After almost 25 years securely buried in the Recycle Bin of our unconscious, SkiFree has somehow been restored to the desktop. With thousands of likes on Facebook, a new website on which it is by far the most popular game listed, recent versions on iOS and Android and t-shirts emblazoned with the SkiFree Yeti on sale again, this totally bizarre ‘game’ from 1991 is back on our computer screens. But how does replaying SkiFree now compare with the experience of playing it in 1991? In short, a mad and subversive game from the early 90s has become nothing more than yet another example of internet distraction which helps us become conformist and unquestioning capitalist workers.
In 1991, when it was first released as part of the Microsoft Entertainment Pack for Windows 3.1, it is no exaggeration to say that SkiFree was totally mental. There were other games in this entertainment pack, and others still which came free with a new Windows computer, but SkiFree stood out as anachronistic from the first click. To contextualize, some well-known games from this moment in technological history included Minesweeper, WinRisk and Solitaire. Each of these games required active and challenging mental work on the part of the participant. We can think of Minesweeper as the 1990s forerunner to Sudoku, where WinRisk was based on a strategical board game and Solitaire on a taxing card game. Each of these games was an example of what, a hundred years before, the Victorians had called ‘rational recreation,’ a constructive use of leisure time that would enrich our minds, cultivate our critical faculties and ultimately turn us into proper and useful citizens. SkiFree was not.
In the 19th century this kind of ‘rational recreation’ was a way to control a potentially revolutionary working class population that was suffering from mass dissatisfaction in order to prevent an uprising by governing and regulating people’s leisure time. In 1992 this was obviously still going on: we were sat at our computers doing what we considered to be fun but which was probably designed to help us compute sums more efficiently, think faster and input data into spreadsheets better at work. This was the kind of conformist entertainment that was offered to us on Windows 3.1, which included a host of other rationally ‘useful’ and ostensibly ‘interesting’ semi-educational games from Chessnet to Election ’92, each of which was ‘improving’ us. Alternatively, we could click on SkiFree.
Chaos immediately ensued. Skiing down a mountain at a speed that might seem normal in the days of Temple Run but which in the 90s (when Lemmings was considered a frantic game) was nothing short of petrifying, we could chase down other skiers, crash into cable cars, murder dogs, leap over half a dozen trees at once and set things on fire, wreaking havoc on the skiing community. Ultimately, none of it mattered, because we were always munched to death by a growling yeti who was totally inescapable. Believe me, I tried to evade him for hours. Very experimental and experienced players of the game might remember that if you pushed the game’s boundaries its reality became blurred: certain trees could be made to move and grow feet (if you looked carefully) and (if you skied backwards over certain tree stumps) some turned into mushrooms. If you killed enough dogs they could stain the snow yellow. It didn’t matter why because it was all mad anyway.
SkiFree then, totally mocks the idea of useful time expenditure and asks us to dive into a mad waste of time with no end ‘goal’ in sight. It hardly even qualified as a game because there was no way to win and no challenge; just mad unregulated enjoyment. As a result, SkiFree had a truly anti-capitalist premise in which enjoyment derived from the game was not measurable, no gain was available to us or anyone else, and no personal improvement occurred. Even Chris Pirih, the game’s creator, didn’t make money from the game. In fact, it sat in our computers like a bad egg,undermining everything else that Windows seemed to stand for, tempting us to click on it and reject everything from Excel spreadsheets and Microsoft Publisher to supposed ‘games’ that were forcing us to learn stuff while we pretended to be enjoying them. It didn’t matter whether it was ‘being creative’ on Paint, learning about history on Fields of Battle or working with numbers on Minesweeper, everything else on our computers were ‘useful.’ As a very young boy growing up, I know now that I could unconsciously feel that clicking on SkiFree and playing it for hours was a mad and subversive rejection that would meet disapproval from not only from my parents but from capitalism in general. That’s why I loved it.
A week ago, at the beginning of 2016, some 25 years on from when Pirih made the game, The Windows 3.x Showcase was launched. Billing itself as ‘a collection of curated Windows 3.x software, meant to show the range of software products available for the 3.x Operating System in the early 1990s,’ the site made SkiFree available once more. In a week, it has shot to the top of the most popular list on the site, with twenty thousand plays already, far more than any other game. Some of us had already been playing SkiFree by downloading it from its own website, on iOS, who had released a copy available in the Apple store in 2013, or on Android in the guise of Zombie SkiFree, a pretty direct copy of the game. So, are we seeing a resurgence of mindless fun that rejects social attempts to ‘rationalize’ and organize our enjoyment?
Sadly, I think not, because the relationship between work and games has completely changed since the 1990s. In my recent book, Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism, I argued that certain kinds of distracting enjoyment serve as a perfect supplement to the mindless capitalist workplace. While playing distracting mobile phone games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush seem like a total waste of time (and like it’s the last thing your boss would want you doing under the table) they actually make us feel guilty and input data quicker after we’re done being distracted, as proven by companies who use games in the workplace to make people work harder and produce more. SkiFree’s re-appearance is in danger of being yet another of such distractions, perhaps with added nostalgia. In other words, ‘useless’ and ‘distracting,’ apparently ‘wasteful’ enjoyment is now the rational useful type of enjoyment serving the agenda of capitalist productivity. The more SkiFree seems meaningless, the guiltier we feel and harder we work to repay the time ‘wasted.’
So what should we do with the re-emergence of SkiFree? We can try to resist yet another distracting enjoyment whose subversive power has been lost and which now functions as yet another distraction to stimulate guilt and make us feel that we owe something back to the system and need to do something ‘productive’ afterwards. In this case, we should refuse to play SkiFree in 2016. Or, we can try to recover some of that mad sensation the game used to produce in us in the 90s and resist the capitalist rationalization of enjoyment that we live in today. If you’re choosing the latter, join the new SkiFree Fansite I just created on Facebook for readers of this article.