Friday, February 25, 2005

Gutter Minds

Of the first four posts to this blog, fifty percent have made reference to puzzles unsuitable for a family magazine. I don't know whether to be heartened or disturbed. (Don't say both. I don't think I want to be someone who is routinely heartened by disturbing things.)

For readers who are not members of the National Puzzlers' League (at the moment, all of the team members of this blog are), the Underground Enigma is a very irregular publication of puzzles by League members. And it is rife with sometimes aggressively lewd puzzles. It's part of a long-standing tradition. A history of the century-old League includes mention of meetings where members would give the same kind of naughty noodlers to each other in person.

The changes are often rather superficial, though. Take a look at the specifications for Jim Jenista's Banned Crosswords, and compare it to the specifications for the New York Times Crossword. They're extremely similar. And the puzzles in the Underground Enigma are identical in form to the ones in the NPL's regular magazine, The Enigma.

These publications (and other lewd puzzles) are clearly a reaction to the vague standards of decency that are applied to most widely-available puzzles. They're a statement that a puzzle can, in fact, be about anything. Just because the New York Times won't print a crossword featuring saucy puns with dirty words doesn't mean they can't exist. And, in fact, they can be very good.

Although I'm advocating adult puzzles, I'm not advocating changing the general standards of decency. They exist for the same reason that proscriptions against political bias and religious proselytizing exist in puzzles for a wide audience. A constructor lays out a path of thought for a solver, and it's common courtesy to refrain from forcing the solver to accept opinions or ideas that he is reasonably averse to. To do otherwise loses a solvers trust and usually drains the enjoyment of a puzzle.

Of course, that's only true when the audience is expected to have a diversity of opinions. If a puzzle is going to a group that is homogeneous (such as readers of a magazine with express political views), self-selected (like the people who signed up for Banned Crosswords), or very small (like the recipients of puzzles made specifically for them), then the standards change.

And it's a good thing too. Otherwise it would be a lot less fun to write puzzles for my girlfriend.


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