That time Bill Gates got so obsessed with Minesweeper high scores that Microsoft staff had to conjure up one he couldn't beat
Journalist Kyle Orland is writing an entire book on the history of Minesweeper, which I suspect is a much more fascinating topic than it may at first appear. Minesweeper is one of those games that feels somehow omnipresent now, always there no matter which PC you're on, though its roots are in early '90s Microsoft and specifically the Windows 3.0 era. As part of the book's launch campaign Ars Technica features a chapter about those early days, and one particularly big fan of the game.
Minesweeper first appeared on Microsoft's internal network in 1990, where various employees quickly got (understandably) hooked. "It was, needless to say, a very well-tested piece of software around Microsoft," said Charles Fitzgerald, a product manager for the first Windows Entertainment Pack which would contain Minesweeper.
Plenty of Microsoft employees acquired a Minesweeper habit over this period and, amusingly enough, their reports to the developers were often erroneous. One claimed it was impossible to finish on Expert difficulty. "Whenever someone claimed to have found a bug, I asked them to send me a screenshot and then I had to point out their logic mistake," recalled Minesweeper coder Robert Donner.
Then, Minesweeper ensnared the biggest fish in Microsoft. "Bill [Gates] got addicted," said Fitzgerald.
"Originally, I think I got a mail from Bill saying, 'I just solved [Beginner] Minesweeper in 10 seconds. Is that good?'" said product manager Bruce Ryan recalled. "I wrote back to him, I go, 'Yeah, 10 seconds is really good. The record for us right now I think is eight.' (I think that was me, embarrassingly.) Apparently, the fact that the record was very close to where he was led him to make [it] his mission [to beat it]."
Gates would get so obsessed with the game that he removed it from his own machine. This being 1990 there was also an honesty system around the high score records, which were in a simple text file, whereby any new record score had to have been seen by someone else. "So it was one Sunday afternoon, and we get [an] email from Bill saying, 'Hey, I think I just got a new high score. It’s on the machine in [then-Microsoft President] Mike Hallman’s office.' And like, 'What?'"
"This was early evening," said Ryan. "So we went over there, seven at night. [Hallman] was a former Boeing executive, and he was not a humorful guy, so… the idea that Bill is sitting there after work, going into the president’s office so he could play Minesweeper, it was just weird imagery."
Gates' love for Minesweeper has been known of since the early '90s, but what Orland's book uncovers is the quasi-obsessive depths it had reached, and at a time when Bill Gates was the most important figure at what was becoming one of the biggest companies in the world. This was a guy who didn't have time to waste.
"Melinda [French] was a level above me, but we [were] in the same group," Ryan said. French would become Melinda Gates in 1994. She asked Ryan to do "a favor for the company… Please don't share with Bill advances in the Minesweeper record." Gates was playing too much and this was "not a good thing. Bill has a lot of important decisions to make, and this should not be taking up time!"
The coda to this story is rather amazing. Ryan decided that, rather than keeping the high scores from Gates, he'd work out a way to set an unbeatable one. Decades before they'd become the right hand of most MMO players, Ryan used the Windows software Macro Recorder to automatically click one corner of a fresh Minesweeper game, then start a new one. The idea was that in one particular random layout where all the mines were in the lower right corner, this macro would "clear the entire screen in one or zero seconds. You'd just have to play like a gazillion times to do this."
"So I set it there and then went off for a day of meetings," said Ryan, "and four hours later it had won [in a second] while I was gone. I felt very efficient having done this while I wasn’t even in the office."
Ryan sent a screenshot of the new record to Gates, writing "Sorry, your five-second record has been eclipsed permanently because I don't think you can beat one second." Bear in mind that Minesweeper's timer starts at one and not zero.
Gates' reply had the subject line "Chairman displaced" and explained to the staff he'd looped in that Ryan's macro had irrevocably beaten his Minesweeper record.
"My critical skills are being displaced by a computer," Gates wrote, as recalled by Ryan. "This technology thing is going too far. When machines can do things faster than people, how can we retain our human dignity?"
Gates would go on to joke that maybe he should try intermediate difficulty.
The email's sentiment "sounded very poetic," said Ryan. "This is a time when most emails were misspelled and sketchy. [Gates] actually spent time thinking about this. It was like he was writing his tombstone or something."
* This article was originally published here