Wednesday, January 15, 2014

I Enjoy Hunting for Puzzles

The statement above should come as a surprise to exactly no one, but I thought I'd use this space to clarify the spectrum of my liking for various puzzle and presentation types.

But first, just in case you've wandered into this blog totally at random:

Hi. I'm Curtis Chen, and I'm a puzzle gamer. I first played The Game at Stanford University in 1996, and I ran my first Game in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2001. Since then, I've run or helped run more than fifty different puzzling events, including:

You could say I have a bit of a Gaming habit. Possibly even an obsession. (Sadly, not a career; I have been paid less than half a dozen times for doing puzzle-hunt-related things.) But I don't love all puzzles or puzzle events equally.

To the layperson, all puzzlers may appear very similar, but--as with any special interest group--there are many fine distinctions and gradations within our ranks. Certainly, there are those who love any kind of puzzle (broadly defined), whether it's a logical brain teaser or something math-related or pure wordplay. Some people just want to SOLVE ALL THE THINGS. But I suspect most are like myself, with definite preferences and dislikes.

I've been credited with coining (or at least popularizing) the term "underwear puzzles." I'm not a big fan of puzzle events that are just a bunch of puzzles you could have solved by yourself, at home, in your underwear; i.e., which don't take advantage of real-world interactivity. I prefer Games that actually get me out of the house and put me into unusual situations to have new experiences. I'm not really into the great outdoors per se, but if you tell me there's a puzzle hidden somewhere in the forest, I may spend a ridiculous amount of time searching for it. Because that's something I would probably never do otherwise, and I might never visit that location ever again.

It's all about the reward. I've tried a couple of "conference room" puzzle hunts--of which genre the granddaddy is, of course, the MIT Mystery Hunt--and they're just not my bag, baby. I do enjoy the intellectual challenge of any given puzzle, but I get bored very quickly. And for me, getting more puzzles to solve is not really a compelling reward; I want something else, like a new location to visit or a new bit of story or even an amusing video clip. Just give me a break before dumping another bucket of puzzles on my head.

Related to that, I enjoy team-play events more than solving by myself, but I prefer "linear" hunts to the "batch" model. (BTW, I'm just making up words here; feel free to suggest better terminology in the comments.) In a conference room hunt, you may have a huge team--say twelve people--and a large number of puzzles "unlocked" at any given time, which means that very often you'll end up with sub-teams of two or three people working on different puzzles. It then becomes impossible for any single person to solve, or even see all the puzzles, since you're racing against all the other teams to finish first. (Or possibly second, to subvert the tradition of the winning team running the next event.)

I approach puzzling events from more of an audience perspective, as opposed to a competitor perspective. When I'm reading a book, or watching a show, I want to enjoy the experience as it's happening--and if I'm really in love with it, I may not want it to end. I rarely watch a show or read a book just to be done with it, and I certainly don't compete with others to read faster or more than anyone else. Similarly, when I'm playing a Game, I don't care too much about my team's ranking relative to other teams (as long as we're not last!)--I care about whether we're all having fun. And it's more fun to solve puzzles at our own pace, without the added pressure of an artificial competition.

"But wait!" you may say. "Isn't Puzzled Pint exactly the kind of sit-around-and-solve event that you hate?" Well, first of all, I never said I hated conference room hunts; they're just not my favorite. And Puzzled Pint does get people out of the house, albeit to just one location. I don't know if I would play Puzzled Pint if I weren't on GC, but I support any attempt to draw puzzlers out of their shells to meet and interact with each other, and PP has certainly done that in Portland, Oregon.

Let's face it: we puzzlers are mostly just the kids who were good at homework, all grown up and looking for more problem sets to do. We may not all be introverted xenophobes, but we're all socially awkward to some degree--and even if that describes most of the human race, we may be more painfully aware that our particular hobby is way, way outside of the mainstream. It usually takes me five to ten minutes to explain puzzle hunts to any given stranger, and the two most typical responses are either "I could never do that" or "what do you win?"

And that's why I support all puzzling events, even if they're ones I wouldn't personally play in. Do you want to run Puzzled Pint in your city? Talk to us, we'll help you get started. Are you opening a new puzzle-related business? I will pimp it as hard as I can.

Because we're all in this together, and encouraging more people to have fun by exercising their minds will make the world a better place.

We few, we happy few, we band of puzzlers;
For he to-day that solves this Clue with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This Game shall gentle his condition!

(with apologies to William Shakespeare)



lahosken said...

"I don't know if I would play Puzzled Pint if I weren't on GC"


Oh man, you're trying to trick me into helping to run an MIT Mystery Hunt but IT'S NOT GOING TO WORK.

Brian said...

Yay! I'm a reference!

Wei-Hwa Huang said...

I feel that the "linear"/"batch" terminology fine, but I disagree with the next step of the analogy, where you consider it "audience"/"competitor". I feel that the difference is more like "passive audience"/"interactive audience". Traditional storytelling (movies, novels) tend to tell a linear story -- the audience member is led along a specific track and expected to enjoy events in a certain order (even if that order is different than the order a character experiences the events). Whereas interactive storytelling allows the story to unfold differently based on the choices of audience members. Interactive audiences have mostly been in the purview of video games, but you can see some of it in improvisational theater or Choose-your-own-adventure books or what not. I think *that* is actually the true analogy to a "batch" model.

Now, it's true that it is MUCH harder to tell a good story in an interactive setting than in a passive setting. World of Warcraft (a massively interactive game) just isn't going to generate the same depth of storytelling that Arkham Asylum (a much more linear interactive game) is. And from what I know of you, you find the narrative and storytelling to be a compelling part of a game. But, my point is, it's not inherently a problem with the "batch" format.

I believe the "competition" vs. "casual" axis is actually a different axis. If you are a super-talented solver, or even if you're not, there is nothing that stops you from being a team of 1, solving a "batch" puzzle hunt, and experiencing everything. In fact you might enjoy it more as you get to flit around different goals instead of always stuck on the same puzzle. Even if you're not "competitive", you can enjoy things just as much -- if you were given enough time to. However, the realities of the situation is that GC needs to go back to their day job, so they can't keep the interactive stuff open indefinitely long.

Anyway, my point is, I understand how you prefer "casual" over "competitive", and "audience" over "weak story", and maybe even "linear" over "batch" -- but those are three different axes. It should be possible to have all sorts of different combos -- "casual batch weakstory" hunts (e.g., Octothorpean), "competitive batch audience" (e.g., Escape from the Locked Room), and so on.

My feeling is that, if there were a conference room hunt that had a rich story and wasn't competitive, I think you'd enjoy it even if it was "batch".