Games: When is a puzzle not a puzzle?

Chris Maslanka ponders the nature of perplexity
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The Independent Online
When asked to present a programme called Puzzle Panel on Radio 4, my thoughts turned to the tricky question of what a puzzle really is. Well, perhaps knowing what a puzzle isn't will enable me to creep up on the answer. Puzzles are not quizzes. The term "quiz" is best reserved for those questions whose appeal is to facts, particularly to arbitrary ones. The delight in answering:

Q1: Who is the richest member of Donald Duck's family?

resides in the bravado of claiming acquaintance with such useless knowledge combined with surprise at being able to recall it. Some quiz questions, such as:

Q2: Which animal produces the biggest egg?

can jog basic assumptions, though in a different way from puzzles. Compare:

Q3: Which of the musketeers wore the biggest hat?

And some facts seem intrinsically fascinating. Through the gloom of the ignorance of what we ought to know, they shine out like beacons, exceptions more interesting than any rule.

Of course, if such questions turned up on the national curriculum, they would lose their attraction. The trivial in Trivial Pursuit tips us the wink: it is fun because it doesn't matter.

Puzzles are not about remembering particular facts, not even fascinating ones. Engaging trick questions such as David Singmaster's:

Q4: What year was it 2000 years ago?

though having implications beyond the facts on which they depend, are probably not true puzzles. True puzzles are a test of creativity. They pit us against the unknown in a quest whose goal is by no means assured, and require so much ingenuity that the focus is more on the strategy than on the prize.

This level of challenge doesn't suit everyone. Six-year-olds, for example, are too busy acquiring concrete experience to derive much pleasure from purely conceptual puzzles. They want activities to affirm their ideas, not turn them upside down. Rules must be learnt before we can enjoy bending them.

Such activities stand in relation to true puzzles much as early labyrinths do to Hampton Court's maze. In the former, perseverance guarantees success since the path leads without branching to the goal. But for most of us a true maze is one in which we can get lost. Both approaches are combined in the maze designed by Professor Angela Newing to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Painswick House in Gloucestershire, the topiarised figures "2", "5", "0" cunningly incorporate a simple "activity" maze in the "0" and something more devilish in the "25". The maze will open later this year.

Nor are puzzles problems. When called upon to solve a quadratic, say, we are no longer intrepid explorers but followers of a doctrine established by others and taught to us perhaps by rote. The first to discover the general method had the Eureka-buzz of conquering new territory, leaving us the clerk-like task of applying it (yawn) to particular cases.

Because the solution to a puzzle is not so much a fact as a way of thinking, solving one puzzle helps in solving others. Jim L Fixx said there are two sorts of people: those who enjoy puzzles and those who don't. I do not agree. I think we all enjoy puzzles, but because of our different intellectual styles and attainments we don't all enjoy the same sort. A good puzzle is one that does not rely on specialised knowledge, and offers different methods of solution to suit different styles. Rather like Newing's maze.

Great minds, after all, do not think alike.

SOLUTIONS: Q1: Scrooge McDuck. Q2: The whale shark. Q3. The one with the biggest head. Q4: 3BC, since there was no year 0.

Chris Maslanka presents 'Puzzle Panel' on Radio 4, Thursdays at 1.30pm, repeated Sundays at 11pm.

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