Crosswords: Scourge of Society!

Study history for any length of time, and patterns will emerge. One of the most curious patterns is how new forms of recreation are embraced, then inevitably sensationalized, stigmatized, and finally vindicated when cooler heads prevail. You see it over and over again in pop culture across the decades.

Video games continue to suffer from periodic demonization, accused of instigating violence in children. Harry Potter books are still banned by some schools and communities for spreading occult ideas. Not so long ago, one of my favorite pastimes — Dungeons & Dragons — was maligned as Satanic and damaging to young minds.

All of these panics were (and are) patently ridiculous. After all, you can go back through history and find other examples that are absolutely ludicrous in retrospect.

For example, check out this excerpt from The San Antonio Texan from August 26, 1858, about the dangers of overindulging in reading:

A whole family brought to destitution in England, has had all its misfortunes clearly traced by the authorities to an ungovernable passion for novel reading entertained by the wife and mother. The husband was sober and industrious, but his wife was indolent and addicted to reading everything procurable in the way of romance. This led her to utterly neglect her husband, herself and her eight children.

One daughter in despair, fled the parental home, and threw herself into the haunts of vice. Another was found by the police chained by the legs to prevent her from following her sister’s example. The house exhibited the most offensive appearance of filth and indigence. In the midst of this pollution, privation and poverty, the cause of it sat reading the last ‘sensation work’ of the season, and refused to allow herself to be disturbed in her entertainment.

That is proper nonsense.

And yet, it should come as no surprise to you, fellow puzzler, that crosswords also received this kind of treatment. Yes, crosswords were the focal point of a moral panic.

Arthur Wynne’s “word-cross” first appeared in The New York World in 1913. Simon & Schuster published The Cross-Word Puzzle Book, edited by Margaret Farrar, in 1924. 1924 also marked the first time a UK newspaper, The Sunday Express, would publish crosswords. By that point, crosswords were officially a fad, inspiring fashion trends (black and white patterns), hit songs, and musical revues on Broadway.

Ah, 1924. It was a strange year for crosswords. Because 1924 also saw some of the most inflammatory accusations hurled at the simple pencil-and-paper puzzles.

In November of that year, Canadian Forum referred to the spread of crosswords as an “epidemic obsession.”

The paper went on to psychoanalyze crossword solvers, claiming that crosswords were, at heart, a regressive and childish pursuit:

It is obvious from the similarity of the cross-word puzzle to the child’s letter blocks that it is primarily the unconscious which is expressing itself in the cross-word puzzle obsession.

The same year, The London Times went so far as to call America “enslaved” by the puzzle:

[The crossword] has grown from the pastime of a few ingenious idlers into a national institution: a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society… [people were seen] cudgeling their brains for a four-letter word meaning ‘molten rock’ or a six-letter word meaning ‘idler,’ or what not: in trains and trams, or omnibuses, in subways, in private offices and counting-rooms, in factories and homes, and even — although as yet rarely — with hymnals for camouflage, in church.”

That church reference was particularly notable, as there were church sermons decrying the negative influence of crosswords on society. Sermons! Imagine crosswords being treated like heavy metal in the ’80s. It’s mind-boggling.

Much like that hyperbolic story about a family decimated by reading, newspapers published dubious tales of familial collapse sparked by crosswords:

Theodore Koerner of Brooklyn asked his wife for help in solving a crossword. She begged off, claiming exhaustion. Koerner shot her (superficially) and then shot himself (fatally).

And The New York Times, bastion of puzzles for the last 75 years? Yes, even the Gray Lady had harsh things to say about crosswords:

Scarcely recovered from the form of temporary madness that made so many people pay enormous prices for mahjongg sets, about the same persons now are committing the same sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.

The paper went on to call crosswords “a primitive form of mental exercise” and compare their value to that of so-called brain teasers that should be solved by schoolchildren in 30 seconds or less.

Crosswords wouldn’t debut in the New York Times until 1942.

But could there have been a hint of truth buried beneath all the sensationalism? Perhaps.

There were reports that overzealous solvers, desperate for an edge over other puzzlers, went so far as to desecrate books at the New York Public Library in order to prevent others from utilizing the same resources. A sign, circa 1937, firmly stated that “the use of library books in connection with contests and puzzles is prohibited.”

Those darn crossword addicts, always getting into trouble. Can’t trust ’em.

So, the next time someone tells you crosswords are boring and passe, you can tell them that crosswords were as cool and as dangerous as rock n’ roll, once upon a time.

Heck, they still are.

[Thanks to The Atlantic, The Senior Times, Historical Nonfiction on Tumblr, The 13th Floor, and CommuniCrossings for images and quotations.]


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5 Questions with PuzzleNation Programmer Mike O’Neil

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

For the entire month of August, I’ll be introducing the PuzzleNation readership to many of the members of the PuzzleNation team! So every Thursday this month, you’ll meet a new name and voice responsible for bringing you the best puzzle apps on the market today!

And I’m excited to kick things off with Mike O’Neil as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Mike is part of our dynamite programming team, maintaining the high level of quality we know PuzzleNationers expect of us and helping push us into new puzzly arenas. A musician and long-time video-game fan as well, Mike is enthusiastic, sharp, and immensely capable, part of the well-oiled machine that makes PuzzleNation a brand to watch!

Mike was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions with Mike O’Neil

1. How did you get started with puzzles and games?

I’ve been a video-game addict my whole life, so when I got to college I eventually decided to make them for a living. Puzzles and puzzle solving have always been a part of being a big-time gamer, so I’ve been puzzle solving since I got the gamer bug as a kid, though my favorite magazine-type puzzles are word searches.

2. Programming, puzzles, and music all demand a strong sense of balance and flow to create an immersive and productive experience. As a musician, does that ever influence your work in unexpected or insightful ways?

I would say that it’s more of the opposite, where programming has influenced my musicianship. The biggest common feature of all three is patience, so growing up solving puzzles was good training for practicing guitar.

Also, working on a piece of music can actually be like solving a puzzle because every person is different, so I often need to “solve the puzzle” to figure out exactly how I’m going to be able to pull off a particular riff/lick/lead/etc, which could be radically different from how the next person would do it.

3. What do you do in your off-time? What helps you relax or mentally recharge after a long week of puzzling?

My biggest off-time activities are video games and music, though those can all be a bit mentally challenging and not often the greatest unwinding activity. If things get really heavy I often do some urban hiking around NYC. It’s very stimulating and can last for hours (I once walked all 33 miles around the perimeter of Manhattan. My feet hated me for a week.)

4. What’s next for Mike O’Neil?

What’s next is working with the PN team to get more and more types of puzzle apps out there. Crosswords are great, but we have so much potential with our tools and team that the sky’s the limit. I’m looking forward to seeing what we come up with.

[Crosswords ARE great! Have you checked out the Penny Dell
Crosswords App for both iOS and Android devices? /shameless plug.]

5. If you could give the readers, writers, programmers, aspiring game designers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

One piece of advice is to make sure that the solution you come up with for your current problem is the best one, not necessarily the fastest or most slick. When I was mentoring students back at the Electronic Arts Academy, my main goal was to make sure that they don’t start implementing solutions for simple tasks with the super fancy, super complicated-type things you do in school. A good general rule is to imagine someone has to take over your work the next day, so make sure it’s easily understandable.


A huge thank you to Mike for his time. I can’t imagine a better way to introduce a month of PuzzleNation-fueled interviews and content!

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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

It’s Follow-Up Friday: Light and Sheep edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

For those new to PuzzleNation Blog, Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and update the PuzzleNation audience on how these projects are doing and what these people have been up to in the meantime.

And today, I thought I’d take a look back on classic video games that have found their way into the real world in curious ways.

Last week, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the puzzly video game beloved by so many, Tetris. And it was only after I posted our celebratory blog post that I realized I’d left out my favorite Tetris-themed video.

And Follow-Up Friday seems like the perfect opportunity to share it with my fellow puzzlers. So please, enjoy this video of skateboarders playing their own curious variation of Tetris while skating downhill:

Oh! That reminds me of another video-game-to-real-life translation I saw on the Internet a while back.

Did you know you can play video games with sheep? Oh yes! After some masterful choreography work, check out the work of these ingenious farmers:

And finally, I’m happy to present one of my all-time favorite Internet videos. It’s a stop-motion version of Space Invaders, played with real people in a movie theater. Need I say more?

These are not only incredibly intricate and well-executed bits of public theater; they’re a testament to what a puzzly mind can create with the time, the inclination, and a willingness to look a little bit silly. Sounds like a perfect combination to me.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

It’s Follow-Up Friday: Tetris edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

For those new to PuzzleNation Blog, Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and update the PuzzleNation audience on how these projects are doing and what these people have been up to in the meantime.

And today, we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of Tetris! (Following up our post last year about the 29th anniversary of Tetris, of course.)

[Feel free to leave this a capella version of Tetris’s Theme A music by musician Smooth McGroove running in the background to properly set the mood.]

If crosswords are the top pen-and-paper puzzle and the Rubik’s cube is the top puzzle toy, then Tetris has to be the top puzzle game of all-time. It is instantly recognizable and completely unforgettable. (I still get a little anxious whenever I think about the music speeding up when I got too close to the top of the screen.)

It’s available for every video game console, computer, and media device, and has been for decades. Alexey Pajitnov’s incredibly addictive puzzle game baby has conquered the world, and today, we are proudly to join in the global celebration with a few of our favorite Tetris themed pictures.

We previously featured a Tetris Halloween costume in our puzzly costumes post, but these kids upped the ante with four Tetramino pieces as a team costume!

Someone even managed to render the blocks in origami form! How cool is that?

And then there’s this enterprising chef, who whipped up a Tetris-themed bento box full of blocky veggies to enjoy!

We’ve collected more Tetris images on a special board on our Pinterest page, so feel free to check them out in honor of today!

And to Alexey Pajitnov, thank you for years of puzzle pleasure. Your game has crossed borders and won the hearts of millions. You changed the puzzle landscape forever, and for the better.

In closing, here’s another famous Tetris tune performed a capella style for your enjoyment:

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!