Puzzling

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.

Copyright © 2011 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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5 Responses to Puzzling

  1. Reluctant Blogger says:

    ah yes, you sound a little like me in this respect at least.

    I too have no time for puzzles or competitions. I used to love to do jigsaws as a child but have done none as an adult. I enjoy Suduko but rarely do them. I also occasionally play card solitaire or some mindless solitary Facebook game. Like you, I do them when I need to pacify my mind and take some time out. But that is a very rare thing – maybe I will do Suduko or puzzles fairly regularly for one or two weeks a year. I dislike the fact that I do that but can see why it is necessary sometimes. But it irritates me a bit.

    My sons would spend a lot of time playing computer games if they were allowed. I impose a limit which I know some people think is being controlling but I see how addictive the games are for them and would rather they did not spend too long on them. They have got used to the limit and accept it now. But it surprises me that they turn to them so readily as they are lively boys with enquiring minds – well, disappoints me rather than surprises me perhaps.

    But anyway, that’s the way it is!

    I used to love the board/peg game Mastermind as a child too – that is a game of logic.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Of all the types of puzzles and games, those that result in the construction of something seem to me to be the most satisfying. I can therefore see the attraction of jigsaw puzzles, though I have not tried doing one for many years. Perhaps I had better steer clear!

      I don’t see anything wrong in exerting control over children. In fact, it is one of the duties of parents to control their children and thus to teach them good habits and to be responsible citizens. There can always be discussion about how much of an allowable but time-wasting activity can be allowed but the principle of parental control is not a matter for doubt, at least not for me.

      All around me in public places I see the results of parents not controlling their children whom they allow to run free, to scream and shout and badger strangers. Later these same parents will reject their responsibility when their children become delinquents by saying “He’s out of control”. Of course he is: you’ve never made the effort to control him.

  2. WOL says:

    I have several thoughts on the subject: I’m addicted to spider solitaire. I think there is a subconscious thing at work to do with “putting all the pieces in order; sorting things out.” It can be an outlet for stress and frustration. People tend to ruminate on their troubles, and people tend to find themselves in dead-end, boring, low-paying, mind numbing jobs (or any of the above), and in situations they must accept because they cannot change them. It gives the mind a break — allows the pressure of the stress to bleed off.

    I think the appeal of the role playing games is that they allow people to escape into a world they have control over, where nothing is for real, nobody really gets hurt, and you do not have the world breathing down your neck making you be things and do things you really don’t want to. School is a particularly frightening, stressful time for children — trying to live up to expectations of their teachers and parents, having to deal with bullies and cliques, and the pecking order that inevitably settles out of any group. Children, especially, can be very cruel to one another, and this can be very devastating to a child. Before video games, kids used to play cops and robbers, or cowboys and Indians, or knights and dragons and work their stress out that way. Symbolically giving all the “bad guys” in their life their much-deserved come-upppance. I find it ironic that it is OK for kids to play like that for hours and hours, but not to play video games. — the video games are just the technological incarnation of these old childhood games. You don’t have to use your imagination to play them, though, and that is one of the most detrimental thing about them. The other is that they are very sedentary.

    Another comment I had is regarding these people you see plugged in and tuned out — people don’t have any personal space any more. They live on top of one another, packed like sardines into blocks and blocks of flats, crowded onto subways and buses. They spend their days at school or at work, having to be around people the world chooses to make them be with. Plugging in to an MP3 player or into a hand-held video game is a way of getting some personal space, of blocking out the noise of too many people too close together. In a way it can become like a protective shell for them. I plug in because I can’t stand the canned music in the stores and the noise of the usually out of control children. It’s a way of exerting control over the environment — I listen to what I choose, not what the world chooses for me. I don’t mean to be personal, but I think your hearing difficlty insulates you in a way — to most of us, the world is like being in a crowded noisy restaurant with your hearing aids in.

    I like doing jigsaw puzzles because I work with words both spoken and in print, all day. Jigsaws use a different part of my brain, and gives the “used at work” part some time off. Of course, one of the best ways to deal with stress, when you feel your life is out of your control is to control the things you can control — organize drawers, straighten up and clean up your house. It not only reminds you that your life is not totally and completely out of your control, but that there is a space that is under your control, that you do have a domain — and you get a clean, straightened house in the bargin.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Thanks for your well expressed thoughts. I can accept that there is a place for games and puzzles in people’s lives and that being absorbed in such a pastime can be sometimes be a welcome relief from the stresses and strains of life.

      I remain unconvinced by the “personal space” theory of why people go about with headphones on. The most egregious case that came to my notice was a student who walked into one of my lectures with his earplugs in. I told him to remove them or leave the room. He protested that even with them in, he could still hear me. I repeated the injunction and he removed them. He was obviously not seeking “personal space” but the right to listen to his favourite music while sitting in my lecture.

      I think the reason why people go about with personal stereos is much simpler: when they first try it, it’s a novelty and a pleasure; as time goes by, however, the novelty ends and it becomes a habit; like all habits, it’s hard to break and without the constant racket in their ears, people feel there’s something missing. A short period of “cold turkey” would sort them out.

      I did once buy myself a little portable radio with earplugs and tried listening to it while going to work. I found it irritating rather than anything else and after a few days simply forgot to take it with me.

  3. AEJ says:

    World of Warcraft is one of my favorite games, and has been for years. One of the most fun things to do in it, however, is to fish. Running around to different fishing holes is one of the most relaxing activities I can think of. My father plays Sudoku religiously, and he also enjoys the “celebrity ciphers” in the local newspapers. My mother is an avid jigsaw puzzle fan.

    My husband’s interest in video games as a child grew into a love of computer programming, and he now earns a big salary within the computer gaming industry. I guess I’m biased, therefore. Our son was playing video games before he could read, and his interest in the games sparked an interest in digital artwork, which he now creates.

    For me, I’ll stick with faux-fishing.

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