These Crosswords Are Nifty, And Also NFTy

Crossword puzzles, once solely the domain of pencil and paper, are shouldering their way further and further into the Internet age. Many solvers forgo pencils entirely — they solve strictly on their computer or via an app, the better to maintain their beloved daily streak. “Crossword Twitter” is a fast-moving conversation between hundreds of people comparing their times on the daily New York Times puzzle and chiming in enthusiastically whenever there is any crossword-related controversy. And are there any crossword tournaments now that don’t have an online component?

It was, perhaps, only a matter of time before someone thought to combine crossword puzzles with NFTs.

NFTs are “non-fungible tokens” — they are theoretically a way for people to purchase and uniquely own digital creations, though there seem to be some legal questions about whether owning a string of letters and numbers is the same thing as owning the photo or song or work of art that string represents.

A lot of people have swarmed into various NFT projects, buying things like cartoons or the digital equivalent of sports trading cards. And then there are also a lot of people who have noticed that NFT projects seem to attract a lot of scam-artist types, who try to hype their digital projects to jaw-dropping valuations. Some cartoons have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, to the complete mystification of many.

There is also the problem that NFTs are inevitably purchased with cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or Ethereum, which have a bad reputation due to their impact on the environment. New cryptocurrency is brought into existence only through the use of a lot of raw computing power, which eats up a lot of resources. China banned the mining of cryptocurrency for exactly this reason — though this simply moved the online mining industry to other parts of the world. (Ethereum, to its credit, recently changed its technological approach so as to substantially lessen its environmental impact.)

Between the Ponzi scheme shadiness in certain corners of NFT-land and the ongoing environmental questions, it was perhaps no surprise that there was more alarm than excitement when Planet Crossword launched a few weeks ago. A new site from a group called Hovercats (itself a subsidiary of a company called Hovercast, which isn’t confusing at all), Planet Crossword offers a new mini puzzle or 15×15 grid each weekday from top constructors, edited by Stella Zawistowski and Brooke Husic. What’s new here is that these puzzles aren’t just designed to be played online — they are designed to be co-solved online, collaboratively with an unlimited number of friends or colleagues. Create a room, send your friends the code, and boom — you all see the same grid, and you can work together to complete it. (Or race to see who can fill in the most answers.) With a little technical know-how, you can easily stream your solve on Twitch or Zoom or Discord.

And then — here’s where things get interesting, or in the eyes of some, “bad” — you can also bid to own each day’s puzzle as an NFT. Why would you want to do that? Well, some people might be buying the puzzles as a dubious investment, just as others have purchased cartoon apes or whatever — there are the beginnings of a secondary market on OpenSea, an NFT marketplace. Others may be buying the puzzles simply to support a fun new site — a form of patronage. Puzzles have sold for $20 and they have also sold for over $200. It is hard to understand why different puzzles attract different values; there is an air of experimentation to the whole thing.

Enough people are allergic to NFTs that any association with them is sufficient to cause controversy. But Planet Crossword seems like far less of a hype-filled techno-scam than other NFT projects: It is simply how Hovercats hopes to earn a little money for its efforts, rather than through advertising or through subscriptions. It remains to be seen whether this will prove to be a sustainable business model. If the digital rights more often sell on the $20 side of the scale, it’s hard to see how this works out in the long run.

A few people have wondered if the constructors are being paid in cryptocurrency: No, they’re being paid in actual US dollars — plus they earn 10% of the purchase price of the NFT.

Hovercats isn’t about to cleanse the reputation of NFTs by attaching them to crosswords, but Planet Crossword really does seem like a relatively benign application of this new technology. And it would be a shame if the project’s associations with cryptocurrency overwhelmed the more appealing parts of what Hovercats is offering — a new addition to the few ways one can collaborate online with friends on brand-new, well-made crossword puzzles. Whether or not the NFT thing works out, here’s hoping the fun, co-solving aspect can stick around for a while.

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