Chungking Espresso

Readin’ the Paper for the Puzzlers

Posted in Columns, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on March 17, 2009

UPDATE: Now published here, with hyperlinks to all the sources!

Everybody knows now that eBay and Craigslist did a number on newspaper revenue. We’re told that newspaper producers were caught completely offguard by these online classifieds. One thing Ian wanted to know is: what would happen to the circulation of a newspaper if its game-playing constituency also migrated to the Internet?

This leads to a tacit first question: what number of newspaper-subscribers buy the paper just for the puzzles? There are some difficulties acquiring statistically significant numbers here. First, most newspapers don’t do regular surveys of their readers to actually find out why they’re buying the paper. Will Shortz at the New York Times shares an interesting figure – he does after all have a lot at stake here as the world’s current Dean of Crossword Puzzles. In a 2004 interview Shortz discussed a survey from earlier in the decade that found 27% of newspaper readers playing the crossword occasionally. That numbers isn’t particularly compelling for our purposes, but there is one other number dropped by Shortz that does carry some weight: 1%. That’s the percentage of Americans who named crossword-solving as “their favorite activity in the world.”

Another study by Richard Browne of The London Times estimated that ten percent of their readership did the crossword regularly. For their readership that comes out to 75,000 daily puzzle-solvers. Over 7,000 of those take part in crossword competitions. Browne conjectures that these percentages (10% and 1%) are approximately the same for every major paper. On the other hand, he cites British culture as uniquely interested in crossword puzzles: “many [British] people will take a paper for its crossword even it they don’t like that paper’s political stance.”

On top of these findings, there’s also reason to believe that many readers of more “serious” papers would be reluctant to admit that they buy them just for the puzzles. Internet anonymity helps: 54% of 3500 surveyed at About.com’s puzzle section buy a newspaper “all the time” just for the puzzles. Archimedes-Lab.org claims a much higher number because only 13 percent of their readers answered “never” to the question, “do you buy a newspaper just to do the puzzles?” People are also significantly more open when talking about their local papers.

In 2001, Kristin Tillotson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune cited an industry estimate that 25% of readers considered the crossword a part of their daily routine. This number didn’t surprise Tillotson, because of the violent reader reaction to the Star Tribune’s decision to syndicate the New York Times crossword instead of the LA Times. One comment stood out for me: “This puzzle makes me feel very, very stupid. I am not stupid. I am a physician. … You have ruined my morning. You have ruined my ritual.”

A 2004 article from the Bluefield Daily Telegraph confirms the importance of the puzzles for local paper subscribers, describing it as “a bedrock element.” These findings are both encouraging and frightening, because it shows that local newspapers – which are more vital to the life of “the average American” than national papers – stand more to lose if the population of puzzlers emigrates completely to the Internet. For more insights – to the Internet we go!

One blogger named Russell Beattie wrote a piece in 2003 that predicted crosswords as “the prototypical mobile killer app.” He makes some nice observations along the way. One of these is that “fresh, local, and topical content is key.” Even though every Barnes & Noble has an entire rack of puzzle books, this hasn’t posed a serious threat to newspapers. Why? Because people want today’s crossword, no matter the quality. It’s a shared human experience, part of the collective unconscious. Playing networked games over the Internet makes this shared experience explicit – but it also often robs it of its magic. The idea of tailoring daily mobile puzzle releases to localized audiences is daunting. Ian’s Jetset iPhone game localizes its content procedurally by identifying which airport that player is near – customizing the particular security standards that each different airport holds. Writing a series of processes to both generate a crossword and integrate terms or themes from local news seems to be a bit beyond the abilities of existing data-mining mobile games.

I’ve mostly addressed crosswords so far, and some of you might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the Sudoku craze. Now that we’re on the topic of possibly generating local crosswords by brute force processing, we might as well mention the fad-tastic number game. Wayne Gould, who popularized the 1980’s Japanese game in 2004, wrote a computer program to generate the puzzles. Part of Sudoku’s appeal is the opposite of the local, temporal qualities of the crossword: numerical in nature, they transcend language boundaries. So why did they only enjoy a brief flourish of popularity in papers before being quickly replaced by Internet versions and bookstore puzzle compendiums? One of the major reasons is the simplicity of programming a generator such as Gould’s, and the fact that Sudoku is public domain (legally, anybody could copy Gould). This led to a glut of the puzzle, a lack of uniqueness, and a passing importance in newspaper gaming.

What can we take away from all this? We have reason to believe that the people who buy newspapers just for the puzzles (especially the crossword) – whatever the percentage – are not going anywhere anytime soon. If it’s true that the local and topical qualities of crossword puzzles are their greatest strengths, then we have no reason to fear that the latest re-skinning of Grid Defender or Bejeweled will rob papers of their business. I believe that the throwaway comment I made about the collective unconscious is key here as well. There’s something magical about knowing that others are struggling against the same word puzzle as you at 6 in the morning while you’re getting ready for work. There’s significantly less magic in playing casual Internet games, which mostly appeal to the “coin drop” addiction of arcade games (keeping players around to suck up more advert banners).

More on this subject to come in the future, especially if we find more games like Ian’s that can procedurally generate local experiences.

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3 Responses

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  1. Rom said, on March 18, 2009 at 11:10 am

    I don’t want this response to get too “I took a class once that mentioned Imagined Communities” kind of comment, but you’re comments ring true with what I perceive as being people’s desire to mire themselves in various geographically an culturally (local) group activities. It lets them become part of something that they know other people are doing at the same time for the same reasons. I don’t know if you read about the Rocky Mountain News closing, but I guess some of the former employees are thinking of starting some kind of Internet RMN-esque paper? That could be the connection between local culture, communal practice and internet games that you were hypothesizing. Not that this is a typical occurrence for the leftovers of print publications, that is (also, newspapers could just put their crosswords online on their own sites. I wonder how many do this now?).

  2. Tom said, on March 18, 2009 at 11:11 am

    My name is not Rom, as I am obviously not a Ferrengi…

  3. Simon Ferrari said, on March 18, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    Ah yes, the Rocky Mountain News that blessed us with the most popular videogame blog in the world featuring editors with actual journalistic experience not bothering to cite their sources or use spell-check on what they write. Wonder why the paper failed.

    I don’t mind the Imagined Communities comment, because it’s actually super helpful. My own knowledge of psychology comes down to 1) Freud 2) Jung 3) Roger and 4) Pharmaceuticals… needless to say, any actual knowledge of psychology and sociology will help flesh out anything I write. But yeah, that’s totally getting at with my “collective unconscious” comments, which were a bit off considering it’s pretty obvious that people -consciously- enter into the community of puzzle-solvers.

    I don’t know if the RMN website idea is the kinda thing I was looking for. I’m more looking for games that datamine for locality in order to customize content for the player (like Ian’s Jetset game). I’m pretty sure most papers already put their crosswords online… though we have gotten an email from this crazy dude who makes these really interesting topical crosswords for websites (can’t find the email from him right now).


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