Kyle Orland is the author of a new book about the decades-spanning Windows staple Minesweeper, currently funding on Kickstarter. I caught up with Kyle over email to discuss 90s gaming stigma, unlikely book topics, and his own history with the game. - Gabe Durham
Your book is historical, and only barely touches on your personal history with Minesweeper. Could you tell us about how you got into the game?
I remember first finding the game while I was puttering around on my mom's work computer during one of those summer days where she had to bring me in to work for some reason. I clicked around semi-randomly until I found a mine and got very confused. Then my mom actually explained how the numbers worked -- and some of the basics of working out how to find safe spaces -- and the rest was history.
In the days before the Internet, I remember staring at Minesweeper boards for minutes at a time without making a click, trying to work out if there were any logical rules I was missing that could help me make more progress without guessing (usually there weren't). I remember being very excited the first time I was able to complete an Expert-level board, and quickly falling away from the game after that -- games like Freecell or Rattler Race or Skiefree or Tripeaks became my casual Windows staples for a while.
While I played Minesweeper now and then through the '90s, I got back into the game big time in college, where my college roommate and I got into a months-long high score chase together (hi Danny). Years later, I also had a brief obsession with the Adventure Mode added to the Windows 8 version of the game, which added items and a sense of progression rather than a battle with a ticking clock.
Between those periods of intense interest, though, Minesweeper is a game I'd often find myself drifting to once every few years when bored at a computer. "Oh yeah, Minesweeper. It's been a while. I wonder if I could do any better now." And usually, after a few weeks of obsessive practice, I could.
What made you think of Minesweeper, years later, for the topic of a book?
When thinking of a game to pitch for the Boss Fight Books treatment, I went through a mental list of the titles that I had personally spent the most time with over the year, trying to come up with one that (1) was popular enough to draw some interest in a book-length treatment and (2) hadn't already been written about ad nauseum.
I came up with a lot of candidates that met the first criterion, but Minesweeper was the best game I could think of for that second one. In fact, if you measure games by the ratio of "total aggregate hours played" vs "total aggregate number of words written about," I doubt any game would beat Minesweeper.
I was pretty sure the story of Minesweeper's creation and impact could sustain a book. But discovering the thorough history and documentation at The Authoritative Minesweeper web site cemented my desire to write about this game. There, I learned about the incredible story of how the Minesweeper record-chasing community started exploiting the game's random board generation to play on a record-ready "Dreamboard" where they had already memorized the mine placements. The resulting drama gave the whole book a human angle that really pulled everything else together.
Early readers have been fascinated by the book's portrait of Microsoft in the 90s, a time when some in the company were very against the idea of Microsoft having anything to do with games. What was the stigma around computer games at the time?
When Minesweeper was made in 1990, Microsoft was a behemoth making billions of dollars in annual revenue from its operating systems and massive productivity software like Office and Word. There was a real concern among some in the company that producing games would ruin Microsoft's business-focused reputation and make people think they weren't a serious company worthy of major corporate contracts. And even though there was a growing market for MS-DOS-based games at the time, a lot of executives at Microsoft still balked at the idea that anyone would buy one of these expensive number-crunching machines just to let their kids goof off.
It was the surprise success of Windows Solitaire (which was built-in to Windows 3.0 in 1990) was the wedge needed to start changing that perception in parts of Microsoft. The small Entry Business Unit -- which was responsible for trying to kickstart Windows' home PC business -- saw an opportunity for a collection of simple Windows games that would convince customers there was more to the OS than making work. Minesweeper was included in the first Microsoft Entertainment Pack for Windows that year, and the rest is history.
As you cover in the book, Minesweeper doesn't get brought up a lot in "history of video games" conversations despite for a time being absolutely everywhere. Why do you think games like Minesweeper get left out of the conversation?
Part of it is that the game was so easily accessible for so long -- many players still automatically discount the inherent worth of free-to-play games, even ones like Minesweeper that largely predate things like microtransactions or in-game ads. If Microsoft was giving it out for free, how much value could it really have? A lot of people unfairly think of Minesweeper as "that game you play if there is absolutely nothing else to play" on a given Windows PC (a state of affairs that's very rare in the Internet age).
Part of it is also probably the game's simplicity -- it doesn't have a deep narrative or identifiable characters or complicated mechanics or any of the other markers of complexity that help mark a game as "serious" or "memorable" in people's minds. Yet there are tens of millions of regular Minesweeper players that can testify to the game's addictive appeal. I'd put Minesweeper in the same bucket as Tetris in terms of games where the lack of complexity is part of what makes them special. It seems like one of the primordial building blocks of the very concept of a computer game -- a basic puzzle that can't be broken down any further.
We had a draft of the cover of your book that we were pretty happy with until you got some feedback that wasn't... great. Could you tell the story?
Heh, yeah, we originally used a picture of a dog toy with a bunch of spikes that we felt evoked the look of the underwater mine icon used in the game. When I showed it to some friends and family, though, a few people told me the shape reminded them of the pictures of the microscopic coronavirus that had been all over the news for months at the time.
Once I saw that, I couldn't unsee it, and didn't want it to distract a pandemic-addled public. So we found a similar pet toy with rounded bumps that looked like a mine without evoking the virus quite as strongly.
Since you've been writing about games longer than most of our writers (and since you are the editor of a popular games vertical), I'm curious about how you'd describe the current cultural moment in how people are thinking and talking about video games. And then: What do you want to see more of from writers and content creators?
That's a big question. On the one hand, thanks to the Internet, there are way more people writing about games and aggregate words being written about games than there were when Minesweeper came out in 1990 (when a handful of monthly glossy magazines were pretty much it). The explosion of voices and quality criticism and industry analysis available to a thoughtful reader today is beyond anything I could have dreamed of as a kid in journalism school.
On the other hand, I fear that explosion in the supply of game writing has led to a devaluing of writing about games as a profession. Having so many people creating so much good content -- many of them willing to do it for free -- makes it harder to grab enough attention to stand out and actually make it a vocation, rather than a hobby. There's also been a large, wholesale shift in attention to video makers and streamers that has lessened the demand for writing about games, for good or for ill.
If there's one thing I'd like to see more of, it's reporting on the people making games, especially in a historical context. The people who made some of the earliest titles aren't going to be around forever, and capturing their memories and thoughts for future generations is going to be worth a lot more than some hot take on the latest AAA shooter.
I also love deep dives into hyper-niche groups of players or creators, like the competitive Minesweeper community I talk about in the book. The stories about games I find most interesting these days are the ones about humans playing them in interesting ways, or molding them into completely new forms through playful experimentation.