Accessibility, Americanisms, and the location-attendance question

June 12, 2023

This the second of an expected three posts about Brown Puzzlehunt.

You’re done writing Brown Puzzlehunt. As part of picking up the pieces of a hunt and putting them back into the toybox, you start to post-mortem what happened and what you want to change for next year. Part of this is reading the feedback form (mental note: release feedback form earlier next year), but in all honesty, you already know the shape of it. The rhythm and feel and tempo of people’s progress. The feedback form hasn’t told you anything new so far.

And it’s been nearly two months now, and you’re done with the nine million other things that life has thrown at you. You finally have time to sit down and write the other expected posts about Brown Puzzlehunt. It’s not like you’ve been thinking about them for the last two months, dodging other responsibilities, daydreaming. Italo Calvino would blush.

How much should a university puzzlehunt celebrate that campus’ culture?

University puzzlehunts… how should I put this… used to be mainstays in a puzzlehunter’s calendar. Events usually were location-specific, like BAPHL or DASH (well, you know what I mean), or they were put on by universities, which meant different things to different events. These were generally American universities. Covid killed this, but nature is healing. BAPHL is coming back soon! Et cetera.

What should “a puzzlehunt belonging to my university” actually mean? For a lot of hunts in the past, it feels like they were puzzlehunts first, and university hunts second. It’s as if there is some grand puzzlehunt internet diaspora, and they may very well belong to this college or that university, but when they write a puzzlehunt they all come out feeling the same. I didn’t solve a MUMS hunt or the UMD hunt or (some) CMU hunts and come away with a broader appreciation for that university’s culture and student life. I don’t, strictly speaking, know a lot more about CMU from years and years of solving that hunt; any more than I would by, I don’t know, having a bunch of CMU friends.

All of the above are wonderful hunts, by the way. This question is irrespective of quality.

The question is also disingenuous. The 2021 UMD hunt had a puzzle that was a UMD-specific joke. Sometimes CMU puzzles mention specific buildings. But generally I don’t, you know, get a sense of what the culture is like. Student bodies build up specific patterns and cultures, a sort of energy and vibrancy that makes them different to any other student body. What is this like at most universities? I have no idea. I’ve never been to these campuses. A hunt has an opportunity to be a sort of window into this culture that I would otherwise never see… too often, I think, this window remains closed. Your culture remains invisible to me.

The great and grand exception to this is the MIT Mystery Hunt. Because Mystery Hunt is rooted in this sort of old tradition of, basically, screwing with the audience as much as possible. It’s being ridiculously intricate, but not so obtuse as to be unfair. The 2021 MIT Mystery Hunt in particular felt like an MIT Mystery Hunt, but every iteration does. You are almost always guaranteed to understand that anthropological je ne sais quoi.

That je ne sais quoi belongs to the students. Not to the administration or the physical location or the faculty or anything like that. It’s the student culture that matters. The administration can get bent.

But, also, MIT Mystery Hunt isn’t written entirely by MIT students. Hasn’t been for years and years. It exists because of the hard work and careful attention of students, of course; the MIT Puzzle Club do more work than many of us could ever know, I think. And MIT students are on the writing team every year, because that’s essentially a prerequisite to win. But the core decision makers, the main people-movers, the ground troops doing art and writing metas and such and such are very rarely current MIT students. They might be alumni, or closely familiar with MIT history, so they can do an excellent job. But they’re not current.

Does that make a difference? I have no idea. Maybe it doesn’t.

So why is MIT the only one? I think there’s a few reasons why this sort of culturelessness has hung onto puzzlehunts like a spectre for so long. The first reason is that, generally, if you advertise your hunt publicly, the main group of people doing your hunt is going to be people not from your university. Those people don’t know your culture, your in-jokes, your campus layout. It’s much, much easier to write a plot that is easily understandable to anyone, and only write puzzles that don’t involve your campus culture.

Except that those hunts almost always have in-jokes. Or, to be more precise, shorthand. There are particular phrasings and constructions that puzzlehunts have picked up over the years, which are just useful for constructors to employ. If you’ve spent enough time doing puzzlehunts, you will know what they are. And because that shorthand is used prevalently in every hunt, and being a current university member is no longer a boon, it gives a natural advantage to teams that do every puzzlehunt every year. And it scares off student teams; student teams which, generally, are going to be newcomers. (I can’t imagine it’s very encouraging for student teams to see non-student teams dominate the hunt leaderboards.) It gives your hunt that very specific “internet puzzlehunt” feel. Which becomes invisible, if you’re not already considering this.

So: you’re simply deciding to make your hunt more interesting and more available to an online audience rather than a student one. What happens when you throw the lever in the other direction?

What do online teams care about? A good, non-buggy website. Nice, well-sculpted difficulty curve. Interesting, surprising gimmicks. Impressive constructions. Certainly, when I do online puzzlehunts, these are the things that I come away thinking about. What an interesting puzzle! How would I restructure this unlock order to make it more accessible? Is there anything else that could have been done with this hunt gimmick that wasn’t explored yet? How on earth did they construct that crossword?

What does a student team care about? Certainly the quality matters; bad puzzles will drive people off, no matter what. But beyond that, what a student team cares about on a specific campus tells you a lot! You’re writing a university puzzlehunt, and the people who go to that university are your audience. Forget about those online feedback form respondents and Wordpress bloggers and Twitch streamers and Discord commenters who you saw once at Mystery Hunt but never really spoke to. Ignore them completely. (We’ll talk about them in a second.) What does your university want to see?

Here’s that list for Brown:

  1. High production value: website art, in-person costumes, physical puzzles
  2. In-person interaction: frequent visits from HQ (including one for a meta solve)
  3. Events involving student groups
  4. Puzzles celebrating specific aspects of campus culture

Some of these are lifted wholesale from Mystery Hunt. Visits from HQ are always brilliant, so let’s do that. You know a guy who can get thirty black cult robes on short notice for you, as long as you give them back. That’s costumes done. You love physical puzzles; and, hey, look, you’ve got budget! Surely physical puzzles won’t cause you a tremendous amount of pain further down the line. And item 4 is a real mainstay of Mystery Hunt; you probably know more about MIT than you do about most universities you applied to, and learning odd little intricacies about campus is always fun.

Some of these are specific to your university. The student groups on campus have some of the consistently high production value. (There’s a prestigious art school just down the hill, which might explain matters.)

And some of them are new ideas. You want to put on events. Mystery Hunt writing teams always run them in-house… but why not partner with student groups? Student groups love it because they get to put on a show to a whole new audience and advertise. You love it, because they can think about all the cool things that they can do, and it saves you having to think of cool things beyond the basic skeleton. And you can ask new student groups every year, which means that you come up with new event themes, easy. Make some friends.

The response to this aspect of Brown Puzzlehunt was overwhelmingly positive. The real vindication came from one of Foggy Brume’s streams of the hunt, in an off-hand comment: “This hunt feels like a real love letter to Brown, which it should.” Success!

How accessible should university puzzlehunts be to online solvers?

Balancing a hunt is hard. Balancing a hunt for a mix of remote and in-person teams isn’t as difficult, as long as you’re careful about it. Erm.

What happened was: Brown Puzzlehunt was advertised as friendly to remote solvers on the Puzzlehunt Calendar. Tons of remote solvers signed up, naturally. And then, for various reasons, it turns out that Brown Puzzlehunt was much less remote-friendly than we had indicated, and less remote-friendly than we had initially expected. People were nice about it, but some rough times were had. Wa-hey.

Part of the issue is managing expectations. Plenty of fully in-person hunts are run all the time… the difference is that they’re not advertised online as “remote-solvable”, which carries with it a certain set of expectations about what that exactly means. (And rightfully so!) Brown Puzzlehunt should have skewed in one of two directions: either it should have made a bunch more concessions to make the solving experience fully accessible to remote teams, or it should have been clearer about the difficulties a fully remote team would have while solving, so people signing up to the event could have made a more informed decision. Or, ideally, both.

Let’s talk about that opening metapuzzle first. This meta was consistently the most difficult puzzle to balance for in-person and remote teams; originally, we had a version of the meta that would have been much easier for in-person, inexperienced teams… at the expense of being nearly impossible for a remote team to solve. So, only a few weeks before the hunt went live, we completely scrapped it and did it again. The thinking was that this would be too hellish for remote teams.

There was an earlier compromise that was much easier to solve, at the expense of being much more difficult for inexperienced solvers. In trying to make it more remote-accessible, we skewed the drafts further towards that, although with a bunch of changes to make it more thematically interesting. There was an emergency last-minute change to alter one of the statues used (look, I don’t want to go into it), which meant that we ended up with a set of less easily countable things. In particular, Caesar Augustus was a late addition, and his many many holes were something that we didn’t really have time to adequately test. In an alternate world, with more time, we would have been able to…

It’s difficult to say. Ideally, what we should have done once the hunt was underway and people were getting dreadfully stuck is release a cheat sheet listing all of the properties of a wide selection of statues on campus. That way, there would be a canonical dataset that every single team could reference even if they weren’t on campus. That’s the sort of thing that you realise is a great idea about three weeks after the hunt ends, and it haunts you forever. Godammit.

It’s one of those things that was a dual victim of the lack of time, and a lack of proper forethought about the different audiences that would be interacting with the puzzle.

There are a few other cases I’d like to mention. A real success story in the hunt (in that the physical component was completely invisible to remote solvers) was the puzzle Work Together. The in-person component, I think, really added a positive experience for a bunch of teams (although it wasn’t perfect), without detracting from the solving experience of a remote team. By some serendipity, CMU Puzzlehunt actually tried a similar gimmick the very next weekend! (We did it better. :D) Similarly, Butterfly Evolution Kit was executed well.

It was The Impossible that I think we should have handled differently. With adequate forethought, we probably would have given remote solvers either an alternate puzzle, or the final extraction from the puzzle with the rest of it already solved. We already had a mechanism to display different versions of puzzles to different teams (but it was unfortunately bugged at the start of the hunt). It’s no bueno to decrease the breadth of a round for such a wide audience. For the same reason that it’s not really reasonable to expect the average team to send someone all the way to Providence for your little weekend hunt.

I suppose the question is, how willing are you to sacrifice the experience of remote solvers for your in-person hunt? Something like Mystery Hunt strikes a different balance every year, with hunts like the 2019, 2021, and 2022 Mystery Hunt being exceptionally friendly to remote solvers, and other years being less so for various reasons. (The all-physical puzzle rounds from 2015 and 2018 spring to mind.) But Mystery Hunt is the premier event of the year, with huge teams… chances are, if you’re doing Mystery Hunt, you’re probably on a team that has people on-site… or you’re not going to interact with the parts of the hunt that require a large on-site contingent. They can afford to strike that balance.

Something like BAPHL or DASH or various incarnations of The Game, by contrast, is definitionally location-specific. You go to this place, and you solve a bunch of cool puzzles there. Don’t have anyone in America? Tough luck. That’s built into the DNA of the event, and nobody complains about that, and right that they shouldn’t.

This sort of stuff matters to me. I started my puzzle team sitting alone in a front room in New Zealand. I did my first Mystery Hunt without ever even having set foot in Boston or knowing anyone who had. Puzzlehunts are, currently, exceptionally accessible to people who live anywhere in the world. I don’t think that should change. If puzzlehunts are going to be set somewhere, and have physical presence matter, they have to work extra hard to make sure that remote people still get their fair experience. And, in general, if the coolest parts of your hunt are going to be in-person (and this absolutely was the case for Brown Puzzlehunt; my favourite parts of it were the events and the final runaround), you have to make peace with the fact that much, much fewer people are going to see them. I have. That’s okay.

The Impossible is a really cool puzzle. I don’t regret writing it. Even though I still have a dozen or more of them in storage somewhere… hey, if you want one, give me a shout.

Also, future learning: clearly mark which puzzles require on-site presence, if applicable. We got a bunch of people wondering if you need to be on-site to solve Musical Cryptogram. You don’t. Please don’t actually try to play the organ in Sayles Hall. A friend of mine once tried to do that, and they set off an alarm.

When and why is American-specific culture okay in puzzlehunts?

This section isn’t anything that anyone has mentioned or complained about, so, it’s for me. Consider this a substitue for my long-winding and self-contradicting essay.

Axiom one: puzzlehunts that aren’t institution-affiliated should strive to be as culturally neutral as possible. That means that beyond baseline things (like being familiar with the English language), anything that can’t reasonably be assumed to be common knowledge among a wide English-speaking audience must be clued. This includes knowledge of American culture.

But axiom two: puzzlehunts that are institution-affiliated should go hog-wild with cultural associations.

This has already been happening for years, with the MIT Mystery Hunt. The ‘audience’ for Mystery Hunt is (supposedly) MIT students. Mystery Hunt therefore assumes an understanding of MIT’s culture, and because MIT is in the United States of America, it’s reasonable (in fact, I would expect) for Mystery Hunt to assume an understanding of American culture. Mystery Hunt puzzles which are about the United States are and have always been fair game.

But puzzles belonging to a generic, non-institution hunt shouldn’t assume that you’re going to know American culture stuff. That means that if the solve path of your puzzle involves recognising a bit of American culture (say, zipcodes, highways, state abbreviations, that time Jimmy Carter was attacked by a swimming rabbit), you need to clue it. This is all part of making a puzzlehunt welcoming to a remote solver. Say again: a puzzlehunt can be unwelcoming to a remote team simply by virtue of assuming that they have cultural knowledge that it is not reasonable for the hunt to assume.

Before you ask, this distinction 100% matters. If I am doing a hunt that is set at a university, or with a company, then I know that that company or university is from a specific country. When I’m solving, I’m going to put my mind to trying to understand the culture. That’s part of the fun.

But if you don’t publicly declare a cultural affiliation for your hunt, your hunt is by default culturally agnostic. It’s on a level playing field for everyone, from Americans to Kiwis to Scots to Singaporeans. Assuming, then, that solvers should recognise some bit of American culture without cluing that at all is exactly as reasonable as assuming that they’d recognise Scottish culture, or Kiwi culture, or Singaporean culture, without cluing. No, Patrick, your theme is not a declaration of cultural affiliation.

There is fuzziness around this. Maybe recognising that these are all kinds of Singaporean street foods is supposed to be a huge a-ha, so you’re going to try and get away with this a little more. This isn’t a hard and fast rule. Really, I just want to complain about a bunch of times that American authors assumed that the rest of the world would know about how Americans would do things. The excellent news is, this is also getting better! Even in culturally-specific hunts, puzzles which require specific knowledge of a specific culture are getting clued, even if they’re American. I made a difference and I didn’t even have to write an essay about it. Hooray!

Getting back to the topic at hand… what this means is, when writing for Brown Puzzlehunt, I intentionally tried to write one or two puzzles that used American culture. As it happened, this ended up being mostly theming (it’s hard to implement them into mechanics when you have actually very little understanding of waves hand it all), but I also think it’s important. It’s important because part of the culture of this university is linked to the country it’s from; even if you’re solving from across the world, yes, I do think it’s reasonable that you put up with our terrible April Madness joke that Procyon already did better.

And, if I’m going to solve a hunt from a different culture, then part of the joy of doing that is seeing puzzles based around that culture. I hear the Puzzle and Key hunts are a lot like this… REDDOT hunt is always excellent in this regard, as well. More of that, please.

What does this mean going forward for Brown Puzzlehunt?

Plans are being drawn up. This doesn’t mean anything, of course. People are always drawing up plans. It’s the execution that matters.

But we’re thinking about it. That’s good, at least!