Although we call them puzzles, is the play of a jigsaw best understood this way? Veli-Matti Karhulahti triumphantly declares in the title of his DiGRA 2013 paper "Puzzle is Not a Game!" Is he right?
The language surrounding games, puzzles, and play is always muddy. We call things 'puzzle games' that involve solving no puzzles, and other things 'adventure games' that primarily consist in puzzle-solving. Worse, arguments concerning artistically interesting games focus far to often on the asinine 'is this a game?' and not enough on why specific experiences of designed play are of interest. For these and many other reasons I have disavowed the word 'game' as the biggest barrier to understanding play, and suggest that attempts to define 'game' are more about the aesthetic values of the individual than anything more substantial (a position I outlined in Implicit Game Aesthetics).
One of the latest scholars to wade in on the terminology dispute, Veli-Matti Karhulahti, recognises the terms are problematic, but claims his approach is ontological and not terminological. Regrettably, Matti's ontology is grounded on the terminology of 'puzzle' and 'game', and thus fails to escape the contested language. I rather wish he had instead started from scratch with his terms, but it is at least clear what aesthetic value judgements are in play, and therefore how his claims should be interpreted. Matti lines up behind the conflict aesthetic citing Hans-Georg Gadamer's claim that games require "something else with which the player plays and which automatically responds to his move with a countermove." The space of play covered by the problem aesthetic is split by Matti – that which meet his criteria of 'puzzle' are not games, those that do are 'strategic challenge'. As the choice of the conflict aesthetic makes clear, Matti's games are necessarily challenges - which he views as a "vital constituent of games". We can clearly see where Matti wants to erect his boundaries, and what he is not currently prepared to consider as relevant.
At Philosophy of Play, Matti and I talked about puzzles and games in the context of my disavowal of games. He assures me that he “has a word” for imaginative play, such as children's games of make-believe, but he's not yet told me what it is, and this aspect of play is utterly absent in this paper. Games, to Matti (and to everyone operating under variations of the victory aesthetic) are simply challenges. His distinction between puzzle and game becomes grounded on an appeal to the claim that strategic challenges "entail configuring dynamics" while puzzles "entail configuring statics alone." Where Matti and I are in close agreement is in his assertion that "games and strategic challenges are rather processes than objects." The question I want to explore here is: shouldn't the play of jigsaw puzzles be understood as processes?
As a sceptic about whether ontology is seperable from language, my method shall be phenomenology. Matti's specific claim about jigsaw puzzles is as follows:
A jigsaw is a puzzle. The consequences of its configuration are determinate, for fitting puzzle piece A to spot B has always the same outcome: the piece fits of not, and if the piece fits, the system state alters into a more lucid picture. If the piece does not fit, the system state remains the same.
Unfortunately, this in no way describes the way the players of jigsaw puzzles undertake their solution. What's more, the consequences of combining two jigsaw pieces is indeterminate for a number of interesting reasons. The first involves the way that conventional jigsaw dies cut up the cardboard. It is not solely the correct pieces that can be fit together, and most 1,000 piece jigsaws produce apparently convincing false positives with serious implications for the processes entailed in solving them. The less colour variation in the image, the worse this problem becomes. Furthermore, for the players of jigsaws the meaning of a matched pair of pieces varies according to how complete the image is around the matched pieces: if the two are in isolation, the match provides no way to determine where it belongs, and may not even be helpful. Matti's description covers only the case of having an image fragment and successfully extending it – and this is a subset of all matches that will occur in any given play session with a jigsaw puzzle.
Although I have seen considerable variety of approach, two of the most general strategies for jigsaw solving are those my wife uses, and those that I use (which makes our co-operation with jigsaw a particularly rewarding play experience for both of us). My wife has an acute sense of colour and solves jigsaws by grouping pieces by their hue, then matching within colour groups before assembling the segments. This approach, which I'll call pieces-to-image has advantages when alignment occurs in certain patterns as joined clusters are less likely to produce false positives since multiple pieces are generally wed simultaneously – a kind of object-oriented approach. I have the opposite strategy, which I'll call image-to-piece: I start by looking at the box to identify specific features, then identify the components of those features, and then build them into the already completed parts of the jigsaw. Unlike my wife, I am usually looking to extend what is already attached – so the outer frame (the usual but not the only place to begin) becomes my scaffolding to attach to. My strategy is based upon leveraging my excellent eyesight, and I find it much more rewarding than other approaches. (If you approach jigsaws differently, please share your tactic in the comments – I love to discover new variations of play!).
One interesting consequence of my image-to-piece approach is that the location of the die cut radically affects the difficulty of the solution: jigsaw makers are brilliantly sadistic, making cuts that make two pieces appear to be radically distinct when in fact they belong next to each other. Because this also involves dividing areas of colour, it also has an effect on piece-to-image play, but it is far less frustrating for a player approaching a jigsaw this way because the details of the image aren't central to the method. A player who solved a jigsaw by the brute force method, as a computer would have to do, would be oblivious to these kind of issues, which makes me suspect the number of such players is rather small – although certain jigsaws, such as the infamous 'baked beans' jigsaw, or the Tetris jigsaw depicted above, may have no other practical solution since neither mine nor my wife's method can be effective in solving them. For this reason, my wife and I are incredibly selective about which images we choose, and not just for reasons of visual aesthetics. The aesthetic experience of our different ways of playing is what matters to us, much as with any game.
In a rather insightful section of his paper, Matti supposes that puzzles (in his sense) are characterised by their configuration never depending upon their form. There is a genuine spark of genius here – but unfortunately many of the things we call a puzzle are dramatically affected by form. Someone like my sister who learned to solve a Rubik's Cube kinaesthetically (by learning a process with her hands) could not easily apply the same technique to a digital version of the same puzzle, even though (mathematically) the solutions were the same: the digital version requires additional spatial skills my sister is not competent at. The same kind of argument can be made with digital jigsaws, for which many of the kinds of functionality my wife and I take for granted at the tabletop would either be different of impossible (depending, of course, upon how it had been implemented). This already suggests jigsaw puzzles are not puzzles in Matti's sense, and although solving them is a clear process I rather think they do not fit his concept of strategic challenge either. This point is even more apparent in the case of a mile-wide version of a tabletop jigsaw, the solution to which could not possibly resemble the kinds of tactics possible with easily held pieces!
All of this makes it sound as if Matti's paper is too flawed to be of value, but this is not so! It has strengths that shine through its limitations, and his discussion of the relationship between chess games and chess puzzles is the most insightful I have read on the subject. There is a fascinating account of a certain kind of puzzle buried inside, obscured by its claim to be talking about all puzzles. As my discussion of jigsaw puzzles stresses, the fact that puzzles involve 'configuring statics' is not enough to render all the things we call puzzles into mere (mathematical) objects. There is a process experience in the actual play of jigsaws, Sudoku, and crosswords (or at least, certain kinds of cryptic crosswords) that does not match Matti's model very well, and could be used to defend a claim that such puzzles are games, even in Matti's chosen sense. The conflict aesthetic could be applied to these kinds of puzzles: the 'battle' between puzzle-maker and puzzle-solvers is richer than might be seen when such things are judged purely on a theoretical basis.
Ultimately, this paper's problem comes from its title and framing argument being mounted upon the boundary disputes over 'puzzle' and 'game'. With this setup, it reads as disingenuous to claim that the author has no interest in engaging in terminological debate. The likely inference by the reader is that the ontological claims are supposed to resolve the dispute unequivocally (which I doubt Matti means to assert, since ontology can never provide this kind of service). Matti has suggested he'd like to see me get away from Walton: I'd like to see him get away from Crawford, and indeed away from the boundary disputes altogether. My disavowal of 'game' is one option for him to consider, but I invite him to discover another. He is exploring fascinating connections between puzzles and strategic or tactical play that warrant further investigation. I for one am excited to see how this avenue develops.