Why Did Microsoft include games with Windows OS? A Teaching Moment

Solitaire has always been a part of my experience as a user of Windows. But I've never stopped to wonder why it has been included in every Windows machine I have owned.

Here are some possible explanations:
  • Did Microsoft want to balance the time saved by using technology with time that we could waste with solitaire or Freecell or Minesweeper?
  • Did they want to show how smart I am? (I mean, I'm really good at Freecell. I win half my games.)
  • Did they want students to be able to show teachers 'I'm bored' or 'I'm not working on your assignment' without needing to raise their hands and actually say so?
  • Did Bill Gates have so much money that he decided to give away games free?

Turns out there are specific reasons these games are on our computers--and all of them have to do with teaching.

As reported in Mental Floss last year, Microsoft had specific reasons for the games it released with Windows 3.1 in 1992 (my junior year in college when, incidentally, I was using an Amiga 500 to write my college papers and play games).

With Solitaire, Windows was trying to teach users how to use a mouse to point, grab, and drag objects across the screen. (Considering that Apple's Macintosh systems had been on the market for eight years, it's surprising that Microsoft felt the need to teach this.) Still, the basics of solitaire--click, drag, double-click--hooked millions of Windows users and made the process simple.

Minesweeper taught a second skill--one that Macintosh never had--the use of the right click button. The left click button was used to clear squares, but users marked probably bombs with the right click of the mouse. If they clicked on the bomb with the left button, it was GAME OVER.

The final game, Freecell, had more of a technical rationale. It was released to see if the first 32-bit Windows systems would run on the older, 16-bit machines. If the game worked, the other software would, too. In other words, it was more a "canary in the coal mine" than a teaching tool.

The software were released with every level of Windows until 8.0, on which they were left off. Microsoft wasn't finished using the software to lead users into lessons. Windows users had to buy the games separately in the Windows App Store. Of course millions of solitaire-addicted users did just that.

Connections with Me, Connections with Teaching

I never used Windows 8. Last spring I took advantage of the free upgrade to leap from Windows 7 to Windows 10. I had never played Freecell on the new OS until I read this article.

When I went to look for it, there happened to be an advertisement for the game under the "Play and Explore" section of the menu I find when I select the start button. I downloaded the "Solitaire Suite," but I wasn't finished. When I went to load the game I was asked to sign in with my XBox Live account. Apparently I can now play online and "earn rewards." Every time I finish a game now, a "premium" version of the game is offered.

Well-played, Microsoft. Solitaire isn't just a teaching tool, it's a revenue-generator.

In teaching, there are simple things we need to ensure that students understand. Is there a way we can use Microsoft's strategy to let students play their way to essential skills?

What would a 'game' look like that would make sure that students knew the basic rules of your classroom? How would it be practiced? What would it take to 'win'?

Epilogue: In my "research" for this blog post (over the July 4, 2016, weekend), I played 28 games of Freecell, winning 22 of them (78%). I am such a video game addict.