I have never been one for puzzles. I usually find them either annoying (if I can’t solve them) or tedious (if I can). I remember as a child entering a competition in a comic. You had to match famous exploits with the names of the people who had performed them. I knew that I had all the correct answers and was excited because the prize was a Jetex engine for powering model aircraft. I felt I was sure to win and was therefore disappointed never to receive a prize – the available prizes were no doubt all used up before they got to my entry.
That may seem a trivial setback but in a sense it marked me for life, convincing me that puzzles and competitions were not worth the effort, worthy neither in themselves nor for the results they produced.
An exception to this was Mahjongg. I am not talking about the game played by several players, possibly for money, but the solitaire version developed for computers. You know the sort of thing: the program generates the graphical representation of a heap of Mahjongg tiles and you have to remove them all by eliminating them in pairs. It is not at all easy to complete the puzzle but, equally, it is not at all intellectually demanding. In fact, it soon becomes pretty boring.
Despite this, there were times in my life when I played Mahjongg solitaire a lot, perhaps for hours at a time. I think this was when I was stressed or worried about something. I would plink away at the tiles despite knowing, in the back of my mind, that there were more important things I ought to be doing. That is perhaps the clue: Mahjongg for the moment pushed my worries to the back of my mind and gave me some hours of quasi peace.
When I moved to Islington and acquired a new computer, it did not have Mahjongg on it and I never bothered to install the game. Perhaps I no longer had need of it.
Then, through Tigger, I discovered Sudoku. At first, I was as reluctant to try this, especially as, at first sight, it seemed difficult. However, by dint of perseverance, I soon discovered patterns and short cuts and became, if not an addict, something that closely resembled it. I collected all the Sudoku puzzles I could find and dispatched them, almost as if this was now my role in life. I would write in pencil so that if the puzzle went wrong, I could rub out the numbers and start again.
After several months of Sudokuphilia, my passion cooled to more reasonable levels. I still do Sudoku, and still do them in pencil, but not so voraciously as I once did. I do about 10 a week, that is, I do those in the Metro and the City AM free newspapers.
I usually take the City AM Sudoku to bed with me. It’s a race between completing the puzzle or falling asleep. As a result, one puzzle may last me two or even three bedtimes. The City AM Sudoku is usually not difficult but is just about right for bedtime as it can be solved logically and requires no extra-logical explorations.
Rather different is the Sudoku in the Metro. In fact, there are three in this paper, rated easy, medium, and difficult, respectively. The easy and medium are too easy and I don’t bother with them. The difficult one is something else. I think I succeed in completing about one in ten of them. Any sensible person contemplating those odds would give up but, then, I never was particularly sensible. I suppose too that the satisfaction that comes from the occasional success is all the greater because of the frustration of failing so often. Maybe I have masochistic tendencies.
I once wrote a post entitled Life as sudoku where I said that "It occurred to me the other day that life is a lot like sudoku". Is that true? Or was I making it up? Perhaps you should read the article and decide for yourself. I possibly then considered Sudoku to be more interesting than I do now.
One reason why I do Sudoku puzzles is because it’s easy. Not easy to solve, necessarily, but an easy thing to spend time on. It doesn’t require much thought, not as much as that required for following the argument in an interesting book, for example. Got a few minutes to spare and don’t want to sit staring at the wall? Sudoku is the easy option. Also, as I explained, it seems to possess potent soporific powers too. I therefore sometimes feel a little guilty that I am wasting time on Sudoku when I could be doing something more interesting and useful – like reading one of those books in the stack of books-to-be-read that never seems to decrease in size.
And that’s what I have against puzzles, not just Sudoku, but all puzzles in general: they are a complete waste of time. Fun maybe, but a waste of time nonetheless. For consider: what do you have at the end of your puzzling? More knowledge? More riches? A happier life? A sense of greater wellbeing? Something constructive to show for your efforts? Hardly.
That is why I regard the proliferation of games, and especially electronic games, with a jaundiced eye. I hear about – and see – young people spending hours every day poring over their electronic toys, oblivious to what is going on around them and barely responding with a grunt when spoken to. Queues form outside shops for the midnight launch of some new games device or game. It seems that a certain section of the population hasn’t got enough to do and needs to distract itself from the long boring hours of life with ersatz experience.
It’s not only hand-held games, of course. Computer games and online multiplayer games also proliferate. Look over the shoulders of people in offices apparently beavering away at company business and you will see that many of them are in fact playing games, whether free-standing games or the online variety where players from all over the world are trying to outwit and outgun one another. Isn’t there something rather depressing about this?
I don’t ignore the need for relaxation and recreation, of course. If you have a few minutes to spare and fancy some light entertainment, a game is probably no more of a time-waster than leafing through one of the dreary fashion or "lifestyle" magazines that grace newsagents’ shelves. As with my escapades with Mahjongg solitaire, I can understand the occasional need to seek refuge in trivial pursuits, something to temporarily lift the mind out of the tangled web of work and responsibility. The keyword there, though, is "temporarily". As they become ever more realistic and addictive, games risk becoming a way of life for some people.
One reason why I rarely read fiction is because I find reality far more intriguing, enchanting and fascinating. No work of fiction – narrative or computer game – ever came anywhere near real life for sheer gripping interest. For the same reason, I am not one of those alienated souls who goes everywhere wearing headphones that blast the ear drums into near insensibility with the nerve destroying racket that today passes for music. Much as I love Beethoven, I would not want the sounds of the real world blotted out even by one of his symphonies. There is, it seems to me, something wrong with a society in which, when you try to speak to someone, he needs first, and with an expression of deep reluctance, to pull out his earplugs in order to hear what you are saying.
That has taken us away from the original subject of this post, puzzles and games, but I think there is a connection. T.S. Eliot once wrote that "Human kind cannot bear very much reality", and it seems that the amount it can bear is decreasing, at least in some quarters, and that people are increasingly making an effort to ignore it or at least to cushion themselves from it with artificial experience.
Am I exaggerating? Possibly, but you can only exaggerate something that exists, not something that doesn’t. I think there is at least an element of truth in my argument.
Not that it will stop me doing my Sudoku puzzles, of course. They amuse me but I am also amused by the fact that I like doing them. This is because my attraction to Sudoku very definitely says something about me, the sort of person I am. That is a very logical and systematic person, not at all intuitive or artistic. If I were to to try to draw an elephant you might easily mistake it for a hamster or a sausage roll. I like things you can measure or weigh, that respond to mathematical calculation. Sudoku, of course, despite being a game of numbers is not at all mathematical – it works just as well if you replace the numbers with letters or the faces of Disney cartoon characters – but it is logical. If I fail to complete one I never think its creator made it too hard; I always blame myself for not seeing the way to the solution. There is something about the nature of Sudoku that suits my temperament.
Equally, I have learned not to spend too long on them. A Sudoku puzzle is a game, a piece of fun, a moment’s entertainment, and nothing more. Solve it, or fail to solve it: it doesn’t matter. The thing is to have a moment’s fun, not to make a career out of it.