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Recognising puzzles as an application of behaviour.

Darren Tomlyn, Blogger

July 18, 2011

14 Min Read

(Note: All the entries in my blog are meant to be read in order - you can find the contents here: Contents )

Part 1: The Basics, and a Problem

The word puzzle, unfortunately, suffers from a lot of similar problems to the words we’ve already seen.

The word puzzle, unlike the words game and art, is a more direct application of behaviour that is derived from the use of the same word as a verb.

The first, and main, problem with the word puzzle, when used as a noun, is of course the lack of recognition that it does, in fact, represent an application of behaviour, in addition to representing a thing that can be used to enable such behaviour.  One of the reasons for this is its perception of (only) being a further application of another word – problem - therefore being slightly abstracted from such behaviour it represents an application of, aswell as the behaviour the word itself represents when used as a verb.

This means that the full recognition and understanding of the behaviour it represents an application of, based upon its use, is currently lacking.  What the word itself represents has become very closely linked with the types of applications that are perceived as being consistent with the behaviour it represents.  Unfortunately, such perceptions are not fully consistent with how the word itself is used, and all of the applications that are possible, and can be considered to be puzzles, in the first place.

For this reason, nearly every definition of the word is not fully consistent with its use, being too tied to specific applications, rather than any underlying shared behaviour and application thereof.  This has led to a strange situation where the definitions of the word puzzle can be seen as being both too specific in some ways, yet not specific enough in others.

So the word puzzle has generally become affected and confused by its application, leading to inconsistency between its use and its perceived definition.

An example of its current perceived definition would be this, from Wikipedia:

“A puzzle is a problem or enigma that tests the ingenuity of the solver.”

The problem with this definition is similar to that seen with other words in the first part of my blog – it’s simply moving the definition of the word puzzle to another, single, word – in this case, problem, which is not specific enough, while at the same time using the word ingenuity to make it too specific compared to its use.

So why is this a problem in itself?

Because some puzzles may not be perceived as a problem or being difficult (another word used in such definitions), based on the perception of the person interacting with them – they may simply involve a matter of choice, or choices, leading to a number or range of different outcomes.  Defining them using the word problem or difficult is too subjective.  Mazes are simple to implement and apply in such a manner, for example.  Would something cease to be a puzzle if someone found it simple and not really a problem to solve?  The answer is, of course, no – just like a game would still involve competition, even if a player found his opponent too easy to beat, and not very competitive.

Problem, in itself, is not puzzle, nor vice-versa.  The real reason why people have problems fully understanding and recognising what the word puzzle represents precisely and in its entirety, based upon its use, is that the basic behaviour it represents an application of is not recognised, so its applications are not being perceived within the proper context.

Puzzles are ultimately about things that happen to people.

The word puzzle, based upon its use, represents the behaviour of someone interacting with something that happens to them – interacting with a story, or stories being told.

Based on how the word itself is used, however, Wikipedia did at least get one thing right: the application of behaviour the word puzzle represents doesn’t have to include any creation of any person or entity (that we know of) in order to exist.

Because of this, is should be fairly easy to recognise the basic application and the basic behaviour the word puzzle represents:

Puzzles involve people interacting with things that happen to them, from puzzles we specifically create, such as jigsaws and crosswords etc., to those we do not, which can involve things such as the basic sciences – figuring out how the universe and all within it functions and exists etc..

But its current definitions betray a lack of such recognition.

Since the recognition of the word puzzle as representing such a basic application of behaviour, doesn’t really exist, the many ways and places in which such an application of behaviour can be found is not consistently recognised.

Because of this, people, again, get confused about whose behaviour the word puzzle represents an application of.

Rather than try to describe and label such behaviour by the person interacting with it, time and time again, people have described such a thing by their own behaviour in creating such a thing (as game designers/creators) – usually as interactive story telling.

But the person who created the story to be interacted with does not define it as a puzzle – all they’ve done is told a story – (in most cases, created a work of art) – for someone else to interact with.  It is the behaviour of the person interacting with such a story that defines it as a puzzle.

So, with that in mind, you would have thought the basis of a definition of what the word puzzle represents, based on what we’ve figured out, would be simple:

Puzzle n. interacting or interaction with a story/stories being told.

However, such a description, in itself, is not enough.  Not everything that happens to us that involves our interaction is considered to be a puzzle – even once the inconsistency in current perception, recognition and understanding is accounted for.

So what can we do?


Part 2:  A Potential Solution?

So, it should be obvious that we need a method of describing the word puzzle in a more specific manner.

Unfortunately, this leads to another problem that most dictionaries and encyclopaedias currently suffer from for this particular word:

Keeping the definition of puzzle objective enough for it to function in a manner that is fully consistent with its use.

The main word used to specify the application of behaviour – the interaction with a story being told – as being a puzzle, and nothing else, within such dictionaries and encyclopaedias, is difficult.  Such a word then leads to the inclusion of other words, such as problem.

Unfortunately, such words are too subjective, and not fully consistent with what the word puzzle can represent in its use.

What are the reasons for this?  How can such a thing be true?

The reason for this is because of the two main methods by which a story may be interacted with within a puzzle:

Choice and discovery.  (Inquiry, as offered by Wikipedia could be seen as a third method).

It is possible for a choice to be perceived as being simple and easy, and not, therefore, difficult.  It is also possible for the process of discovery to be perceived as being easy and simple too – but neither stops such an activity or event from being perceived as a puzzle.  Having to make a choice – any choice – in such a situation, and then perceiving it to be a problem, appears to be too subjective, or is it?

The problem with the definitions lies with the word difficult (or equivalent).  A puzzle being difficult, is purely a matter of subjective perception, and therefore is part of how what such a word represents is applied, and therefore should have no place in the definition of the word itself, or so it would appear.  But again, since puzzles have become known and recognised by their applications, it is no surprise that this has happened.  The word problem, in itself, would also appear to be subjective in the same manner – but is it?  Is it possible to consider something a problem, and yet not difficult?  The answer is, of course, yes.  2+2=? is a maths problem, yet few people here would consider it to be difficult.

But would describing the word as follows therefore be enough?

Puzzle n. interaction with stories being told, through power of choice, discovery or inquiry in order to solve a problem.

Again, probably not, since, again, not every choice we make about things that happen to us in such a manner, is considered to be a puzzle.


Because it is possible to create a puzzle, (a maze for example), with multiple viable outcomes to simply choose between.  It’s not really a problem, but a simple matter of choice.  Whether or not anyone would consider such a choice to be a problem, would depend entirely on their own subjective opinion, again.

It would appear, therefore, that trying to describe the word puzzle within a single, objective, definition, that is fully (and only) consistent with its use, is not possible.

So what can we do now?

There is one simple solution to this problem, that none of the current definitions have recognised, and that is to separate the two main types of puzzle from each other – those we create specifically as puzzles from those we do not.  Given how they must be defined, however, there is no reason why puzzles we create, based on their application, cannot also be covered by the same definition as those we do not, if applicable.

A single definition, therefore, is not enough to cover every use of the word puzzle as a noun in general.

Puzzle n. 1) Interacting with creative stories being told, through power of choice, discovery or inquiry.  2) Interacting with stories being told in order to solve a problem.

Unlike the puzzles we do not create, it is possible to create a puzzle where the emphasis is as much on the story being told, as the interaction required to choose between or discover such a thing.  This is what the current definitions of puzzle fail to reflect, and therefore why they fail to do their job.

There are a couple of puzzles – usually variants of the same type, (a maze) – that are not currently recognised as being puzzles.  The reasons for this, is although they represent applications of the same basic behaviour, without being consistent with such a specific application - as not being ‘difficult’ or a ‘problem’ - they are not recognised as puzzles at all.

And yet, the moment you change the method of application, it should be obvious that they are.

What I’m talking about here is of course interacting with creative stories being told, in the form of literature, or film/video etc..

‘Choose your own adventure books’, interactive dialog trees, or similar types of activities in video form etc., if written/drawn out and/or displayed together, using lines to represent the different paths people can choose between or discover in their interaction, would obviously be considered a puzzle, (a maze), and yet, because of the form they currently take – as literature or video - they are not seen as being puzzles at all.  Again, people have become so focused and almost mesmerised by the forms many applications of the word puzzle take, that they’ve begun to confuse them with what it is they are applications of, in the first place.


Part 3: More on puzzles

There is, however, one major point that has to be made in recognising puzzles for what they are, based on how the word is used.  The story being told, with which to interact with, has to already exist in its entirety, in order for it to be recognised as a puzzle – it must already have been written before anyone interacts with it.


Interacting with a story being told, can be recognised as involving indirect competition – trying to gain an outcome (solution) (by interacting with a story being told), at the expense of its creator (including god?).

As soon as the process of writing a story enters the picture – interacting with a story being told, that is also being written – the behaviour changes.  The person is no longer merely interacting with a story being told – but competing with the story now being written to be told in order for them to solve the problem being presented.  In other words, it has now changed to become a competition - an activity in which a person is competing (by interacting with a story being told), to be told whether or not they have 'won or lost' (solved the problem, through choice/discovery/inquiry).

EDIT: It is also here that we begin to see the difference between the words puzzle and problem.  A puzzle, being a story that has already been written, (to be discovered or chosen), must already have a solution in order to exist - (or at least be perceived to have a solution, in order for someone to apply such a definition upon) - whereas a problem does not need a solution to exist in any way, shape or form.  A problem may also, therefore, be solved by a person writing a story - figuring out (creating) a solution for themselves - that would not otherwise exist.  The word problem is therefore not what the word puzzle represents in isolation, as Wikipedia describes.

Such a matter should be recognised and understood, yet, based on its descriptions in encyclopedias/dictionaries etc. it is not.


Part 4: Puzzles and Games

(EDIT:) So, games and puzzles – involving written and told stories, would appear to be completely incompatible.  A single story cannot be both told to, and written by, the same person simultaneously.  The term puzzle-game would therefore appear to be an oxymoron.

This, in itself, is true.  Most puzzles games involve, are generally interleaved with the game, and therefore replace it, if only for a moment, until the puzzle is solved.  Such puzzles should therefore have no place whatsoever in games at all.  The term puzzle-game has been known to be used for such products that use such an element heavily, (though it is rare, since they are still usually defined by whatever gameplay they have).

Some ‘puzzle-games’ are, in fact, simply puzzles – merely stories being told for people to interact with, to solve whatever problem they have.  (‘Hidden-object’ ‘games’ can fall into this category etc.).

However, it is possible to use a puzzle to enable a game.  The reason why this is possible, is that the game – a race – exists above-and-beyond the puzzle itself, and therefore does not affect the definition or recognition of the puzzle for what it is, or vice-versa.  So yes, a race to complete a puzzle is the only true ‘puzzle-game’ that can exist.  Some games do offer just that, though are few and far between.  Any other type of game, would involve having to change the nature of the puzzle itself, and so are not consistent with both existing simultaneously.

Most so-called puzzle-games, however, are not, in fact, either puzzles or games.  This is because, as I said above, they continually write the story they tell for people to interact with.  Their definition must therefore lie with the story being told, rather than the interaction – (since that is what matters for any ‘solution’ to be gained) – and so such activities/products must therefore be defined and labelled as competitions.  (For example, see Bejewelled etc.).

Recognising and understanding the difference between competitions, games and puzzles, is a very large problem for a lot of people today, (including games designers/creators etc.), especially because games are not very compatible with puzzles and completely incompatible with competitions.

One of the symptoms of this problem should be so obvious, yet it still exists - it still happens - taking an activity that is consisdered to be a puzzle outside of a computer, and then calling it a game when using a computer.  This obviously should never happen.  All puzzles - from jigsaws to crosswords and sudoku etc. are still puzzles, even on a computer.  The basic behaviour of the person interacting with them does not change because of the medium - a computer - anymore than it would if they were made out of wood or paper.


So that now leaves just one main word left:

Part 6: Art and Its Relationship With Games

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