A new style of jigsaw may be a refuge from daily stress, says William Hartston
Just suppose, for a moment, that you were looking for a pastime that provided a real antidote to the stresses of everyday life. First, it would have to be non-competitive - bridge, backgammon and chess are all very well as comparatively harmless outlets for our innate aggression, but they can hardly be described as therapeutic; and as for such ostensibly fun games as Cluedo or Monopoly, we all know how they can bring out the worst personality traits of the more determined practitioners.

So competitiveness is out, but we do need something that is both slow and absorbing in order to offer a complete break from real life and occupy our attention for long enough to wind down from everyday pressures. Finally, it has to be perceived as something worth doing, so must offer a satisfying goal to serve as a reward for the effort involved. And if that goal can be achieved by a number of people acting in co-operation, then all the better.

Dr Jenny Cozens, who is a clinical psychologist and Principal Research Fellow at Leeds University, has identified something that she believes may satisfy all the above criteria: Jigsaws, preferably three-dimensional ones. Endorsing the new "Puzz 3D" range from Waddingtons, Dr Cozens says: "Completing puzzles can be beneficial to many people, but the sheer complexity of `Puzz 3D' makes it mind-absorbing, which can be an antidote to stress."

Hang on a moment, though. Don't jigsaws fuel frustration and lead to tetchy outbursts? "Has anyone seen a green piece with a red line through it I had it a moment ago oh for goodness sake who's been knocking pieces on to the floor no don't put your cup down there you clumsy oaf now you'll just have to put all that corner together again now where's that green piece gone again?"

As Dr Cozens adds: "The benefits of `Puzz 3D' may also depend on personality type - for example, practical people are often good at puzzles, while those who are planners rather than doers will benefit from the concentration the puzzle requires." The delayed gratification offered by jigsaws, slowly and tangibly working towards the final achievement of finishing the puzzle, makes it particularly good for the "sensing" people among Jungian personality types. In contrast to modern computer games, which provide achievement overload through an orgy of zapping and powing, the sedate pace of jigsaws can teach children patience. And not only children. In an increasingly fast-moving society, when even the traditionally relaxing lunch hour has fallen victim to the ever more demanding pace of life, Dr Cozens believes that we may all benefit from an activity that encourages patience and an appreciation of the joys of delayed reward. "We only have to go shopping to see how impatient we have all become," she says.

Whatever reservations we may have about computer games, however, the successful launch of two different ranges of three-dimensional jigsaws owes everything to recent technological improvements. The real puzzle, for Paul Gallant, the inventor of `Puzz 3D', was to find a way to hold a three-dimensional jigsaw together without clue or pins. The solution came from the unlikely source of British Petroleum, which was certainly not thinking primarily of jigsaws when it produced just the right type of polyethylene foam to enable the puzzles to hold together at their dovetail joints.

"Sculpture Puzzles", the new range from Really Useful Games, owes its inspiration to computer scanning techniques. Three-dimensional objects, from works of art such as the Venus de Milo or Rodin's The Kiss to commonplace things such as a head or a clock, are scanned by a computer that can then produce a series of cross-sections that pile up to make the original object.

The jigsaws are intelligently designed to offer the puzzler a choice of levels of difficulty. If you just want to put it together, there are "cheat" numbers on every piece that let you, after doing a simple sum, work out the order in which they should be placed on the central column. Although not mentioned by the manufacturers, this element can also be used as a sneaky way to encourage numeracy in children. Mixing sums with jigsaws seems a perfect way to get small children to practise their arithmetic. The serious jigsaw doer, of course, will ignore the numbers and just work by sight and feel to try to get them in the right order. Finally, for those who want a real challenge, several of the pieces may be broken into three, so that each level becomes a mini-jigsaw of its own. The final jigsaw-sculptures are quite stunning, making highly attractive ornaments in their own right.

The Dutch historian-philosopher Johan Huizinga, in his influential work Homo Ludens, wrote about the absolute sense of order offered by games through their clearly defined rules and delineation of playing areas: "Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order, absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it `spoils the game', robs it of its character, and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play ... seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. It may be that this aesthetic factor is identical with the impulse to create orderly form, which animates play in all its aspects."

Those words, written in 1944, seem particularly appropriate to account for the joy of jigsaws - the most fundamental example of turning chaos into order in the context of a game, though oddly enough Huizinga does not seem to mention jigsaws at all in his book. What Waddington's "Puzz 3D" and the "Sculpture Puzzles" from Really Useful Games have to offer, however, is completed puzzles that are considerably more attractive (and far easier to display) than the old-fashioned flat jigsaws.

In explaining the joy of finally completing a truly complicated jigsaw, compared with the instant gratification of other types of game, Jenny Cozens talks of "the difference between a detective story and Proust". The aesthetic pleasure to be derived from the new ranges can only be La Recherche du Puzzle Perdu.

The `Puzz 3D' range from Waddingtons includes puzzles from 225 to almost 1,500 pieces, taking from 8 to 40 hours to complete. Prices range from pounds 14.99 to pounds 40.

`Sculpture Puzzles' from Really Useful Games. Completion time depends on your cheating capacity. Prices around pounds 14-pounds 30.