At the beginning of 2020, the spread of covid19 was about to change entirely our reality on a global scale. Suddenly, a lot of our regular activities went completely online, while fear and uncertainty were the dominant emotions. All these made me want to search for a getaway, but this time not in the virtual world, which now works as my university, a cafe or a library, but in the physical world. For this reason, I chose to escape with a tangible object, with which I am emotionally connected, a puzzle.
Coping with Quarantine with my IQ Puzzle
Locked up in my comfortable “cage”, I was sitting in my living room with the TV open, looking around to find something more productive to do to reduce my boredom. Suddenly my eyes fell on my collection of wooden IQ puzzles that my father had offered to me when I was little. Back then I was truly excited about solving these puzzles and I used to spend much time with my dad cooperating to find the solution. Over the last years, I didn’t have the time or the will to pay any attention to them, but during quarantine looking at them gathering dust on the shelf, I felt like they were just what I needed. It’s funny to see the value of some objects changing according to the circumstances. Games are mostly connected with happy, carefree moments, but their significance is even more noticeable during the times of uncertainty and fear, given that they work as a getaway from a pitiful reality. Among all the wooden puzzles I own, my favorite one is the pyramid. I remember that from the first time I saw it, I loved its symmetry. I guess that’s because it reminded me of the pyramids in Egypt. However, when I opened the box I got 10 asymmetrical pieces that couldn’t be connected in an obvious way. I picked it up and I started working on the little pieces. Immediately, I got all these memories of family moments that seem so precious during the hard time of the pandemic. I stopped for a moment to think of my family being away from me for so long and I smiled nostalgically. Suddenly, I felt like these objects work as a connecting link between me and them. They are little things with great value.
Searching online, I surprisingly found that a great number of people felt the same need and turned to these traditional games of their childhood to spend their time creatively. According to game companies, their sales of puzzles raised up to 370% (Schwab, 2020). People became so obsessed with puzzles during quarantine that they created the hashtag #quarantinepuzzles on social media in order to share their achievements with other people with the same interests. At the same time, YouTube videos about how to solve IQ puzzles started having more and more viewers, while many bloggers are trying to explain why puzzles suddenly became that important to them during quarantine and what the features of these games are, which attract them the most (Long, 2020).
The Sensorial Properties of the Object
After spending few days playing with all the puzzles of my collection, I searched to find a similar alternative online. There, I found another “wooden” puzzle in its digital form. Soon I realized that the experience couldn’t meet my expectations, as if something was missing. Even though the online game had various modalities, such as sound and motion that could enhance my experience, it couldn’t be compared to the original. As Benjamin (2008) claims, whenever we experience an authentic object through a medium, their aura disappears (pp. 1-2). The online game lacks physicality, as it has different dimensions compared to the original and I can only touch it with my computer’s mouse. In contrast, all the objects of my collection are made of real wood, which comes in different shades of brown from light to dark and makes them stand out among other objects in my bedroom. To me the use of wood makes them look more traditional, just like the handmade toys before industrialization and mass production. The warm and earthy smell of wood in combination with the tactility of the material creates a full sensory and intense experience, which makes me realize that a simple and natural piece of wood can be transformed into artifacts.
According to MacIntyre (2004), an element that can trigger the emotional response we call “aura” is the significance of the object to the user (p. 39). As other scholars claim, it is the people that add aura to the objects that are valuable to them (Coleman, 2014, p. 74). To me, in contradiction to the digital game, my puzzle collection is of great importance, as it brings me memories of my childhood. More specifically, I saw this collection of wooden IQ puzzles for the first time when I was 8 years old. Every Sunday one new wooden puzzle would be available on the market and all I wanted was to get it and start experimenting with the pieces. It was not easy at all to solve them, but the pleasure I used to get whenever I finally managed to do so was unique. After finishing one puzzle I used to put it in a specific corner in my bedroom, creating this way a small collection of 10 wooden IQ puzzles in different shapes. When I moved out of my parents’ home for studies, I took this collection with me as a souvenir of my childhood.
Societal Value of Puzzles and Games in General
“Man is a puzzle-solving animal”-Ronald A Knox (1888-1957)
All these puzzles we love so much have a long history. Human’s curiosity for exploration is a gift from nature that motivates people from the beginning of human history to evolve, learn and adjust to their environment. This love for solving puzzles and explaining phenomena has led to the development of science, technology and human society in general (Watson, 2020). Since humans became aware that they could have an impact on their environment, they started experimenting with their surroundings. Ancient Greeks were enjoying challenging their minds with puzzles and experiencing the moment of epiphany, which they used to call “mental catharsis” (Danesi, 2004, pp. 1–2). One well known example of a tangible brain game was created by Archimedes and was called “Ostomachion”, a dissection puzzle composed by 14-pieces that form a square (The Ostomachion (the Battle of the Bones) the First Puzzle, 2011). Today’s brain puzzles are based on sciences, such as mathematics or physics and are connected to questions like “how?” “why?” and “what if?” that are often met in scientific problems (Buckeridge, 2004, p. 9). However, the design of such games has become even more sophisticated and complex with the help of computational design and 3D printing (Allan, 2015).
Games cannot be separated from our society, given that they have several social functions. According Shalaev et al. (2020), one of these is the “developing function”, as games offer the opportunity to the gamers to develop intellectually, emotionally and physically (p.193). Games demand of the participants to follow specific rules, set goals, exercise quick and critical thinking. Strengthening such skills by regular playing can teach participants how to cope with real-life puzzles and become more mature and sufficient in problem-solving (Gillin, 1914, p. 828). It is not accidental that many researchers argue that games have magnificent effects on the educational process and learning. As scholars claim, games attract the attention of students through a creative, interactive and compelling process (Squire & Jenkins, 2003, p.7).
Additionally, another function of games is linked to the inner need for someone to channel their energy and emotions into something socially accepted (Shalaev et al., 2020, p. 193). According to the physical explanation of plays, people that have surplus of energy use games in order to release tensions and help their body to relax (Gillin, 1914, p. 827). In the same way, playing from a psychological perspective can bring pleasure and emotional euphoria, resulting from the dissipation of energy or just the joy the process of playing brings (Gillin, 1914, p. 828). Games, triggering our imagination and creativity, they give us the opportunity to escape from reality and problems of everyday life and to turn our focus on something we enjoy doing. As a result, the desire for games seems more like an instinct or a defense mechanism against surplus energy, stress, anxiety, nerves, tensions and psychological pressure.
Games could work as a motive for communication and a medium for socialization. Shalaev et al. (2020) claim that communication and social interaction is a primary need for humans and games are a pleasing way to achieve them both (p.193). Games constitute a very easily accessible means that brings people together and through this interaction leads them to self-development. Gamers learn how to respect the rules and cooperate. However, even games that are designed for one player, such as puzzles, can offer the opportunity to someone to “stop and think” for a moment, spend time with themselves, find out their capabilities and strengths and reach this way self-knowledge and self-realization (Gillin, 1914, p. 828). As a result, puzzles, but also games in general are precious to us on individual, but also on a societal level.
Allan, S. (2015, November 10). The History of: Assembly Puzzle & Put Together Brain Teasers. SiamMandalay. https://www.siammandalay.com/de/blogs/puzzles/51256835-the-history-of-assembly-puzzle-put-together-brain-teasers
Gillin, J. L. (1914). The Sociology of Recreation. American Journal of Sociology, 19(6), 825–834. https://doi.org/10.1086/212340
Long, C. (2020, May 18). Quarantine Is Making Puzzle Enthusiasts of Us All. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/video-dept/quarantine-is-making-puzzle-enthusiasts-of-us-all
MacIntyre, B. & Bolter, J.D. & Gandy, M. (2004). Presence and the Aura of Meaningful Places. PRESENCE 2004 (proceedings), pp. 36-43.
Schwab, K. (2020, April 11). Puzzle sales are peaking during COVID-19 quarantine. Marketplace. https://www.marketplace.org/2020/04/10/covid-19-puzzles-quarantine/
Shalaev, V., Emelyanov, F., & Shalaeva, S. (2020). Social Functions of Games in Modern Society: Educational Perspectives. Proceedings of the International Scientific and Practical Conference on Education, Health and Human Wellbeing (ICEDER 2019), 192–197. https://doi.org/10.2991/iceder-19.2020.41
Squire, K., Jenkins, H. (2004). Harnessing the power of games in education. Insight, 3 (1), 5-33.
The ostomachion (the battle of the bones) the first puzzle. (2011). Museum of Ancient Greek Technology. http://kotsanas.com/gb/exh.php?exhibit=2201007
Watson, G. (2020, May 4). Why solving puzzles feels so satisfying, especially during a quarantine. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/why-solving-puzzles-feels-so-satisfying-especially-during-a-quarantine/2020/05/03/b87ac636-8bda-11ea-9dfd-990f9dcc71fc_story.html
Danesi, M. (2004). The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life (Illustrated ed.). Indiana University Press.
Buckeridge, John & Gulyaev, Sergei & Klymchuk, Sergiy. (2004). Science Puzzles. Times Editions
Coleman, A.D. (2014). Auras: There’s an App for That. MIT Technology Review, December 18. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/533556/auras-theres-an-app-for-that/
Benjamin, W., Jennings, M. W., Doherty, B., & Levin, T. Y. (2008). The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media (Illustrated ed.). Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press.