Solitaire Togetherness

NetCELL means never having to play with yourself again.

Published April 27, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

I contemplated taking a break after my 36th consecutive NetCELL win. My wrists were sweating. My head hummed with monitor buzz. I hadn't blinked in over an hour. I was already up to 42nd place on the Top 100 list. Was it finally time to squelch my lust for competitive solitaire?

There are few sights as ugly as that of the compulsive computer solitaire player -- a deranged devotee of sexless onanism, endlessly clicking onward. But I had no choice. That bastard Tsai had a streak of 40 going. I had to catch him. All week long Tsai had been effortlessly outdistancing my streaks -- teaching me the true meaning of networked solitaire dominance. Today was my day. Today I would overcome the mighty Tsai. I flexed my mouse wrist and requested another solitaire "flop" from the NetCELL server.

Yes, I was a sorry case, but I was hardly alone. My plight had meaning. The term "competitive solitaire" may reek of oxymoronic overkill, but the phrase still works as a potent metaphor for cyberspatial life. We are all, in a sense, playing solitaire when we sit down at our keyboards and log on to the Net. But once connected we tend to find communities we can call our own. And facilitating the creation of such communities is what the Net does best. Since I discovered NetCELL, my solitaire won-loss record has gained a social context. No longer do I face my addiction alone -- I am part of a Net-based community of solitaire players.

NetCELL is a networked version of Freecell, an easy-to-win solitaire game with an ancient online history. Indeed, the very first online community -- the PLATO system at the University of Illinois -- enjoyed a "rich Freecell environment," according to NetCELL creator Denny Cronin. PLATO users could access computer-generated stats, compete in online tournaments and sample exotic varieties of the basic Freecell game.

Last April, Cronin, a programmer in Champaign, Ill., set out to reproduce that environment, using the Java programming language to adapt Freecell for the Web. He succeeded. Today, the NetCELL server launches some 3,000 games a day and keeps track of every player's win streaks, winning percentage, average-time-per-game and total hours played. There's even a little newsgroup for desultory discussion of important NetCELL issues, and Cronin is planning to set up a chat room annex.

"There are a lot of crazed bug-eyed NetCELL freaks out there," says Cronin, lovingly, while noting with bemused admiration that one Danish NetCELL player totaled a whopping 600 hours of NetCELL playing time over the past year. "The competitive aspect adds some interest."

"There seems to be this constant struggle of 'quit while I'm still winning' or 'go ahead and play just one or two more games, because then I'll be in 50th place instead of 52nd,'" says NetCELL regular Annette Hammerberg. "So you go ahead and play and make some really stupid mistake, and boom, you have to play 20+ more games just to make it back on the stats board again. VERY frustrating ... but you do it again anyways. Guess that's why I started playing under the name of I_Need_Netcell_Anon."

Yep, it's not all fun and games when you're locked in a NetCELL dogfight. As Lynne Green, another regular, notes, "the game can certainly have a mind-numbing effect. After 20 to 23 games I have a tendency to get NetCELL brain and couldn't win even the easiest game."

NetCELL brain isn't the worst of it. There are some disturbing privacy implications to the reality of online solitaire surveillance. No serious NetCELL player can be comfortable with the thought of his or her employer or spouse discovering exactly how many hours he or she is spending swapping around digital jacks and queens.

And even that dire eventuality pales before the threat NetCELL poses to frail human willpower. I'm an old hand at addictive behavior: I've gone to the mat with the blocks of Tetris, the fickle populace of SimCity 2000, the robot drones of Descent. But whenever I found myself too enslaved, I'd just delete the damn things from my hard drive.

But I can't delete the Web. I can't stuff my ears full of wax and slip past the solitaire cyber-sirens. NetCELL will always be out there. Aside from canceling my Web access -- and for me that would be like unto death -- there is no escape.

Solitaire has been around exactly as long as playing cards themselves and will follow humans wherever they go, whether it be the Net or the frozen tundra. There are some 350 varieties of solitaire, and several card historians consider it to be the most widely played of all card games. There have even been pre-digital outbreaks of competitive solitaire. Klondike, the most popular version of the game, received its name during the Alaskan gold rush of the 1890s, when miners with nothing better to do during the long winter months -- no TV, no Net access! -- honed their solitaire skills by the light of kerosene lamps. Occasionally, the miners would mosey down to a Dawson City saloon and bet on solitaire games in progress.

But competitive solitaire could only really come into its own in the online era, a fact I soon realized when I found myself checking the NetCELL server at odd times of day or night to see if my dread nemesis Tsai might be riding a new NetCELL streak. Cyberspace evangelists rave about the revolutionary implications of ever-increasing interconnectivity for human society. There's been talk of meta-consciousness and instant democracy, of the complete reshaping of market capitalism and the breakdown of national sovereignty. Personally, I've always discounted such overwrought blather.

But that was before I discovered NetCELL, and saw how isolation could be made collegial. Deal me another hand, partner. With NetCELL, and the Net, even when we are alone, we will be together.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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