A puzzle mystery three years running…

It’s January, and for some cryptography enthusiasts and high-level puzzle solvers, their Christmas gift has finally arrived in the form of another Cicada 3301 mystery.

Two years ago, a curious message appeared on the message board 4chan:

“Hello. We are looking for highly intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test.

There is a message hidden in this image.

Find it, and it will lead you on the road to finding us. We look forward to meeting the few that will make it all the way through.

Good luck.

3301″

Intrigued Internet users quickly discovered that this message concealed numerous other images, clues, and puzzles. It was the start of an elaborate chain that led to hidden websites, as well as GPS coordinates across the globe. (Many of these puzzles and clues were accompanied by an image of a cicada, giving the mystery both a name and a symbol.)

Obscure knowledge (poetry, mathematics, literature, and history have all contributed to various clues), advanced cryptography skills, and some serious tenacity were required to navigate the labyrinthine maze laid out by whoever masterminded Cicada 3301.

Eventually, the savviest and sharpest code-breakers found their way to a secret website, one that vanished after a certain number of crafty solvers discovered it. It then shut down, never revealing to the outside world who was behind the puzzles or why they’d created them.

A year later, on January 5, 2013, another series of puzzles appeared, utilizing different solving techniques, different GPS coordinates, and admitting another select group of puzzle solvers to a secret website before it too shut down.

As of this posting, new puzzles have appeared all over the Internet, though Cicada 3301 enthusiasts believe the vast majority of them to be the work of hoaxers and admirers. (Only one clue so far, a message on Twitter from an account previously used by Cicada 3301, is considered legitimate.)

As you might expect, theorizing abounds regarding the reasons behind the Cicada 3301 puzzles. With the advent of viral marketing and ever-savvier customers, there’s always the possibility that this is an incredibly elaborate video game tie-in or corporate advertising project. (It definitely reminds me of the down-the-rabbit-hole ARG style of that puzzle hidden within the game Portal I wrote about last year.)

But the sheer complexity — and the intrinsic level of secrecy regarding how the puzzles and websites have been managed — has led conspiracy theorists to suspect the CIA, the NSA, or some other government entity. Another leading theory is that a bank or private security company is behind Cicada 3301, recruiting topnotch cryptographers to improve security features and thwart cybercrimes.

It may sound silly or a bit too Last Starfighter-ish, but recruitment-through-puzzle-solving is nothing new to the intelligence community. Crossword puzzles were used to identify potential recruits for Britain’s Bletchley Park, one of the key cryptography centers during World War II.

Whatever the purpose of Cicada 3301’s puzzles, there’s no doubt that puzzle solvers and codebreakers the world over can’t wait for another shot at a challenge like this.

[For further information, check out this NPR story, sent to me by friend of the blog Cathy Quinn!]

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A hallmark of puzzles to come…

Cleverness abounds in the puzzle community, both in those who create puzzles and those who solve them. But the advent of the Internet has truly raised the bar in what you can accomplish with a puzzly mindset and some serious ingenuity.

From Easter Eggs concealed in DVD menus (like the blooper reel hidden in the silver box DVD release of the original Star Wars trilogy) to viral marketing campaigns that conceal plot details and exclusive scenes for industrious fans (as Christopher Nolan’s Batman films frequently employed), there are delightful little entertainment nuggets secreted away in all sorts of media these days.

But only a select few of these hidden puzzles reach the level of complexity and elegance embodied by a series of puzzles lurking within the game Portal (which eventually unlocked details regarding the upcoming sequel).

Portal, itself widely regarded as a masterpiece of outside-the-box puzzle-solving wizardry and gameplay, demands a great deal from its players, so any hidden game designed for these players would have to be something special.

Adam Foster did a thorough and fascinating write-up on both the hidden puzzle game itself (known as the Portal ARG) and the process behind creating this dastardly electronic scavenger hunt, and you can read the full details here.

What’s particularly brilliant about this particular multitiered puzzle is that it incorporated rewards for both mid-level gamers — collecting all the radios in the game and locating where they received broadcasts — as well as the stunningly devoted fans who were willing to chase the puzzle farther down the rabbit hole, delving into top-tier decryption and deduction puzzle-solving.

This sort of chain-reaction puzzle-solving is becoming more and more commonplace. For a simpler example, you need go no further than PuzzleNation’s own Guessworks game. You start with a Hangman-style guessing and deduction game, which leads to clues to be solved, which then lead to a quotation to be unraveled.

As you build upon these earlier steps, you not only challenge yourself in new ways, but you develop multiple puzzle-conquering skills at once. Tackling a puzzle as wily as the Portal ARG is some serious mental exercise.

By pushing the boundaries of what form puzzles and games can take, people like Adam Foster are redefining and rejuvenating the puzzle-solving experience for a new generation of savvier solvers.

Where brilliance meets joyous frivolity…

Two weeks ago, we celebrated the 29th birthday of Tetris in a blog post, and I referenced the famous MIT prank where a giant game of Tetris was played on the side of a building.

This prank is one of the most recent in a long line of “hacks”, and MIT students have performed some impressive feats of creative whimsy along the way.

From a fire hose drinking fountain in 1991 to the installation of a shower stall in a common area in 1996, from turning the dome into R2-D2 (as pictured in our opening picture) to the “discovery” of an elevator in the remains of the demolished Building 20 (purportedly leading to a secret subbasement), these are top-tier pranks executed by some of the cleverest students in the world.

The Great Dome is often the palette of choice for MIT hacks, having featured a Triforce from the Legend of Zelda video games, the TARDIS from Doctor Who (which appeared all around campus), a fire truck, the Batman symbol, and numerous other Hack endeavors.

Here, the Apollo lunar lander looks down on a statue of Athena also added by industrious students. (Apollo watching over Athena, how apropos.)

One year, board games invaded campus. Giant versions of Cranium, Mousetrap, and Settlers of Catan appeared around campus, and all of the helpful maps around campus were altered to feature Risk gameplay.

Another time, an enormous game of Scrabble appeared on the wall, complete with MIT-inspired words fluttering in the breeze.

To honor the posting of XKCD’s 1000th comic — a comic that has also made appearances on this blog — XKCD comics appeared all over campus, often spelling out “1000”.

A Newton’s Cradle with imagery inspired by the Portal video game series appeared in 2012

But the best part of MIT hacks? Wondering just how the heck they managed to pull it off without anyone seeing. Like the urban legends behind stories of cars disassembled and reassembled in a professor’s office, the technological wizardry and sneaky cunning required for these marvelous pranks makes MIT Hack enthusiasts fellow puzzlers in spirit AND practice.