Scrabble and Gender Politics?

Gender equality is a hot-button issue these days, as it should be. In the US, one political party is hellbent on regulating reproductive rights (and women’s bodies in general), even as the opposing party saw more women elected into public office than ever before.

Women of color and LGBTQIA+ women continue to seek equal and fair representation in all areas, from political and economic to social, and these discussions are important. They should be part of the national — and global — conversation.

You might think this has nothing to do with the world of puzzles and games, but you’d be wrong. The stigma of Gamergate still hangs over the heads of many in the video game industry, after a small, yet vocal and toxic, group of video game fans targeted and harassed female coders and game designers. There have been smaller stories in the board game industry as well, where companies have agreed not to associate with certain individuals with troublingly sexist backgrounds.

Even the puzzle world isn’t immune to this. Earlier this year, I wrote about how few women are published in major crossword outlets, despite the wealth of talent out there.

So when I stumbled across an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal about gender inequality in the world of competitive Scrabble, I was intrigued.

The author argues that “Females aren’t as obsessively driven as males to nail down facts, correct errors, and dominate a field,” and uses the Scrabble tournament as a microcosm, implying that the same argument applies to STEM fields and other intellectual competitions like the National Geographic Geography Bee.

From the article:

Competitive Scrabble constitutes a natural experiment for testing the feminist worldview. According to feminist dogma, males and females are identical in their aptitudes and interests. If men dominate certain data-based, abstract fields like engineering, physics and math, that imbalance must, by definition, be the result of sexism—whether a patriarchal culture that discourages girls from math or implicit bias in the hiring process.

But there are no cultural expectations that discourage females from memorizing dictionaries—a typical strategy of competitive Scrabble players, often in a foreign language that the player doesn’t speak. Girls are as free as boys to lap up vocabulary. Nor are there misogynist gatekeepers to keep females out of Scrabble play; the game, usually first learned at home, is open to all. According to Hasbro, 83% of recreational Scrabble players 25 to 54 are female.

Now, firstly, there is misogynist gatekeeping in most every social activity. You can go back and read the interviews I did for my Women in Roleplaying Games post earlier this year for some telling firsthand accounts.

I can’t argue with the stats on recreational Scrabble players. Most of the Scrabble players (and Words With Friends players, and other offshoots) are women. Heck, in my group of friends, one Scrabble rivalry escalated so much that the loser of a particularly high-stakes match had to compose and perform a song dedicated to the winner’s Scrabble mastery!

But the author is missing a major point about discouragement vs. encouragement. Sure, many of those recreational Scrabble players are female, but being introduced to a game in your youth and being encouraged to excel at it are two very different things. Girls are not necessarily as free as boys to lap up vocabulary, unless they’re raised in a household where such learning is equally encouraged.

Girls and young women still struggle under weighty cultural expectations, both in terms of what their interests should be and what fields they should focus their competitiveness on. To act like every household treats boys and girls the same is a ridiculous act of simplification on the author’s part.

There is a huge difference between not being discouraged and actively being encouraged. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many of the top crossword constructors in the field today, and one thing that many of them, male and female, have in common is being encouraged at a young age to pursue their interest in puzzles.

There’s no gender disparity in competitors at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, either in terms of competitors or winners, and the parental and familial encouragement for those children is obvious in any interview package.

Plus, there’s the issue of whether competitiveness is encouraged. All too often, you hear stories about girls’ and women’s interest in a topic being quashed by discussions of “what’s appropriate” or “what’s ladylike” or some other nonsensical idea of how to BE a woman.

You hear it all the time in the language employed by misogynists; A man is competitive, a woman is aggressive. A man is outspoken, a woman is pushy. The double standard is very much a thing, and whether we’re talking about households, board rooms, or game rooms, these inequities should be challenged.

We still have huge strides to make in terms of ameliorating gender inequality in our society, and the little fights matter as much as the big ones. The author states that “the National Science Foundation pours millions of taxpayer dollars into intersectionality and microaggression studies to smoke out invisible STEM sexism and to promote diversity in research labs.”

Invisible? Hardly. I was a physics student as a freshman in college, and I saw the one female student in my classes run off by this supposedly invisible STEM sexism. I wish I had spoken up more then.

I hope that continuing to speak up now in some small way makes up for it.


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A New Venue to Publish More Women!

Long-time readers know that one of my favorite things about the blog is that I can use it to spread the word about different worthwhile projects.

In the past, we’ve proudly provided a signal boost to folks adapting popular games for the visually impaired, game shops that could use more support, and campaigns to encourage and recruit constructors from more diverse backgrounds.

So when I heard about the Kickstarter campaign for The Inkubator, I knew it was another worthwhile project to put a spotlight on.

The brainchild of crossword constructors Tracy Bennett and Laura Braunstein, The Inkubator is a by-email subscription puzzle service where 100% of the puzzles will be constructed by women. (It follows in the footsteps of the wonderful Women of Letters project from last year.)

From the public announcement:

The editors invite women — cis women, trans women, and woman-aligned constructors — to submit themed and themeless crosswords or queries in any stage of development. (If you think you may be eligible to construct, but you’re not sure, you’re eligible to construct. Still not sure? Ask us!) If you’re new to constructing, we’ll make every effort to connect you with a collaborator.

Yes, The Inkubator is not only a publishing outlet for anyone who identifies as female, but it is intended to help and encourage new and inexperienced constructors, providing resources and advice in the hopes of publishing more women.

The Kickstarter has only been up for two days, and they’ve already passed their initial funding goal, proving that there is not only a market for women-driven puzzles, but a lot of support for female constructors as well. They’re currently brainstorming stretch goals for the project right now!

I wish The Inkubator not only luck, but success, and I can’t wait to see what new voices the project helps bring to the fore.

For more details or to donate to The Inkubator, check out the Kickstarter page for the project here.


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My Favorite Crosswords and Clues for 2016!

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the crossword — the one hundred and third, to be precise — and I thought I would celebrate the day by sharing some of my favorite crossword puzzles and clues from this year.

I solved more crosswords this year than any other year I can remember. From The New York Times, The LA Times, and The Washington Post to Peter Gordon‘s Fireball Newsflash Crosswords and our own Free Daily Puzzle on the Penny Dell Crosswords app, I tried to sample as many constructors and outlets as I could.

I want to start with Ben Tausig’s “Gender-Fluid” quantum puzzle from The New York Times in September. In a year that saw the Times called out several times for tone-deaf and insensitive cluing, to have a puzzle dedicated to the increasing awareness of other gender options was great.

And it certainly didn’t hurt that Ben’s grid was tightly constructed and each of the variable M or F entries worked well. (You can check out my full post on the puzzle here.)

“Eliminating the Competition” by Barany and Friends was another strong crossword with clever letterplay involved. The puzzle paid tribute to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament by dropping the letters A, C, P, and T, respectively from the four theme entries in the grid.

Not only that, but there were no As, Cs, Ps, or Ts to be found anywhere else in the puzzle grid, which I thought was not only clever, but impressively challenging as a constructing gimmick. It was one of the most ambitious grids I saw all year. (You can check out my full post on the puzzle here.)

On the flip side — a puzzle that was more about the clues than the grid — there was the cryptic crossword from Neil Patrick Harris’s Choose Your Own Autobiography.

With clues like “Sounds like an assortment of taxis in which you were the MC (7)” (for CABARET) and “Costar a large, fake amount of money? (7)” (for FILLION), this puzzle not only rewarded attentive readers, but it severely taxed my (admittedly less-than-daunting) skills at unraveling cryptic clues. (You can check out my full post on the puzzle here.)

Oh, and on the topic of cryptic clues, I asked some constructors if there were any clues or puzzles that caught their eye this year, and David Kwong mentioned a doozy of a cryptic clue by master constructors Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon that he considered the most diabolical he’d ever seen.

The clue? “Emphatically, the key to making bozos boss? (9)”

The answer? SFORZANDO, which parses as “S for Z and O.”

That’s awesome. Doug Peterson did a variation on that in this year’s Lollapuzzoola tournament, “What Happened?”, which featured words or phrases where the letter H had been replaced with either a T or a Y. He revealed this with the entry “HISTORY” breaking down “H is T or Y.” I really dug this puzzle.

And speaking of Lollapuzzoola, I absolutely loved Francis Heaney‘s “Quote Boxes” puzzle from this year’s tournament. It was an 18×18 grid jam-packed with entries, and he used an interesting mechanic to fill the grid.

There were five 2×2 boxes shaded with different shapes, and each of the four cells in those 2×2 boxes contained a word from a famous four-word movie quote, allowing him to place longer entries in the grid. It was the highlight of Lollapuzzoola for me this year. Great stuff.

But before I get to the final crossword on my list, I’d like to run down some of my favorite crossword clues from this year.

  • “Island country that becomes a geometric solid if you change its last letter to an E” for CUBA (from Patrick Blindauer‘s Piece of Cake Crosswords. A super-long clue, but very fun.)
  • “Struggle with hopelessness?” for LISP (from Brendan Emmett Quigley)
  • “The Sky, Sun, and Stars play in it” for WNBA (from Peter Gordon)
  • “Answers, on ‘Jeopardy!'” for ASKS (I don’t recall where I saw this one. Let me know if you know, so I can correct this!)
  • “Some people do it for kicks” for KARATE (Again, no idea where I saw this one. Let me know if you know, so I can correct this!)
  • “Characters often found to be up in arms?” for YMCA (from Sam Trabucco’s Indie 500 puzzle)

And cluing tied into my final choice for favorite crossword of the year with Erik Agard and Joanne Sullivan’s puzzle “Do I Hear a Waltz?” from the Indie 500 tournament.

In this puzzle, the words ONE, TWO, and THREE were missing from sequential clues, providing a hidden one-two-three count for the puzzle’s titular waltz. For instance, 36-Across clued TRUMP as “Up,” 37-Across clued BIKINI as “Piece, say,” and 38-Across clued TITLES as “Peat makeup.” As you’d expect, those clues make much more sense when you add the hidden one-two-three: One-up = TRUMP; Two-piece, say = BIKINI; Threepeat makeup = TITLES.

Hiding the beat within the cluing was absolutely brilliant, and one of the highlights in crosswords for me this year.

Now I’m sure there were great clues or puzzles that I missed, since I’m hardly a prolific solver. Let me know which puzzles and clues from 2016 were your favorites! I’d love to hear from you!


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Identity and Gender in The New York Times Crossword

[Image courtesy of the Odyssey Online.]

Only two months ago, I wrote a blog post about a Slate article discussing how The New York Times crossword can be socially tone-deaf at times. So it’s heartening today to write about a New York Times crossword puzzle that’s progressive, one that is bringing the conversation forward instead of feeling out-of-touch.

On Thursday, September 1, the paper published a crossword by constructor Ben Tausig. Even on the surface, this was a rare puzzle, because it allows for multiple entries that fit a given definition. These puzzles are known as Quantum puzzles or Schrödinger puzzles.

The most famous example is the 1996 Election Day crossword pictured below, which “predicted” the outcome of the election quite cleverly by allowing for either CLINTON ELECTED or BOB DOLE ELECTED to read out, depending on how the solver answered seven down clues.

In Ben Tausig’s puzzle, there are four across entries and four down entries that each allow for two possible answers. For instance, 67 Across is clued “Tough stuff to walk through” and the answer can be FIRE or MIRE. That entry crosses 60 Down, which is clued “Word that can precede sex,” allowing for the answers SAME or SAFE.

What separates Tausig’s puzzle from this elite group of masterfully constructed Quantum crosswords is what it represents on a social inclusiveness level.

The letter variability — allowing for M or F to appear in the box and still fit the definition — is a wonderful metaphor for the fluidity of gender, especially in the limiting, but generally accepted, binary concept of male or female. Having GENDER FLUID as the revealer entry helps demystify both the theme and the topic at hand for solvers.

[Click here to see a larger version of the grid.]

As constructor Ben Tausig says in his XwordInfo write-up of the puzzle:

The theme letters don’t move from M to F or from F to M, in the manner of a binary, but float in an unresolved place in between. That’s a simple but reasonable way of representing queer sexuality — as a forever-exploration of identity and desire.

And although those two concepts only scratch the surface of the rich panoply of emerging terms and definitions with which people can express their gender or identity, this is an excellent step forward.

Kudos to Tausig and the crew at The New York Times crossword for a puzzle that’s elegant and inclusive in more ways than one.


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