calling in the marines. But compared to destroying my brain cells or my ability to distinguish reality and fantasy, wasting my entire life seemed comparatively trivial. So the biggest obstacle I faced wasn't denial, but shame: mine was/is the dumbest addiction I can/could imagine. Unlike sex, speed or sin, solitaire can't make you appear glamorously wicked. You're not teasing death; you're waiting by the phone for death to text you. I can't imagine a habit more pathetic. So instead of getting help, I got a new computer.

Addict that I am, I haven't actually deleted the game, because, like I said, I don't even want to know where it's hiding. Instead, I'm attempting to transfer my obsessive addictive bent to social media marketing. Responding to flurries of nearly meaningless messages requires as many of the same repetitive motions as my other habit, and the cascade of tweets that stream by on a breaking trend (#JustinBeiber is always breaking) is almost as festive as the cascade of cards with which Klondike solitaire awards the victor.

But a regime of tweeting, blogging, facebooking, foursquaring and tumblring differs from a solitaire addiction in significant ways: Although it's a time-killing game and rife with stupidity, it has more than one isolated player; its strategies are more varied and (hopefully) wittier; best of all, it's an escape from real life that certain employers will, theoretically at least, pay a person to attempt. Hopefully some gaming addiction non-profit will hire me to get the word out that there's life after solitaire. And if that happens, my monkey and I can celebrate with a hot dog.




(1) "A little math tells us that americans spent about 24 million man-hours in ... Empire State Building: 7 million man-hours (a mere 9 days of Solitaire), ..."  and "Jul 16, 2008 - In 2003, players collectively spent 9 billion human hours on the game Solitaire. ... human hours, or the equivalent of a collective 6.8 Solitaire hours. ... "

(2) the quote is from Levin's wonderful article, but more can be found in this article from eNotes: