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Why We Enjoy Puzzles: The View From Play Studies

Puzzling is a special kind of play—and teaches special lessons.

Key points

  • Interest in puzzling is more than a desire for pleasant escape. It expresses the satisfaction one derives from other forms of play.
  • Play is transformative, bounded, contestive, unpredictable, self-regulated, and episodic. Puzzling shares these qualities—and their benefits.
  • However, puzzling differs in its sensitivity to external logics, correct endpoints, solitary pondering, and discovery rather than creation.
  • Making things “fit” teaches people to appreciate the workings of the world—and their place within it.

There is a French television series, Astrid, which centers on the investigations of a young archivist in Paris’s bureau of criminal records. Expert at her job, she passes much of her time fiddling with puzzles, especially those involving challenges of arrangement and disentanglement. In part because she has Asperger’s, she finds puzzling of this sort stabilizing and soothing. Notably, she uses those same skills—noticing and arranging—to help the chief inspector solve a succession of baffling murders.

Few of us possess the mental powers of this character. Still, we enjoy puzzling, especially during these stressful and homebound times. Such activities include jigsaws and connect-the-dots. There are mazes and challenges to notice differences between two pictures and to find “hidden” objects. Add to these number puzzles like Sudoku and Kakuro. Many of us do crosswords and crypto-quotes; we watch Wheel of Fortune. We solve—or at least try to solve—riddles and seek to identify the killer, weapon, and room in games of “Clue.” Popular currently is the online game “Wordle.” Readers will add their own favorites to this list.

As I will discuss, these different puzzles have much in common. They produce similar sensations in their players: mixes of frustration and anticipation as the hunt advances followed (ideally) by the end-pleasure of solution. Sometimes that end—and the steps required to reach it—is apparent, but often it is not. In that latter case, success features a series of “aha” moments, the sudden revelations we call discovery. For hours, we search for that missing jigsaw piece; we find right in front of us. Magically, it fits. The “Wheel of Fortune" answer eludes us; in a flash, it comes to us.

It may seem that to play in this way is to put oneself under the spell of the puzzle-maker. However, it is just as much submission to the turnings of one’s own mind, which processes information in ways we cannot fathom and then reveals its insights to consciousness.

Most essays on the pleasure of puzzling stress the experiences of willful isolation and personal control that is central to such activities. They emphasize the feelings of completion (supported biochemically by bursts of dopamine) that make us want to continue playing, both now and in future. Puzzling, however trivial it seems, whets the mind and helps participants feel good about their abilities. It offers a pleasant break from the complexities of living.

I disagree with none of this. However, there is much more to say about the appeal of puzzles. First, I want to discuss what puzzling shares with other kinds of play. Then I explain how it differs from those other forms.

Puzzling as play

Most play scholars try to distinguish their chosen subject from the other things people do. Commonly, they compile a list of play’s characteristics or traits. My own account features six of these traits, all of which apply to puzzling.

1) Play is transformative. When people play, they assert themselves in situations, altering those to suit their purposes. They create things, modify them, and then tear them down. They “make” their own fun. That quality of self-assertion is also key to puzzling. Players pick up pieces and try to fit them; they write symbols in blank spaces. Pushing themselves ahead, they find these little acts of transformation change not only the playing board but also themselves.

2) Play is bounded. Many have written that play is a magic circle, a protected sphere cut off from ordinary events and their consequences. That sphere commonly features special activities, skills, goals, and rules. There may be distinctive playing grounds, implements, and costumes. Special concepts of time prevail. Well-developed games have their histories, records, and champions. Puzzling partakes of all these elements. Sitting perhaps in a favorite chair with a favorite pen or pencil at hand, the puzzler opens the page and begins. I call this quest to enter a restricted world, undertake challenges, and experience completion there “consummation.”

3) Play is contestive. Play differs from many activities in that participants willingly confront difficulties. Often those challenges come from other people and predicaments; however, players equally test their own abilities and emotional resolve. Pointedly, players desire resistance; they want to respond to the world’s reactions to them. Puzzling is like this. Players find they cannot easily “have their way” with the challenge at hand; its logic—presented as physical or symbolic arrangements—defies them.

4) Play is unpredictable. Play is “fun” because it is uncertain, even mysterious. No one wants a game that is too easy—or too hard. Ideally, our skills match the challenges before us. Such is psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of focused engagement, or “flow.” Most puzzlers would acknowledge this. We restrict ourselves to jigsaws of a certain appearance and number of pieces. Some word and number games are not for us. At best, we take on challenges just beyond our reach and congratulate ourselves when we solve them. A good try signifies we are getting better at this, perhaps “improving our mind.”

5) Play is self-regulated. Contrasted with much of life, play is an occasion where we get to make choices. Commonly we decide what to play, when to start, and when to stop. At times, we play in a determined, hyper-serious way; alternately, we dally. At any rate, it is up to us—and sometimes our co-players—to decide what spirit the game will have and when it rightly concludes. Again, puzzles are like this. We put in answers, or pieces, for a while. Tired now, we’ll come back to it later.

6) Play is episodic. Just as play in general separates itself from ordinary affairs, so particular play events occur as individual segments or moments. Think of dances at a ball, hands of cards, or innings in baseball. Sometimes, those changes involve new roles for players, who get to “deal” or have their “time-at-bat”. Frequently, the next segment of the game proceeds entirely afresh. In other games (think of Monopoly and chess), one moves from ever-deepening predicaments. Nevertheless, participants get their “move,” “spin,” or “play.” Each is an unfettered opportunity to get out of that predicament and, indeed, to do something special in the moment at hand. We puzzlers know all this. We respond to individual clues at Crossword; we fill in individual boxes in Sudoku. Curiously, we even get “re-dos,” erasures of our word and number choices, removals of one puzzle piece to replace it with another. Such choice-making, narrow as it is, keeps us in the moment.

How puzzles differ from most forms of play

A fellow play scholar and I used to debate whether puzzles are truly forms of play. As he argued, people don’t “play” puzzles; they “work” them or “do” them. That work-like—and sometimes, ritualistic—spirit separates them from the carefree, expressive, and spontaneous demeanor that marks many kinds of play.

To be sure, there are different kinds of games—and different ways of playing. Some play is open-ended in its goals and methods. It proceeds to unforeseen circumstances, creates things never been made before. Commonly, endings are of lesser importance; how players think and feel about their activity is key.

It is the nature of games—with their defined starts and ends, equipment, and rules—to put restrictions on personal expression. Essentially, games are frameworks that keep people moving in clear directions. Puzzling pushes this pattern to its extreme. Significantly, puzzles usually have only one solution, one way the pieces fit. The whole affair has a logic, which one must accept. Doubtless, all of us are free to do the activity as we see fit, but ultimately our efforts will prove “correct” or “incorrect.”

To make a general distinction, players “create” or “invent” the world; puzzlers “discover” it. Put more subtly, players impose their own logics on otherness; puzzlers accommodate themselves to the logics of otherness.

Societies like ours celebrate personal creativity; we adore new things. However, we should not elevate making over acknowledging, or knowing. Puzzlers seek the secrets of the universe, its mysterious codes and arrangements. Commonly, they work alone or, at most, side-by-side. Finding these codes, even at the ordinary levels where most of us operate, is a satisfying endeavor. It teaches us—as it does Astrid—that curiosity, receptivity, and diligence are important virtues. As explorers, we build ourselves by our discoveries, even if these are territories settled long ago. Sitting quietly in a favorite chair, we sense our connection to others.


Henricks, T. (2015). Play and the Human Condition. Chicago: University of Illinois Press

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