- National Solitaire Day is May 22.
- Solitaire has been a staple of digital gaming since 1990, when Microsoft introduced it to personal computers as a way to teach people how to use a mouse.
- We asked psychologists and researchers to explain why solitaire is addictive to so many people.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
From desktop computers to phones and tablets, solitaire has been has been a mainstay of digital gaming since Microsoft introduced it to personal computers in 1990.
Originally integrated into Microsoft’s operating system as a fun, easy way to teach users how to maneuver a computer mouse — a skill that was only just replacing keyboard commands at the time — the game has maintained its appeal for the past 29 years. It was even inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame earlier this month.
And the honor comes just in time for the second annual celebration of National Solitaire Day on May 22.
All these years later, the familiar card game has become much more than just a tool for learning computer skills. For many people, it’s an obsession.
In a 2006 Washington Post chat, computer addiction researcher Maressa Hecht Orzack said her growing obsession with the game had led her to lose sleep and neglect her work.
“I kept playing solitaire more and more — my late husband would find me asleep at the computer,” Orzack wrote in the chat. “I was missing deadlines. I knew something had to be done.”
And Orzack is not the only one. Author Francine Prose explained her love for the game in a 2013 New York Times column, writing that “you’re playing against yourself, against your previous best, against the law of averages and the forces of chance. You’re taking random elements and trying to put them together in a pleasing way, to make order out of chaos.”
But when it comes to labeling an obsession with solitaire as an addiction, Christopher Ferguson, a clinical psychologist at Stetson University, told Business Insider that it’s important to recognize the difference between really liking something and having a clinical addiction.
“People (say) ‘I’m addicted to cupcakes,’ ‘I’m addicted to chocolate,’ meaning ‘This is a really fun thing that I like to do a lot,'” Ferguson told Business Insider. “There’s a huge debate that goes on in the field right now about whether video games can be compared to things like substance abuse, or if video games are more similar to hobby-like activities that many people enjoy — and some people might overdo.”
Addiction to substances like heroin or cocaine create a biochemical reaction that drives addiction, but Ferguson said a fixation with solitaire is more of a behavioral addiction — an obsessive behavioral pattern that can be a sign of underlying mental distress or illness.
“People who have mental health issues, or are simply under stress, tend to be drawn to things that are fun and distracting. And that’s mostly good, actually,” Ferguson told Business Insider. “It’s just that sometimes, for some individuals, they may begin to really overdo those activities as a form of escapism.”
Staple characteristics of solitaire, like the game’s quick play-time and relatively easy-to-achieve rewards, lend it to being a coping mechanism for those dealing with stress or mental illness, Mark Griffiths, a behavioral addiction professor at the Nottingham Trent University, told Business Insider in an email.
“They use such behaviors as a way of escape, and the repetitive playing of games can help in such circumstances,” Griffiths said.
He added that in the vast majority of cases, these coping mechanisms can be adaptive and positive, but for a small number of people these mechanisms can escalate and become disruptive to their quality of life.
Anthony Bean, a clinical psychologist and director of the mental health nonprofit the Telos Project, said there are some clear signs that solitaire might be playing too big a role in your life.
“(If you’re) noticing you’re putting more time than other areas into the game and, let’s say, not paying attention to your family, not paying attention to work, not paying attention to school, that’s when we start to say, ‘Well, something’s going on here,'” Bean told Business Insider.
In those instances, Bean and Ferguson say these red flags can be an opportunity for users to seek help in dealing with the mental health issues driving their addictive behavior in order to regain balance in their lives.
“Solitaire didn’t do it to them,” Ferguson told Business Insider. “It’s not about technology. It’s about mental health.”