Fairness and Accessibility in Puzzles?

We love crosswords here at PuzzleNation. Crosswords are our bread and butter, as well as our pizza, our salad, and our desserts.

We strive to keep our puzzles as accessible as possible for solvers of all ages. And that’s tougher than non-puzzlers might think.

Recently we discussed a never-ending debate in crosswords as we delved into the many, sometimes contradictory, goals of creating a great crossword. You want entries to appeal to older solvers without alienating younger solvers, and vice versa. Some people despise pop culture references and proper nouns, while others embrace them.

Abbreviations, partial phrases, fill-in-the-blank clues, wordplay clues, clues that reference other clues… there’s a vast swathe of crossword qualities that must be balanced, and no matter how good a job you do, you’re probably still going to have a few dissenting voices who believe you should do better.

As a hobby still very much viewed as the purview of older white men — despite the many worthwhile voices of women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community that contribute to the world of crosswords in increasing numbers — the language featured in crosswords MATTERS.

It reflects our society, serving as a microcosm of the current day and our culture as a whole. Older solvers might not know new slang or black artists or trans performers or any number of references that are growing more commonplace AND gaining greater visibility. But updating the vocabulary of crosswords is a constant effort, and a worthwhile one.

But I said a lot of this in that previous post, so why am I returning to the topic now?

Well, because I find this continuing democratization of crosswords interesting, because it’s something required of crosswords, but not of many other types of puzzles.

Word seeks (except for some variations) give you the starting list, and then you go hunting for answers. Fill-Ins do the same thing, leaving you the empty grid to fill but requiring no specialized knowledge. Everyone gets the same running start.

(I snagged this helpful image from www.logic-puzzles.org.)

Traditional logic puzzles are also presented on an even playing field. You’re presented with information (say, hints about various names, places, times, and activities), as well as an end goal to figure out (the correct schedule of who did what, where, and when).

You don’t have to bring any foreknowledge or previous experience to the table. Given the opportunity, everyone should have an equal chance of solving the puzzle.

Naturally, this equality depends on the assumption that you, the solver, can read the language the puzzle is presented in.

Which brings me to, perhaps, the most democratically fair paper puzzle of all: Sudoku.

The rules are simple, even if the puzzles can be very challenging: place the numbers 1 through 9 in every row, column, and cell.

Even at a glance, without knowing the puzzle, pretty much anyone would have an idea of what’s going on and what needs to be done. Language doesn’t matter, so long as you can identify the nine different symbols to be placed. (This is why word and color variations of Sudoku exist, because the numbers themselves are irrelevent. You just need nine different things.)

Anyone can pick up a pen, a pencil, or a stylus and solve a Sudoku.

And we should strive for the same thing with crosswords.

Sure, all of those other puzzles require practice to get GOOD at them. But at a baseline, everyone who approaches them has a fair shot. Crosswords demand that solvers bring their own knowledge and info and trivia and vocabulary to the table.

But crosswords as a whole should seek that same democratization: Accessibility. Representation. That inviting X factor.

There’s already a touch of that in the medium. Anytime I see someone solving a puzzle on a train, or in an airport, or in some public place, there’s always someone else sneaking a peek or stealing a glance.

Have you ever seen someone complete a crossword for the very first time? I have, and it’s awesome. It’s a magnified version of the delicious a-ha moment when you unravel a tricky clue.

Do you remember the joy in your heart the first time you conquered a New York Times puzzle on a difficult day? The first time you solved a puzzle type you’d never bested before? The first time you cracked the meta lurking in the background of an already devilish design?

Everyone should get that feeling.

No crossword will ever be everything every solver wants it to be. And that’s fine. But I do look forward to the day when everyone looks at a puzzle and at least one of the clues speaks to them, makes them feel seen and heard and represented.

Puzzles should be for everyone.

[Thank you to ThinkFun and Michelle Parrinello-Cason for inspiring this post.]


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