Computer Science Alum Kyle Orland Authors New Book About the Puzzling Origins of Minesweeper
Kyle Orland (B.S. ’04, computer science; B.A. ’04, journalism) played the computer game Minesweeper anywhere he could find a personal computer as a kid in the ’90s: the computer nook in his middle school’s library, the home office of a friend’s parents and even the computer section of his local Circuit City while his mom shopped.
The deceptively simple Microsoft game, which challenges players to click cells without detonating hidden mines, came pre-installed on more than 4 billion personal computers sold between 1992 and 2012. Despite the ubiquity of Minesweeper, Orland said its cultural impact is often overlooked.
“Anyone who had a computer in the ’90s and 2000s has played Minesweeper,” said Orland, who is Ars Technica’s senior gaming editor. “Nowadays, a lot of people consider it a casual throwaway game that you only play when there’s no internet access, but its inherent design and addictive gameplay loop—where you just want to play one more game and improve through repetition—predicts a lot of modern game design.”
Orland explores the history of this PC puzzle game in his new book “Minesweeper,” the latest installment of Boss Fight Books’ series on classic video games. The book explores the game’s early roots in mainframe computing, its surprising global ascent and even the cultural backlash it received from corporations and government officials who argued it “sapped employee productivity and wasted taxpayer dollars,” in Orland’s words.
Orland describes the book as the culmination of his unconventional career as a video game writer—the seeds of which were planted years ago in a place called Mushroom Kingdom.
Living in a Mario world
Orland remembers where it all started. He was six years old, and a friend down the street had just gotten a copy of Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Together, as fictional brothers Mario and Luigi, they trekked across Mushroom Kingdom to rescue a princess in distress, fending off Goombas and Koopa Troopas along the way.
From that moment on, Orland was hooked.
“I knew my life wouldn’t be complete until I got one, too,” he said of the NES, a gift he later received on his seventh birthday.
Orland’s interest in Super Mario Bros. morphed into a fascination with the entire franchise, and he spent years soaking up trivia about Mario games, TV shows, comics and more.
In high school, armed with some early HTML skills he had gleaned from a book, Orland used his parents’ AOL account to start a Super Mario fan site. It was 1996 and Google’s search engine had not yet launched widely, but Orland’s fan site gained popularity after being listed on Yahoo’s early web directory.
“I started getting emails from people who were considering me an expert in Mario, even though they didn’t know I was just some obsessive 15-year-old who had too many Nintendo Power magazines in his closet,” Orland said with a laugh.
It was then that Orland began to view video games as not just a hobby, but a potential career.
The college years
After graduating high school in 2000, Orland enrolled as a computer science major at UMD with dreams of creating video games. He took a few classes and realized he liked writing about video games more than making them, prompting him to declare a second degree in journalism.
Orland’s journalism classes taught him how to craft a story, while his computer science classes offered a deeper understanding of how video games are made. Beyond his academic experience, Orland is grateful that UMD gave him the unexpected opportunity to cross paths with his now-wife, Associate Professor of Computer Science Michelle Mazurek.
“We met the first week of our freshman year at the former Ellicott Dining Hall when I sat next to a high school friend who had joined Michelle for lunch,” Orland said. “We were dating within a month, got married in 2007 and have been together ever since.”
During Orland’s down time in college, he put his training to the test by writing a series of video game reviews for The Diamondback. He also sought out freelance writing gigs but discovered that paid jobs were few and far between.
“Game reviews were mainly concentrated in a few magazines back then. I was mostly doing free web articles for anyone who would take me, just to get my name out there,” he said. “Getting paid actual money for writing would have to wait until after college.”
Orland’s big break
During his senior year of college, Orland interned with NPR’s web journalism team, which landed him a job working on the company’s internal website after he graduated in 2004. While this role didn’t make full use of his journalism training, in 2006 he co-launched an NPR podcast, which was a relatively new and experimental form of media at the time. Called “Press Start,” the podcast focused on various aspects of the video game industry.
“I think we were ahead of our time, when I see how big podcasts are now,” Orland said. “I still get people who come to me and say, ‘Hey, I remember that NPR podcast you used to do.’ It ended 17 years ago, but it really seemed to resonate with people.”
That same year, Orland caught a “break” and landed a job writing for Joystiq, a blog centered solely around video games. He continued to freelance for other outlets, with his byline appearing in MSNBC, Electronic Gaming Monthly, Crispy Gamer, Paste Magazine and Game Developer (formerly Gamasutra) over the years. His best writing clips have been compiled into two anthologies published by Carnegie Mellon’s ETC Press: “The Game Beat” and “Save Point.”
For the last 11 years, Orland has worked for Ars Technica. This role has taken him to gaming conferences and events across the country—including, most recently, the grand opening of Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood, where he explored the technology behind the theme park’s augmented reality rides.
He said his computer science background has served him well in his journalism career, enabling him to write about game development and glitches for a tech-savvy audience.
In his spare time, you can catch Orland slinging stones at his local curling club in Laurel, Maryland, or flinging pinballs at the “secret” arcade inside MOM’s Organic Market in College Park.
No matter where he goes, he is always on the lookout for untold tales, like his latest book about Minesweeper—proof that there are plenty of untold stories, if you dig deep enough.
“Minesweeper is such a fascinating set of stories that no one had really told before,” Orland said. “That has finally come together after years of work, and I’m really proud of how it turned out.”
Written by Emily Nunez
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