After almost 25 years buried in the Recycle Bin of our unconscious, SkiFree has somehow been restored to the desktop. With thousands of likes on Facebook, several web-based remakes, new apps on Android & iOS, there has never been a better time to wear a SkiFree Yeti t-shirt and dig back into this totally bizarre ‘game’ from 1991. But has the experience fundamentally changed?
In 1992, when it was first released as part of the Microsoft Entertainment Pack for Windows 3.1, it is no exaggeration to say that SkiFree stood out as totally mental. To give you some context, its well-known siblings of this era in technological history were: Minesweeper, WinRisk and Solitaire. Each of these required active and challenging mental work on the part of the participant. Minesweeper was yesteryear’s Sudoku, WinRisk was derived from strategy board games, and Solitaire was… well, the notoriously taxing card game by the same name. Each of these perfectly exemplified what the Victorians, a hundred years prior, would have called ‘rational recreation.’ The term refers to a constructive use of leisure time meant to enrich the mind, cultivate one’s critical faculties and ultimately help a human being become a proper and useful citizen. SkiFree accomplished none of these things.
So what is the purpose of ‘rational recreation’? Well in the 19th century it was a way to regulate people’s leisure time so as to prevent the working class population—at the time experiencing mass dissatisfaction—from rising up and overthrowing the government. In 1992, not much had changed: the majority of desktop computer games seemed designed to fool us into thinking we were having fun while simultaneously helping us think, compute, and input more efficiently. Windows 3.1 was a bastion of ‘useful’ and ostensibly ‘interesting’ semi-educational games that ran the gamut from Chessnet to Election ’92. These we could play to improve ourselves and become better workers. Or we could click on SkiFree.
If we did, chaos immediately ensued. The player would find themselves skiing down a mountain at a speed that might seem normal in the days of Temple Run but which in the 90s (at a time when Lemmings was considered a frantic game) was nothing short of petrifying. They could chase down other skiers, crash into cable cars, murder dogs, leap over half a dozen trees at once and set things on fire. Ultimately none of it mattered, because they were always munched to death by a totally inescapable growling yeti. (Believe me, I tried to evade the damn creature for hours.) The most experimental and experienced players might remember that if you pushed the game’s boundaries, its reality became blurred: certain trees would move and grow feet (if you looked carefully) and (if you skied backwards over certain tree stumps) they might turn into mushrooms. Oh, and if you killed a large number of dogs they would start staining the snow yellow. Why? Who cares. It was madness, pure and simple.
SkiFree mocked the idea of useful time expenditure and asked 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 particular challenge to master; 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 ever occurred. Even Chris Pirih, the game’s creator, didn’t make money from the game. SkiFree was the bad egg undermining everything Windows seemed to stand for, tempting us to click on it and in the process reject Microsoft Office and its accompanying army of useful ‘games’. As a very young boy, that’s what clicking on SkiFree felt like: a mad and subversive rejection of capitalism that would be met with the disapproval of my parents and society in general. That’s why I loved it.
Fast forward some 25 years. In January of 2016, The Windows 3.x Showcase is 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 ‘officially available once more. Within a week the game had become the most popular thing on the site, racking up twenty thousand plays (far more than any other game on offer.) Was this then a resurgence of the same kind of mindless fun? A fresh rejection of society’s new 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 may seem like a total waste of time (your Boss disapproves!) they are actually very effective at making us feel guilty for playing them, the result of which is faster data input after we’re done being distracted. This phenomenon can be observed quite easily: there are companies using games in the workplace to make people work harder. SkiFree’s re-appearance then, within the context of this age of mass distraction, is hard to qualify as subversive. This is because ‘useless,’ ‘distracting,’ and apparently ‘wasteful’ enjoyment has now become rational and useful, a type of enjoyment that perfectly complements and enhances the agenda of capitalist productivity. The more SkiFree seems meaningless, the guiltier we feel for playing it, the harder in turn we work to repay the time ‘wasted.’
So what should we do about all this? Well, we could refuse to play SkiFree altogether. Or we could try to “take back” SkiFree by reliving the mad feelings the game provided us in the 90s, all the while remaining aware of—and actively resisting—the new ways in which capitalist rationalization attempts to control our enjoyment. In short: don’t feel guilty. Or feel guilty but don’t work harder afterwards. So if you’re with me on that one, come join the new SkiFree Fansite I just created on Facebook. I’m sure this time the Yeti will let us get away.