Free Cell Me

Okay, this blog is kinda about Free Cell.

But kinda not.

I have recently started playing the solitaire card game Free Cell. It’s been installed on my computer, preinstalled actually, and previously untouched, being just one of those bundled limbo programs that don’t get used but don’t get uninstalled either, like a piece of never worn clothing at the back of the closet that stays unworn yet never makes it off the rack and maybe even possessing a sort of invisibility that encourages the eyes not to notice it as they scan for something else.

In fact, I didn’t start playing it because I spontaneously noticed it on my All Programs list. Rather I started playing it because one of the current books I’m reading is The Passage by Justin Cronin.

The book is about — or so far seems to be about — the discovery of a virus that may, if they can chemist it up just right, allow for creating a sort of modern day vampire to be used as a possible weapon. The government — which is at least one of the theys — is involved (of course of course) with a hush-hush project and different agendas and (of course of course) a protagonist or two that gets thrust into the middle of things whether they want to be thrusted or not.

It’s actually well written and quite a fun read, and I would recommend it despite my kind of half-snark description (only half-snark, though, because in general plots are finite and it’s the writing that makes a story work or not and his does).

But the point here is Free Cell.

One of the characters, dead now (“…as he experienced the sensation, utterly new to him, of being torn in half”), played Free Cell to pass the time in the hush-hush underground research facility. Not a lot of words of playing, considering it is 700+ page book and poor old Free Cell playing Richards is dead on page 206 and was just one of the players in the ensemble story anyway.

But enough curious words — such as saying every hand can be won if played correctly — that I thought, Hey, I should try it and did.

Now I didn’t know how to play it and was too lazy for instructions, so I just started with the assumption it was somewhat similar to standard solitaire and started moving cards. In that half-assed fashion along with the program’s polite but firm You can’t do that, you moron, you need x free spaces and you only have y free spaces I figured out the rules and won some and lost some and had a right fine time.

I’d highly recommend it, actually, but like I said this blog isn’t (all) about Free Cell.

What I found and find particularly interesting is thinking about the two levels of higher-order consciousness that such an endeavor reveals. By higher order, I’m not putting myself up high, incidentally, but referring to the human state as opposed to (most?) animal states of consciousness.

First, the uncovering of rules.

Not all rules of life or science or existence, in fact hardly any, come to us in a nice and tidy e-mail digest form. We touch, prod, poke, move and generally muck about and go hmm a lot until something seems to reasonably click in the connections department. If that hmm doesn’t immediately precede our painful death, we can share it with others, allowing them to make further hmms as well as continue to expand on our own hmm collection.

We do this automatically, can’t help but do this, but still, gee whiz, holy Kant Categories, Batman, it still is pretty darn amazing.

Once rules are understood, or mostly (we think) understood, strategy can be employed in the game, whether it is Free Cell, Chess, or real life. But what is strategy? Sure it involves trying to find The Best Way to achieve something. But have you ever considered how much high-level thought it involves?

For surely The Best Way assumes being able to get to that way before losing the game or ending up dead, both of which kind of put a damper on the whole strategy activity. We do this of course by thinking through different actions and what the possible outcomes might be. And we take it for granted that we can do this and here too probably can’t help but do it.

But, still, this doing is all in our head, just changing patterns of neural firing that allow us to act out scenarios without the more risky action of actively acting them out; to experiment without experimentation. Holy epistemology, Batgirl, but that seems like a kind of empiricism… yet not quite.

Both actions — putting things into conceptual buckets and using that construction to map out possibilities — are just part and parcel of what it means to be human. So on the one hand no big deal. Yet on the far bigger hand of adaptation, it is a huge deal; made even huger when we consider we are a work in progress not an endpoint.

The next time someone chastises you for wasting too much time on playing games, consider reminding them that you are not wasting time at all. You’re evolving.