Simulations and Digital Affordance: How solitaire (i.e. patience) can show the way

I'm a cheat.

There, I admitted it. But I'm not ashamed, though my brother and father might still be wondering why not. But what am I ashamed about? Cheating at solitaire (i.e. patience), going back through the cards to try another set of choices that might work better. But this isn't physical cards I'm talking about here, but digital cards - simulated cards if you will.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, time to backtrack a little ...

Playing Solitaire

As anyone with a grandma (or grandpa I guess, but mine was paternal grandmother) will probably know, solitaire is a single player card game where half the cards are laid out in a pattern on a table and the other half of the cards are turned over three at a time and checked to see if the upfacing card can be either be placed on the visible cards (descending order) or removed from play (ascending order). OK, there's more to it than that, and lots of variations across the world, but in a nutshell that's what I'm talking about. For more info why not check out Wikipedia on Solitaire (Klondike).

Now the whole point of this game as I learnt it was that you couldn't go back, i.e. if you made a bad choice and got stuck that was the end of the game and you had to start again. Of course you could go back if you wanted - though that would be cheating - but honestly it was such hard work that you could barely remember enough steps to make it worthwhile.

But that was in the real world version.

Now skip forward to the digital world, and solitaire is everywhere. It's probably one of the most played games in the world, as just about every computer device either has it installed to has the capacity to play it. But the big difference with these versions is that these are simulations of solitaire, they are not actually solitaire in themselves. Yes they're generally very good simulations, but they're simulations none the less.

Cheating at Solitaire

Now this makes for an interesting variation. The simulation itself is held within a virtual (or digital if you will) world. Being in this virtual world means that it is not constrained by the rules that the real world is constrained by; because the entire simulation is held within a computer system every action that takes place is being remembered automatically all the time. Suddenly I don't have to remember what order the cards came in, the timeline is remembered in the computer, so I can move freely back through it - and forward again, depending on the specific model of the simulation - any time I choose. This might be considered as an affordance of the simulation, amongst the many actions that are available to me is the affordance to go back and forth within the solitaire timeline. Not everyone will see this affordance that's for sure - hence the familial arguments - but that is the nature of affordances, they exist in the world all the time, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we all perceive them, and therefore take advantage of them. An affordance exists between an individual and an object, it exists in the relationship between the two.

So now I can cheat at Solitaire, and cheat so easily too. But is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Cognitive Freedom!

I've been using this technique for many years now, and I'm convinced that it generates a form of cognitive freedom that is novel and could have important impacts if emulated elsewhere. By offloading some cognitive function (in this case memory) onto the computer system I can focus on a much more intriguing and challenging problem - what particular sequence of actions is the correct one that will lead to a successful conclusion in solitaire. It's actually surprisingly hard to deduce from the pattern of cards exactly what sequence is necessary, and I've found it a refreshing and stimulating change to the rather more mundane version of solitaire that most people play. It retains a pattern of chance and skill that is the hallmark of all good games, but in this instance ups the skill quotient by several notches.

So what do you think? I'd be really interested to hear from others who perhaps have already been doing this themselves, or from people who would like to give it a go. Let me know in the comments. Give yourself a challenge .. and let's see if cheating at solitaire can make you smarter!

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