I become increasingly interested in the parallels between different forms of games, especially between classic game styles and videogames, and the jigsaw puzzle is an interesting case. While many people reading this (being effectively addicted to videogames) have probably not played a jigsaw puzzle since childhood, my wife and I tackle a jigsaw together once or twice each year. Our approaches to the problem are complimentary, since I attack it as a giant search problem (locating pieces in respect of where the details match the picture on the box) while she views it as an experimental exercise (approximating a piece's location by colour, and then using trial and error to fit it).
While the play mechanics of jigsaws have nothing in common with a cRPG, the two forms of play are related by their reward structures. Computer role-playing games all contain a set of progress mechanics which deliver rewards e.g. levelling up to gain points to assign for advantages, acquiring new equipment to gain advantages and completing side quests which unlock further advantages. A typical cRPG will contain somewhere between 500 and 1,000 rewards (say 50 levels, 500+ items of equipment, 50+ side quests).
Jigsaws typically come in either 500 piece or 1,000 piece versions, and when solving a jigsaw puzzle each piece is a small reward. Initially, the edge pieces can be singled out allowing for rapid progress at the start (like a cRPG) after which a biting point is hit as the main body of the picture must be addressed. Progress is then slow in the second phase but accelerates towards the end of the puzzle as both the number of remaining pieces and the available slots to receive them decreases. This last observation is distinct from the end of a cRPG which invariably terminates with a boss – a super-hard finishing point – while the jigsaw finishes on an exciting rush to the finish.
Neurobiologically, the jigsaw pieces become more rewarding as the puzzle progresses because the released dopamine (the body's reward chemical) comes from effectively two sources – the small hit for the reward of fitting a piece (which can be increased if the player has been searching for a particular piece for ages), plus another small hit for the anticipation of future reward i.e. the next piece or, in the endgame, the end of the puzzle.
The cRPG also becomes more rewarding as the game progresses because the opportunity for rewards expands as the world expands, and like the jigsaw there are two sources of dopamine – achieving the rewards, and anticipating the future rewards (which may, depending on the players preferred play styles, increase as the end of the game becomes closer). The structure of the game – being both the way the game is organised and the way that rewards are delivered – is such that the player is effectively drawing from a pool of rewards (500-1000, say) until they are finished.
There may be a less clear end point than the jigsaw puzzle in terms of the available rewards, but the cRPG compensates with a boss which is intended to be the final reward. This, on the whole, may be a design error – since the boss rewards only one style of play, players who don't fit the Conqueror play style (or possibly Achiever) may suffer. Many, my player studies suggest, just give up at this point. (I can't help but wonder if it would be possible to design a cRPG which ended with the same frantic rush to finish as a jigsaw, instead of a boss, and I believe not only that it should be, but that this is how a mass market "casual" cRPG would be best structured).
Thus I conclude that there are structural parallels between the jigsaw puzzle and the cRPG – more so than between the jigsaw and other kinds of videogame. However, the two have nothing like the same play mechanics – in this regard, the jigsaw is closer in spirit to the hidden object game, which draws upon very similar skills. The RPG structure – the pool of rewards – is robust and addictive, and enjoys increasing commercial success as structural elements from RPGs appear in more and more genres with each passing year.
Do you play jigsaw puzzles? Please share your perspective on why you enjoy them in the comments.