Is Gordon Freeman a Character?
Guiding the Player (Prezi)

Is a Jigsaw Puzzle a Game?

Tetris Jigsaw 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.


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Troubling, especially since dissection puzzles like a Tangram can take many different forms using the same pieces in its set, not only to come together to form one predetermined configuration.

Chris, firstly it is of course an honor to see you discuss my contribution in such detail. While I don't have too much time in my hands (who has), your discussion deserves a reply. So here are some notes that will hopefully clarify things and perhaps be of some use to your own work.

1. You say that my ontological goals fail to escape terminological debate because I employ contested language. Unfortunately game scholars, like all scholars, must often employ contested language as long as written text is the discourse in use. We could talk about games without using the term 'game' and about puzzles without using the term 'puzzle' but I don't see any benefits in it in this case since my 'puzzle' refers to the actual nominal use of the term, more or less (and allows me to use Tetris as a perfect counter example). Your jigsaw puzzle only confirms this.

2. To be clear, one should note that the reference to Gadamer is only a reference to his phrasing of the distinction, not to his aesthetics which is a real mess in this case.

3. The games of game studies have very little to do with child play (what you call 'children's games') for which I saw no reason to prolong the paper with Waltonian speculation.

4. It seems your confusions are first and foremost a result of misinterpreting 'determinate.' So let us consult a dictionary: "Precisely limited or defined." This is the way I use the term, which should be visible in its relations to statics and dynamics. I simply can't see how combining two specific puzzle pieces could have unlimited or random empirical results unless in the hypothetical case of an endless jigsaw puzzle (which apparently would no more be a puzzle, but this is another discussion we must not enter here).

5. In case of your sister etc., you simply confuse theory and practice. I am talking about the Rubik's Cube as a theoretical object, you talk about it as a practical activity. I warn about this in the section where I show how Crawford makes the same mistake. This object approach (cf. system-centric vs. player-centric, Frasca 2007) results in some interesting problems, however, which I discuss in great length in separate sections.

6. I guess most of the confusion in (5) can be explained by your misreading of 'process.' I don't claim that processes have nothing to do with puzzles: "the process of solving the puzzles is silent" (cf. later: games are rather objects with special processing nature). To repeat, there is a difference between THE puzzle and the ACT of solving a puzzle. Again, I discuss the problems of this distinction in great length -- and in fact I do remark that some puzzles can be played as games.

Lastly it cannot be stressed enough that the aim of the paper is not to name objects but to explore systemic game ontology which cannot be done without object-centric analysis. This is clearly visible if one looks not at the title of the study but into the results of the study. The result is not that the puzzle was proven not to be a game; the result is that games seem to involve at least three different forms of challenge that are worth further analytical research. Let it also be noted that I'm currently interested in the possibility of distinguishing kinesthetic aspects of puzzles, or kinesthetic puzzles, which would further question (ergo advance) this primal framework.

Thanks for the fascinating discussion, and looking forward to continue it one day!


Hi Matti,
Thanks for your reply! Mostly, our 'gears don't seem to be meshing' here, but I'll throw in a few comments.

Firstly, to avoid contested language, define related terms and avoid the points of dispute. As long as you don't, you can't get free of the disputes. Your title doesn't help in this regard - it obscures what's interesting in your approach. You want to say your 'puzzle' corresponds to the nominal use of the term - this is perhaps less clear to your readers than it is to you, especially since the majority do consider a puzzle a game! :)

"I simply can't see how combining two specific puzzle pieces could have unlimited or random empirical results"

Not unlimited, not random, but not as determinate as you claim in practice. Of course, if you're interest in solely the maths I suppose you can ignore the actual play of jigsaw puzzles and claim determinacy. But then you can't really claim to be talking about jigsaw puzzles. You're talking about the mathematics of state-space searches, perhaps? But precisely my point is that these mathematics are fairly unimportant to the actual play of jigsaws. Perhaps our discussion falls into a theory-practice divide here! :)

"The games of game studies have very little to do with child play (what you call 'children's games') for which I saw no reason to prolong the paper with Waltonian speculation."

Sure, I accept your claim here even though it is an admission that 'game studies' is nothing of the kind, much like 'game theory', ;) This, of course, is certainly not your problem, although I believe it is a serious one that scholars in game studies ought to be taking far more seriously than they do.

However, the imaginative play of games of make-believe is central to a whole host of things ordinarily called 'games' that just don't fit your ontology - the tabletop role-playing game being the most important case, and particularly the diceless game. ("Proteus" could be used as a videogame example of the same lacuna, and there are many similar examples).

Your ontological results regarding three different forms of challenge refer to some subset of games that don't include tabletop RPGs or anything like them. This is a huge problem with it in my eyes! I want to see you tackle the problem you say you're tackling, but instead it seems as if you ignore those play activities that don't fit your ontology (perhaps they are excluded because they require players?). Alternatively, I want to see you define your terms in a way that honestly reflects what you're interested in - because at the moment it's not 'games' in a conventional use of the term. So what is it? Just the theoretical system-object of a game where that system does not require sentient players?

I see what you mean about confusing theoretical objects and practical activities. But if your findings are only supposed to entail theoretical objects then it's a philosophy of mathematics. I think you might have found more than this, but perhaps I'm projecting my "player-centric" perspective over your "system-centric" model...

Honestly, I believe you're doing some great work but it is obscured by how you're mounting it. If I'm not understanding you correctly, you can be certain a lot of other game scholars are also misunderstanding you - and the onus is always on the scholar not the audience to resolve such problems.

Anyway, I'm happy - you gave me an excuse to discuss jigsaw puzzles, which I've wanted to do for some time. :) Let's stay in touch and see how our discourse develops!

All the best,


Yes, I also think the awareness of our opposite approaches solves all major points of dispute.

One of your arguments I cannot, however, accept, namely that the three challenge structures couldn't be used to analyze (tabletop or other) RPG challenges -- which are primarily strategic. I was thinking about adding 'social challenges' to the discussion, but since those would also be strategic by nature (involving dynamics) I decided to leave that out for further development.

In the Finnish language make-belive (kuvittelu), acting (näyttely) and child play (leikki) have nothing to do with game (peli). This is the case in many other languages too. This is also the reason why I don't make an issue out of leaving those things out of my research (at the same time being critically aware of it). But because English is the dominant academic language, it seem to me that most ontological problems in game studies (especially for those scholars who only speak English) result from the fact that they are shackled to their mother discourse which in this case has made a little trick by overspreading family resemblances.

Evidently all these phenomena do share features -- not doubt here -- but if one has read her Wittgenstein she also knows that the features on the left corner may have absolutely nothing to do with the features on the right corner. And in your case it seem to me that you're trying to tie those corners together under the label 'game' due to the fact that English parlance supports this.

But neither English nor Finnish should be used as final evidence (albeit they might help) when we try to understand phenomena in academic research. I've read your book and it seems to me that the phenomenon you're trying to understand is human imagination. While that phenomenon certainly relates to most or all games, it is nevertheless different from them. So here's a little riddle: are the 'games' you're interested in any different from 'imaginative activities' ?

I guess I should add a smiley here because my writing often tends to become a bit heavy :)


Hi Matti,
Some good additional points here.

"I was thinking about adding 'social challenges' to the discussion, but since those would also be strategic by nature (involving dynamics) I decided to leave that out for further development."

Aha - this is a thoroughly enlightening sentence! And it suggests to me that 'strategic challenge' is a dangerous phrase to describe what you are referring to, since it includes many things that are dynamic but not strategic (in the usual sense of the term). I definitely think your observations will become clearer if you revise your terminology towards terms less likely to lead to misunderstandings (while recognizing the infinite uphill battle this entails!)

"But because English is the dominant academic language, it seem to me that most ontological problems in game studies... result from the fact that they are shackled to their mother discourse which in this case has made a little trick by overspreading family resemblances."

So very true! This is why I wish I were French and could use the same word for 'game' as for 'play'. It far better fits my sensibilities in this matter. :)

"...are the 'games' you're interested in any different from 'imaginative activities' ?"

Good question! I'm interested in all play activities, and all things that could be called games. I'm also interested in all imaginative activities, including those that would not be considered play activities or games. But yes, my primary interest in "Imaginary Games" is imagination. Indeed, this is the first volume in a trilogy of books that forms my 'Imaginative Investigations' (if you will). But I do not tend to then call all acts of imagination 'games'. In "Chaos Ethics" the word 'game' does not appear at all, although the word 'fiction' does, but it is certainly about imagination.

On another tack, a recurring concern of mine in discussion of games is: how are tabletop RPGs dealt with? I would have been a designer of these games if there had been any money in it, but there wasn't so I went into videogames instead. :)

Most theories I see thrown around in game studies handle RPGs terribly badly. Yours, I suspect, can handle them quite well - but it's not clear in its current form that this is the case, because all dynamic configuration is called 'strategic challenge', even if it is neither strategic nor strictly challenging. The space for misunderstanding here is vast...

I reiterate my earlier point: I think you're onto something. But I think it needs some work in 'translation' to get it into a form whereby what you mean is less likely to be misunderstood, even by someone sympathetic to your cause (as I believe I am!). I suspect the keywords 'strategic' and 'challenge' are redflags here and may need rethinking. It is the tension between statics and dynamics that your ontology is strong on - perhaps you need terms that reflect this more clearly?

Something to ponder, anyway. :)

All the best,


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