As a kid, I loved the Where’s Waldo book series. The artwork and silliness was a sight to behold. Running back and forth through the pages, I learned that I loved the small details present on each and every cartoon figure. As I’ve stepped into my role as an overthinking adult, I’ve wondered, “Why does anyone care where Waldo is?”, “What has he done that we need to find him?”, “What do we need from this red and white striped shirted man in the red hat?”. The world may never know.
Onwards towards the point of this blog post!
Many smaller simpler games are just puzzles in disguise, but they are also a medium. Because they are a medium, that means they are communicating information. Sudoku gives you numbers and blank spaces. Crosswords give you hints and more blank spaces. Even the Hanayama puzzles have built in physical features to each and every piece of their puzzles. A puzzle in and of itself wants nothing. It is an inanimate object or a mere concept floating around the ether. However, there is a certain amount of rhetoric we tell ourselves that drives our efforts to examine, formulate, and solve puzzles for enjoyment.
Puzzles are Mundane
Majority of game puzzles fall within mundane rhetoric. They are easy to define. The parameters are set and the user only needs to know the goal in mind. Let’s hold up puzzles next to the characteristics of mundane rhetoric and see if they fit.
- Common occurrence: Sold by companies for entertainment, distributed by instructors for learning, incorporated into story based video games to enhance gameplay, on children’s menus at various restaurants to keep kids busy
- Great Impact or Normalized: Holding a book of Sudoku puzzles in an airport won’t turn anyone’s head. Nearly everyone will have completed some form of puzzle before adulthood.
- Inherent/fixed rhetorical value: Finding the solution is satisfying.
- Choice Limitations: Solve, set aside, or forget. Not much else you can do with a puzzle.
The Inherent Value of Puzzles
Each puzzle is a case study for self internalizing rhetoric. There are 3 rhetorical situations at work here: the presentation, the act, and the aftermath.
When presented with a puzzle each of us internally checks against our previous experience (ethos), our own willingness/interest to accomplish the puzzle (pathos), and a check of the process-goal of the individual puzzle (logos). The puzzle, though inanimate, is presented as a solvable problem without lasting negative consequences, a very low-risk low-reward situation. By being a puzzle, the object is attempting to convince the user that it must be completed.
Arguably, the best part of any puzzle is the work itself. When I worked outreach for the Art of Problem Solving Academy (AoPS), I was given enough puzzles to fill a 6 ft long table. Most of the puzzles are math based, but they have many language arts based puzzles as well. I got to be the obstinate “uncle” figure, mildly teasing the older kids on their struggles and supporting the younger kids on their accomplishments. (Note: I have upwards of 14 nieces and nephews and several grand nieces/nephews. I know how to tease without being mean or hurtful, especially to other people’s kids).
Many older kids would grab puzzles not suited for their age i.e. too easy, 2+?=4 types of problems. They however, assessed through the presentation of the puzzle, they could reasonably accomplish the task of completion in order to gain some sense of satisfaction in their abilities. As kids, they didn’t understand that completing a puzzle without a challenge should not be a reason to celebrate one’s own abilities.
Funny enough, I would sometimes accidentally suggest the wrong puzzle. I remember giving one child, a fourth grader, a puzzle involving multiplication. They sat for an hour trying to gain some form of success to no avail. They asked for help, pushed for hints, and attempted to bargain for an answer, but I refused. It was my job. All the while, they were missing the holiday event happening all around them. I will never know what internal dialogue kept them convinced to keep going.
As I’ve stated. Many people commit themselves to a puzzle for the end goal of satisfaction. Some may use it as an odd bragging point. At AoPS, I had kids brag to me all the time that they have solved a Rubik’s Cube. There were always several cubes on the table for anyone to solve. My response was always the same, “show me”. Many could not or would not. The kids that could solve it usually just walked up and solved it. I would then follow-up with, “now explain how you came to a solution”. Only 1 child could explain his process. I assume the rest watched the videos on Youtube on how to solve any Rubik’s Cube.
Replicating the Self-rhetoric of Puzzles
I want to illustrate a very specific and obvious point. All problems are puzzles.
Sure, puzzles created for entertainment or learning have definite answers, but real world problems hold the fundamental internalized rhetoric that is present at the core of game-based puzzles.
One issue with puzzles and problems alike is self-awareness. Most people will confront problems the same as puzzles. They just don’t realize it. Try to approach problems with the same understanding of your previously lived experience (ethos), your willingness/interest to resolve the problem (pathos), and understanding of the goals/processes needing to take place (logos).
Unlike practicing puzzles for entertainment, real problems can have real consequences. However, if you strategically position your internal rhetoric when presented with a problem, you can increase your confidence and choose for yourself the best course of action. This is creating an active problem-solving strategy instead of a reactive one.
I’m not willing to jump into a sweeping inference to say “all problems are like puzzles therefore all problems have solutions”. Life is not that simple.
The act of resolving real problems is what it means to be human. All I can say, is every problem and puzzle have the same general process for finding the solution: find what you know, then determine what you don’t know. In any case, you can always fall back on your internalizations you established from the beginning.
Puzzles are universally recognized. We’re captivated by them, enchanted with their mystery. I’m not sure why, but it would seem that we all want to solve puzzles. Maybe there is some aspect that makes us all feel empowered when we solve a puzzle, some sense of control or mastery. In any case, our fascination with puzzles fills a missing piece of our humanity.
I want to thank you all for reading. I’ve got several life-puzzles of my own that I’m attempting to solve, some involving career, some health, some relationships.
I hope you have found something to add to your every day rhetoric repertoire. If you liked this post, please give it a like or comment. If you didn’t like this post, heck I’d love to get an email from you as to how I can blog better. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of your week. I’ll catch you all in a few days for another Casual Friday post.