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‘Solitaire’ and the Ubiquity of the Single Player Game

Gaming isn't leaving your granny behind any time soon.

When she was a little girl in the late 1970s, my wife often spent the night at her grandmother’s house. She says that the thing that she remembers most about those visits (besides getting to play with any of her grandma’s costume jewelry that she wanted to) was waking up, coming downstairs, and seeing her grandma at the kitchen table, cigarette dangling from her lip, mug of coffee steaming on the table, and a deck of cards in her hand, dealing herself a game of Solitaire.

Especially since the advent of online gaming, every few years folks in the video game industry make predictions about the dismal future of the single player video game (see articles like ”Single-Player Games ‘Gone in Three Years’” or “EA: Single-Player Games are Finished”). Single player games are seen by some as a kind of aberration in the history of gaming more broadly. After all, traditionally the idea of playing a game of a non-digital sort, a board game or card game, is considered to have a social component.

Whether it be the antagonistic relationship created through competitive games like Chess or the addition of co-operative team dynamics in games like Bridge, non-digital games seem largely to suggest that the medium is well suited to multiple players joining one another to compete against one another, to team up with one another, or to solve a puzzle together. It’s a medium well suited to create social possibilities.

If video games were limited in their ability to connect players to one another before the ubiquity of the internet, surely the strange idea of playing a game alone would dry up eventually once wires and wifi returned gaming to its more traditional state as a social space, right?

Which brings me back to my wife’s grandmother living in a period of time when few played video games, sitting playing a game by herself in the kitchen. Certainly, Solitaire in both its digital form as well as in its non-digital form is a fairly casual game, more a game played to kill time than to really offer an especially challenging and exciting game experience. Indeed, probably one of the first books in history to explain the rules of Solitaire in a printed form was a book published in 1870 called Amusement for Invalids. However, the game, which for speakers of English was initially called Patience (Americans and Canadians seem to prefer the name Solitaire), has been around for at least over two hundred years. The first known mention of the game Patience appeared in a German book of games in 1783. In other words, the idea of playing a game by one’s self is hardly a new one or an unpopular one, though that form of the game was a bit different and a bit more social originally. But more on that in a moment.

While I was first introduced to the game of Solitaire in its Klondike form, the game packaged with every current version of Windows that is called Windows Solitaire, there are actually hundreds of variants of the game, all with different rules, different ways of establishing the game’s tableau, and frequently different objectives (”List of Patience Games”, Wikipedia). Indeed, computers with a current Windows operating system include at least three versions of Solitaire, the aforementioned Klondike Solitaire, Spider Solitaire, and Free Cell, all of which are “ports” of their non-digital card game counterparts.

Ironically, in relationship to my own discussion, it is believed that Solitaire, as a game, was originally a multiplayer experience, in which players competed against one another with separate decks of cards to complete a Solitaire sequence before their opponent. It is thought that in practicing for such games alone, players, perhaps, began to simply enjoy the activity of playing Solitaire by one’s self, and, thus solo Solitaire was born (”Solitaire”, Encyclopedia Britannica).

And after all, while some versions of Solitaire (especially in their peg, not card form) seem more like puzzles that can be solved by following certain pre-established moves, versions like Klondike actually offer something “game-like” in that they offer choices in play that (because of the random nature of dealing the cards out) make it possible to make better or worse moves than others.

Indeed, what the popularity of Solitaire globally and the amount of variants created suggests is that the idea of creating a card game in which the player “competes” against the deck, not another human being, by creating rules that make the deck resist obvious solution by the player is further suggestive that people may very much be drawn to a game that is played very much alone. Indeed, I almost want to argue that Solitaire represents something like a proto-AI for video games by creating a means for the game itself, the cards themselves (not another player) to challenge the player’s moves.

The mobile platform has created many such simple “time wasters” (Fruit Ninja or Temple Run, for example, which may test one’s reflexes more than one’s tactical decisions, but are still forms of single player games). Additionally, video games are a medium that can easily represent elapsed time. As a result, they are also quite capable of telling stories, as both books and cinema are easily capable of, but mediums like painting and sculpture struggle with given their difficulty in representing the passage of time.

If most forms of Solitaire challenge the player to complete card sequences by arranging cards in suits or by creating sets of cards, many modern video games speak to this same completionist impulse by creating new goals, like creating a narrative that the player must resolve (a form, perhaps, of “solution”) or through creating experiences in which players collect items (stars in Mario 64, packages in GTA III, thermoses in Alan Wake), etc.

A part of gaming is social and is about competing against human players that will resist your actions. After all, the most played PC game of this year globally is the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, League of Legends, but the 18th most played video game is Spider Solitaire and the 7th is the single player gaming experience of The Witcher 3 (”Most Played PC Games 2015”, Statista).

If single player gaming is at least two hundred years old, I don’t think that players will soon lose the thirst to challenge themselves against a system of rules designed to resist them or that tells them a story or that simply allows them to just pass the time, despite advances in creating more social spaces to also play games in.

Gaming is a medium suited to the extrovert and the introvert, the competitive and the casual, the strategist and the storyteller. Ultimately, it seems unlikely to me that gaming, even in its digital form, will be leaving your granny behind any time soon.