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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PuzzleNation Product Review: Schrodinger’s Cats

Even if you don’t know the science behind it, you’ve probably heard of Schrodinger’s cat at some point in your life. If you haven’t, let me give you the short short version: there’s a box with a cat in it, and a substance that may or may not release inside the box and kill the cat.

So until you open the box, there’s no way of knowing whether the cat is alive or not. Schrodinger posited that, since we can’t know which is the case, both are true until the box is opened. It’s essentially a thought experiment which delves far deeper into quantum mechanics and particle physics than I’m going to in this review.

But the idea that someone created a card game based on the concept of Schrodinger’s cat is not only audacious, but pretty impressive. (And the puns are just the icing on the cake.)

[Some of the cat physicists in the game: Sir Isaac Mewton,
Sally Prride, Madame Purrie, and Neil deGrasse Tabby.]

Schrodinger’s Cats was funded through a Kickstarter campaign last year, and it’s the brainchild of Heather Wilson, Heather O’Neill, and Chris O’Neill. A mix of bluffing, deduction, and wagering, this game combines Name That Tune-style bravado and strategy with Poker-style game play.

Each player is a cat scientist forming hypotheses on how many boxes contain live cats, dead cats, or nothing at all. (While Schrodinger is away, of course. As the old saying goes, when the scientist’s away, the cats will play. Or something like that.)

Every player receives one box card for each player in the game (so if there are three players in the game, each player receives three box cards), as well as one cat scientist card.

Once the cards are dealt, players look at their box cards and see what each box contains, hiding this info from the other players. Then the players begin hypothesizing. They wager on how many of each result are in ALL of the boxes on the board. So, in the game layout above, there are nine boxes, and each scientist has to wager what’s in all the boxes.

But instead of starting with a high guess and then wagering lower totals (as you would in Name That Tune), you start low in Schrodinger’s Cats and wager upward. Scientists can also affect the wagering by “showing findings” — revealing one or all of their own boxes to either prove their hypothesis or make the other players doubt their own — or by swapping out some boxes. (Each cat scientist card also allows for a one-time-use special action for a player, which can also prove useful.)

When a player either refuses to wager higher or challenges another player’s hypothesis by yelling “Prove it!”, all of the boxes are revealed and the hypothesis is proven or debunked (meaning the player stays in the game or leaves). After multiple experiments (rounds of play), one character remains and wins the game (and an honorary doctorate from Cat Tech University).

What I enjoyed most about this game (other than all the pseudo-scientific jargon involved in playing the game) was the wagering, bluffing, and reading of opponents that is integral to the game play. With so few possible cards to reveal (only four, in varying quantities, as opposed to 13 different cards across four suits in poker), it’s not nearly as challenging as the classic card game, but offers a lot of similar game mechanics.

It’s great fun to try to outwit or read your fellow players in order to make the best hypothesis, and that’s a sort of puzzling that is often left behind in puzzle games. Often, you’re so busy trying to achieve a certain goal or acquire points that you stop actively interacting with the other players; but in Schrodinger’s Cats, a lot of puzzling and game play takes place in the actions and reactions of the other players. It’s a delightfully social game.

Although you can play with as few players as two or as many as six, I recommend playing with at least four characters to keep the game moving and interesting. Between raising hypotheses, showing findings, and trying to puzzle out what your fellow players are hiding, the more uncertainty you can introduce to the game, the better.

Schrodinger’s Cats is available from 9th Level Games and can be found here.


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