Videogames & Loneliness: Solitaire

A World of Solitaire

We have become impatient. If life were like the art of card throwing, which generally consists of throwing standard playing cards with excessively high speed and accuracy, powerful enough to slice fruits like carrots and even melons, then we have missed the mark; it is not for a lack of trying. We have yet to exceed ourselves; we have proven incapable of overcoming our radiance.

Nobody has bitten into the apple. But if rhetoric like illusion employs the same techniques, then solitaire is a sleight of hand card trick that fools no one, but that still retains its magic—the magic of wasted time—a now-you-see-it, now- you-don’t gimmick to entertain an unimportant and lonely life. In this sense, it is an art.

Usually, when I think of a tableau, I think of a group of models or motionless figures representing a scene from history, but in this story, a tableau will refer to the distinctive arrangement into which cards are first dealt in a game of solitaire and, for your entertainment, the bad hand my life was dealt after I discovered online solitaire.

On the page opposite the entry for Solitaire in volume 20 of the 1964 Encyclopedia Britannica is the term solipsism, which does not mean to be alone or by oneself, but something far more extreme and absurd: that the mind doesn’t have any valid ground for believing in the existence of anything but itself. When I play solitaire, when I’m locked in and having trouble doing anything else, the sudden drone of a solipsism seizes me—my mind doesn’t have any valid ground for believing in the existence of anything, but solitaire. It’s not as horrifying as one might think but nothing is horrifying when you think about it and the same is also true when you don’t think about it; so, when I want to do that, that is, not think, I play solitaire—and I am free.

I have played more than 4 years and 156 days of online solitaire. Sometimes, of course, I imagine what I could have done had I not spent so much time playing but that thought doesn’t last very long. My attention refocused; I am playing—and my partner is complaining about it—again.

Despite the apparent, and very real, I am told, community—there are true players with false names as equally true: polarbearo, SusanSolitaire, and fluffy, and the inevitable Ropemastr, to name a few—I have not met anyone from the world of online solitaire. It’s true, I’m not here to make friends: it is not my raison d’être for being here. I suspect it is not their’s either. Our name in lights—there is a scoreboard which keeps our statistics—we see nothing else.

There are 67 different types of solitaire available where I play, but I have only played one of them: Klondike (Turn One). When I win a hand, I am shown a random victory image. Although I am suspicious of the term good job, I like the victory image of the short-haired girl in a tank top, flexing her muscles: “Good Job!” This favorite victory image brings to mind my friend Maureen, who moved to Mexico to take a break from the USA while it struggles to contain Republican authoritarianism. I choose, instead, to play solitaire.

Whenever I try to make art out of the relationship between a human face and the interface, that is, the internet, I imagine two stars closely orbiting each other, transferring their mass from one to the other, consuming the material from their companion, sometimes exerting a gravitational force strong enough to pull the smaller star in completely. This is a space where metaphors could seem useless; the dancing stars left us long ago and their revolutions went with them. All that remains is this sad swerve of molecules we call language, where metaphor still has grounds to pull us.

Once, I played solitaire for twelve consecutive hours and my partner asked me to stop, three times, before she became frustrated, then angry, then left the apartment; she didn’t come back. Solitaire is considered a game of patience, a game one plays alone; unlike playing with real, physical cards, online solitaire allows you to undo a move and restart a game and to run through your hand as many times as you want. It facilitates victory, which is another way of facilitating validation. It is clean and simple and programmed to stay that way. Imagine doing that with a deck of cards? It’d be messy. Online solitaire is never messy.

With a real, actual deck of cards, victory is exceptional and unusual and, therefore, memorable, but it is not the rule and that is why I keep coming back for more of it, online.

Solitaire is the most widely played of all forms of cards played by one person. At World of Solitaire, where I play, about 5% of all solitaire games played are Klondike (Turn One), which means that Klondike (Turn One) players have spent a little over 7,018 years of total playtime, according to statistics provided on the site, building intricate, short-lived foundations from tunneled out, empty spaces. If you don’t know what I mean, look it up. The language of architecture is at the heart of solitaire. Without sounding allegorical, solitaire is all we’ve ever played.

Before she left for Mexico, Maureen showed her hand; I didn’t show mine and I didn’t want to. Besides, I was seeing someone and we hadn’t negotiated the contract. Maureen once stood in for me at a popular poetry reading series wearing a leather jacket and Ray-Ban sunglasses and smoking a cigarette.

Before she lit the cigarette, she unbuttoned her jacket. After she lit the cigarette, she said “I’ve been feeling a little depressed lately.” Strapped around her chest were six sticks of dynamite. Up until that moment, I had never thought that online solitaire could be a possible companion. In a way, solitaire allows me to take stock in a life as forgetful as it is secretive; to evaluate all that’s in one’s hand or to assess the double life that may or may not be waiting in the bush; it is also the name given to certain American birds of the thrush family and to an extinct flightless bird, which we will talk about in a moment. Solitaire is, without hesitation, America’s game: one doesn’t have to know one is playing it to be playing it.

I never think about where I’m going when I play solitaire. This non-thought, which is informed by doing the same thing everyday, is a pleasure: it is also reassuring, the way a familiar walk home is reassuring. The repetition that may be found in acts during which you play by yourself may be found in acts during which you play with yourself. There is great satisfaction when the game—or series of games, sometimes a handful, sometimes in the hundreds and thousands—is played well. Solitaire is the songbird of people who fly alone to heights collected on a scoreboard, imaginary or not, proving, again, that there is always a totemic aspect to our taboos.

The present-day solitaires are noteworthy songsters (I am copying the Encyclopedia). The best known is Townsend’s solitaire found in the Rockies from Alaska to northern Mexico; it is a slim gray bird with a white eye-ring, white sides of the tail and an adorable buffy wing patch. No walls, nor columns, can contain its migration; it is a bird without talons living in a land where everyone’s got talent. The extinct solitaire, which formerly lived on the island of Rodriguez (also spelled with an —es), was exterminated, along with the closely related dodos, by man and animals introduced to the island.

In Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, Judith Schalansky insinuates to have visited Rodriquez Island or at least to have promised herself she would; it isn’t included in the book. Instead, Schalansky travels to Tromelin, an island of dispute, caught in a tug of war between France and neighboring Mauritius and tells the story of a ship wreck that left 122 French sailors and 60 Malagasy slaves stranded on the small, uninhabited island of sand, which, in a startling way, inaptly describes my life of solitude when I have a mind for solitaire:

The survivors begin to build a boat out of the wreckage of the ship. Two months later, it is ready. The French sailors board, all 122 of them, packed in tightly, promising to fetch help, and are never seen again. The slaves stay behind. They are free, but trapped as never before, slaves now to their desire to survive. They make a fire, dig a well, sew themselves clothes out of feathers and catch birds, turtles and shellfish.

Some are so desperate that they float off into the unknown on a raft—anything is better than to stay trapped on a patch of sand, at the mercy of hope and their own lives. The others stay watching the fire.

If I were to de-historicize a bit and remain true to the importance of allegory, I would make the case that I am both the French sailors trying to escape this lonely island and the Malagasy slaves so desperate to leave that they float away into an ocean of uncertainty. But I am also glued to the fire. Not far away, but in another part of the world, Rodriguez solitaires will grow to the size of swans but nothing is known about the bird until a few sub-fossil bones are found in a cave in 1789. Thousands of bones have subsequently been excavated. It is the only extinct bird with a former star constellation named after it, Turdus Solitairius (solitary thrush—that’s right, turd is no slang term), which is later replaced by another constellation, Noctua (the Owl), in A Celestial Atlas (1822), by a British amateur astronomer. Not unlike people, birds, too, become famous because someone with power decides they should be remembered—even if, in this case, that power was exercised by an amateur, for the love of the stars. Neither constellation is in current use. The names of stars change, giving birth to seemingly new stars; and stars fall, too—with or without event.

I have put off meeting people at neighborhood restaurants because I was caught up in a puzzling game of solitaire. My average game time is approximately three minutes. When I’m winning, I can finish a game in a minute-and-a-half. I have won and lost games that exceeded 25 minutes. A favorite Mexican restaurant is less than a minute away by foot; if Mitzi texts me to meet her there for dinner, I know I can finish three games in less than ten minutes—the time it will take for her to get there—if I am feeling fortunate. I am always feeling fortunate—unless I lose, then I question my existence and smartly search my Facebook’s News Feed for politicians who are resigning out of disgrace and sign whatever petitions that call for impeachment. I know what disgrace feels like; it is messaging Mitzi back with “On my way” when I’m caught in a game of solitaire that I should have finished ten minutes ago. Someday, I hope a petition is started that calls for my resignation from World of Solitaire because I have been abused by this game— and have sought such abuse myself by playing it.

Extinction takes years; mine will be quick and, as far as extinctions go, unpredictable. We all know we’re going to die; the question is how and when and perhaps where? In the meantime, I will go on living and playing, wasting my time as much as you have wasted yours, bringing down, instead of bringing up, cultures and political institutions with the click of a key, unlocking no mysteries, wondering why, perhaps, it all went this way and not that? And while life goes on around me everywhere, I’ll be playing solitaire.

Eîlot Tuerie is copublisher at Wasted Books. He lives in Los Angeles.

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