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Solitaire: Futility As Fun

August 23, 2013

About two weeks ago I was without Internet access and managed to blow an entire hour playing Solitaire (technically, Klondike).  When I looked down at the clock and saw how time I’d wasted dragging cards around a screen, I shook my head.  I was just like those office workers in 1990s who got axed for blowing off work to play a simple card game.  What gives?  Why is Solitaire so addictive?

Back in 2008, Josh Levin wrote an article for Slate entitled “Solitaire-y Confinement”, which looked at that exact question.  I agree with most of his proposed explanations for why Solitaire is so popular: it’s predictable, requires little mental effort, and can be finished in a matter of minutes.  It’s the ultimate pick-up-and-play game.

But my experiences and investigations lead me to consider an additional possibility: Solitaire is addictive because it’s so difficult to win.

For this blog post, I played 100 hands of Solitaire (3-card, infinite redraw) and, for comparison, 100 hands of FreeCell.  I alternated between the two every 10 hands to keep things fresh, and kept tracks of wins and losses for every game.

Game

Wins

Longest Win Streak

Longest Losing Streak

Solitaire

14

2 (three times)

29

FreeCell

81

14

2 (two times)

As you can see from the chart, I was far, far more successful at FreeCell.  I almost went the equivalent of three sessions without winning a single hand of Solitaire.  My longest win streak in Solitaire equals my longest losing streak in FreeCell.  I should have had a better time playing FreeCell.  Indeed, I prefer FreeCell to Solitaire.  But I found I was clicking for a new game of Solitaire a lot faster than for another round of FreeCell.  So it seems the addictive qualities of Solitaire are independent of the success rate.

Or is it?  Rather than concluding Solitaire is addictive despite the high loss rate, I’d wager it’s addictive because of it.  For an analogy, let’s think of arcade games.  If you’re playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Simpsons Arcade Game, you’ll have hard time winning without dying.  You’ll encounter that one boss who kills you again and again, and the desire to finally beat him compels you to drop more and more quarters into the machine.   It’s that struggle against futility, the fact you keep dying, that makes those games memorable–and addictive.

I think the same applies to Solitaire.  No one knows the probability of winning a hand of Solitaire, but everyone agrees you’ll lose far more hands than you’ll win.  Yet rather than rage quitting after fifteen straight losing hands, you keep pressing “Play again”.  You might not even be having fun at that point, but that’s irrelevant.  What really matters is finally beating that one boss: the random deal of the cards.

Compare this to FreeCell.  The vast majority of FreeCell hands are winnable in practice.  (The majority of Klondike hands are likely winnable in theory, but the player has incomplete information.)  My win percentage of 81% is pretty low for FreeCell, but even I can open the program and win a game within ten minutes.  Knowing that a win in FreeCell is almost entirely the product of skill, I can take more satisfaction out of a FreeCell win.  But the relative ease of winning also makes the game much easier to put down.

All of this raises an interesting question: do people actually enjoy Solitaire?  Sure, we open the program because we’re bored and want a distraction, but it seems likely we keep playing out of spite, not enjoyment.  I’m actually curious how far this goes.

I got this idea for a museum installation: a computer with which one can play Solitaire.  Only, it’s a program designed to only deal unplayable hands, i.e., hands where it is impossible to make any moves.  It would be interesting to observe how people would react to playing such a game.  Would they assume something was up and leave the computer?  Or would they keep on chugging, hellbent on finally winning a hand?

By the way: I played another four hands of Solitaire while writing this blog post.  I lost all four.

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