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November 26, 2002

Games and Puzzles

Friedrich --

A few remarks by Glenn ďMacĒ Frazier in the comments section of the modernist/modernism posting below got me thinking about puzzles and games.

I dislike puzzles and enjoy games. Puzzles, which seem to be about figuring things out, give me a headache -- I seem to spend a lot of time fighting frustration and fury, and canít seem to find whatever pleasure might be there to be had.

Games on the other hand I often enjoy. Sports, cards ... One of my probably-never-to-be-realized ambitions is to become good at the game of go, which (the few times Iíve played it) has made my brain feel refreshed and tingly. A game is a very different experience for me than a puzzle. Itís a more or less simple set of rules, understood before the action begins, and then the playing-out of oneís energies and inspirations -- all of which I find intensely pleasurable, not that Iíve ever been terribly good at any games.

Video and computer games, which Iíve never enjoyed, strike me as some new hybrid -- half puzzle, half game. Thereís often action to be taken part in. Yet the rules never seem fully spelled-out beforehand; you discover them as you go. So the playing-out of the game is really the figuring-out of the puzzle. Once youíve figured the game out, itís over, youíre done. Figuring the game out is the game -- which, as far as Iím concerned, makes these things not traditional games at all, but more related to puzzles and programming. And like puzzles, they give me headaches.

The Wife tells me she thinks that puzzles appeal to obsessive personalities like her own, and that my personality is a more open-ended one. Her hunch is that, as a well-behaved, bland-o Protestant person who appreciates decent manners, I like inhabiting spaces that are defined by rules yet allow for mental and physical romping. A good theory, I think, even if I suspect sheís really telling me in a sweet way that I drive her nuts because Iím an inane and shallow person. Ah, subtext.

But Iím a tyro at thinking about these puzzles-and-games questions. Any insights?

Best, Michael

posted by Michael at November 26, 2002


Puzzles are not my thing, either. My wife enjoys jigsaw puzzles, which I will participate in only to the point of finding all the edge pieces and sorting the rest by dominant color--in short, I'm looking for an underlying principle to solve the whole problem, and thus, make it go away. I've always hated crossword puzzles, and I'm not much of a card player, either. I can't tell if it is a lack of mental capacity on my part or a lack of interest, but life is too short to worry about it much at this point.

The only game I've gotten really involved with was a video game. A few years ago, when I was feeling rather overwhelmed at work (I had to essentially restructure my whole business and, hopefully, find new markets in the process) I got into playing the video game, Tetris. I was playing it to still the chattering in my brain. I remember reading a newspaper story about a woman who played a lot of video games while going through cancer therapy; although she is now "cured" she still plays the games when she wants a break from mental activity.

I think if I had a bowling alley or an archery range handy (like in my house) I could become rather obsessive about those pursuits as well.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 26, 2002 1:19 PM

Review, please - it looks your argument identifies games as done in groups and puzzles as solo. And could you say that solitaire is more like a card game than like a horseshoe puzzle?

In any case, I'm with the wife on this one. Games annoy the hell out of me, because you have to be sensitive to other people's emotional states.

Posted by: tgcm on November 26, 2002 3:20 PM

Heh. Then you've never played chess at the "serious" level, tgcm. All too often the attitude I find at the odd serious tournament I've played in is that the goal is to absolutely crush other people's emotional states. I'm not even talking about the Master sections, either; way down in my lowly section where half the players are hacks like myself and the other half are little kids climbing the ratings ladder, there's a viscious streak in the air. Not every player is like that, but enough are that things get ugly, even when top prize is a measly thousand bucks.

As for puzzles appealing to obssessives, chess as a game has eaten up whole lives that might otherwise be spent usefully. I understand Go can be similar, but I've never gotten deep into it myself.

If you're getting the impression that the hard-core chess world puts me off some, you're right. Yet, still I go to the big events when time and money permit. Take the personalities out of it and what you have left is a sublime, fascinating, entertaining, thrilling experience. Yes, thrilling.

When you are playing chess against a stranger and there's something on the line, things get very intense. Winning triggers rushes. Losing always feels personal: there are no dice or deals to blame, no teammates who let you down: when you lose, it's because the other guy's mind performed better than yours and there's no way around it.

I've played all sorts of other games, and was quite into them as a kid. No time, now. Puzzles, too, occasionally grab me, but only of the "mind teaser" variety. Jigsaws and the like feel to me like mowing the lawn, though my wife can spend hours at the activity.

I think, Michael, preferring games over puzzles might say that you are creative rather than scientific. Puzzles are about The Solution, whereas games (the better ones with simple rulesets leading to vast potential combinations like Chess and Go) are about constantly finding many small solutions while dealing with a growing, open-ended, constantly shifting larger challenge.

Either practice can be seen as your mind versus someone else's mind, though with puzzles it's only half so, since the puzzle designer can't step back in and adjust the puzzle in respone to your tinkering. Nothing is more surprising nor more challenging, I think, than another human mind.

Oh, and while I'm blathering about chess (there's a large tournament this week that I'm missing, and so it's on my mind), there's a whole subculture of chess puzzle creators and solvers that lose me totally. They've developed their own specialized vocabulary that even many chess geeks like myself find daunting. These chess "composers", as they are called, perhaps have a greater claim to the title of Artist than do we mere competitive players, though I'd still challenge the notion of Chess As Art altogether.

But now I'm drifting toward the "what is art" topic again. I think I'll wait patiently for the "three definitions of art" post we've been promised.

Posted by: Mac on November 26, 2002 7:20 PM

Great discussion, thanks for all the reflections. And, as it always does when the topic of puzzles comes up, my poor head hurts.

I'm still wondering about one thing, which is computer and video games. Leaving aside technicalities for a second, they have a funny effect on me -- they feel more like puzzles to me than they do games. There's some competition and some action. But it always feels to me as though the game consists of discovering (or trying to, in my case, as I always give up easy and early) what the game consists of. I just can't get fascinated.

So the feeling of most of the computer games I've tried has resembled puzzles more than games. My completely-speculative theory is that what you're really being asked to discover and explore (and un-riddle) is the nature of the computer itself -- hence all the damn corridors and levels, and my feeling that I'm always being trapped amidst puzzles.

Anyone else get that feeling playing computer games? That in many ways they aren't like bridge, or go? Let alone a sport?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 26, 2002 11:28 PM

MB, you ought to give Pandroa's Box a whirl. It's an amalgam of puzzle and game, all based on travel and fine and indigenous arts. Microsoft makes it and it's been around a few years. I fell into the game and my poor husband had to physically haul me off the machine at 2am every morning! I solved every level and enjoyed it immensely, even though it is a solitary pursuit.

Oddly enough, I went back to it about a year ago, thinking to go through it all again and found that Pandora's Box held little interest for a second round. I mention this to assure you that one can recover from this particular folly. Hope you give it a try!

Posted by: Jessica McMahon on December 4, 2002 1:34 PM

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