If you haven’t ever played Solitaire, Minesweeper, Hearts or FreeCell, it’s safe to say you’re in the minority. These simple Windows games have probably caused more lost worker hours than anything short of a worldwide coffee shortage. Whichever one was your favourite, the temptation to take just one more go at beating them — to get a faster time or a better score — was hard to ignore. But as fun as these games were, they weren’t actually designed for entertainment. At least not in their Windows incarnations.
The oldest of the four, Microsoft Solitaire, was first added to Windows 3.0 in 1990. Although the game (sometimes called “Patience”) has existed since the late 1700s, this digital version seemed to be demonstrating that in the future we would no longer require a physical deck to play simple card games. But that’s not what it was doing at all. Its real aim was far more modest: It was teaching mouse-fluency by stealth.
The intention was that Solitaire would get a generation of computer users still most familiar with a command-line input to teach themselves how to drag and drop, without realising that’s what they were doing. The fact that we’re still dragging and dropping today suggests that it worked rather well.
Minesweeper, too, has a similar place in technological culture. The numbers-based logic puzzle has roots in the mainframe gaming scene of the 1960s and 1970s, where a version called “Cube” by Jerimac Ratliff became incredibly popular. Decades later, in 1992, the Microsoft version Mineswee-per was introduced to Windows 3.1 — not to demonstrate that Windows was an adept gaming operating system, but to make the idea of left and right clicking second nature for Windows users, and to foster speed and precision in mouse movement.
And finally, there’s FreeCell. Released for Windows 3.1 as part of the Microsoft Entertainment Pack Volume 2, FreeCell was bundled with the Win32s package that allowed 32-bit applications to run on the 16-bit Windows 3.1. Its purpose was actually to test the 32-bit thunking layer (a data processing subsystem), which had been introduced as part of Win32s. If the thunking layer was improperly installed, FreeCell wouldn’t run. So what you thought was a game was actually a stealth test of software systems....