Experience: Presence, Novelty, and the Heart vs. the Brain

Running this blog and becoming more active and committed to it over the past few months have fostered this interesting sort of creative cycle. The more I search for things to write about, the more connected I become to the community, the more cool stuff I learn about, the more I actively participate, and the more I have interesting discussions with like-minded people. All of that compounds, leveling me up and giving me more and more to think and write about. It reminds me (and my husband) of the way our Japanese teacher in college described the process learning Japanese, or “Languaging” as she called it. She drew something that looked like a tornado, a spiral shape that started very small and narrow at the bottom, but then grew wider and wider as it went upward and our knowledge increased.

I think the “interesting discussions with like-minded people” part is one of the most exciting benefits of exploring one’s interests. It helps you learn more about yourself and the ideas that matter most to you and gives you insight into a perspective other than your own, which equals fresh, new ideas.

Post-DASH conversation got me thinking and talking about experience, specifically the types of experiences and events I’m most interested in and which most appeal to me.  I feel like my blog covers a broad range of interests, but most of the events I’ve learned about are pretty strictly puzzle-centric.  Puzzles are great, and I love them, but I think they only make up one part of the overall experience that I’m most interested experiencing and creating and sharing.

I’m sort of figuring things out as I write this post, so I’ll just try to identify the thoughts and feelings that I know are floating around in my brain without worrying too much about structure.

First is the concept of “presence,” let’s call it.  I’m very interested in experiences where you have to be present, experiences which affect your reality in a way that many other entertainment experiences don’t.

Take DASH as a first example of an event that does not necessarily require presence.  The core of the event is the puzzling, but all of the puzzles can be done independently from the event itself.  Each puzzle stands alone (except the meta, which stands on the previous puzzles) and they are all contained within a few sheets of paper.  All other aspects of the event, the very fact that it’s an event itself, just act to enhance the core experience.  Congregating with other puzzlers, learning the narrative of the game, moving around the city, having a reason to try and solve all of the puzzles in the course of the day, being timed and competing against other teams — these are all extraneous pieces that only enhance the experience, none of them being directly tied to the core gameplay.  You really don’t need to be there, and without being there the DASH puzzles don’t seem any different than P&A Magazine, or any other number of puzzle experiences you can find online or in books.

I would have to put Post Hunt pretty far on the opposite end of the spectrum.  Although like DASH, the Post Hunt puzzles are revealed online shortly after the event, you cannot have the same core gameplay experience with these puzzles if you try to solve them outside of the event itself.  The puzzles rely very heavily on being present.  Post Hunt puzzles will require you to observe recurring events, inspect visual displays, conceptualize yourself within the context of a large physical structure as you traverse through it, and sometimes use physical objects given to you at the start of the game.  True, someone could describe each puzzle in detail and you might be able to eventually solve it, but the core experience would be very different.

(A thought that doesn’t have a good place:  My definitions of “presence” and “real” are not very robust or complete yet.  Case in point: phone numbers.  I love it when I have to call a phone number for a puzzle.  It instantly brings the puzzle into my reality.  But how is a phone any different than a computer?  If I find online puzzles less than satisfying, why should a phone puzzle element be so exciting?  Should phone numbers just be considered a particularly compelling enhancement and not a core “real” element?)

Somewhere in the middle is the Black Letter Game.  I was initially drawn to the game for its promise of “artifacts” arriving in the mail each month.  The real, the physical, that’s what appeals to me.  The BLG has shaped up to be a little different than the image I had in my head, and the physicality of the artifacts is not turning out to be a very vital part of the core gameplay.  The creators have found a couple of ways to make having the tangible copies necessary (one very compelling and the other a little forced), but these feel like a form of copy protection more than anything else.  In general, it feels like the puzzles could just as well be digital.  The physical aspect is just another enhancer, and while enhancements are great (it is satisfying to actually hold the puzzle in your hand, to manipulate and inspect it in the most natural way), they can’t make up for core gameplay I’m seeking.

Why am I so interested in the real and the physical?  I think it has to do with having an uncommon experience.  We read books, we watch movies, we play video games, we browse the internet and play games on the computer, we do these things every day.  Puzzles are everywhere.  I have more online puzzles waiting for me than I have time to play (Shinteki Puzzle of the Month, P&A Magazine, the entire Scarecrow’s Field not to mention finishing up the Outside the Immediate,  all the Master Theorem puzzles I never did, old DASH puzzles, and probably hundreds of other sites and games I don’t even know about yet). Humans are always looking for new, exciting experiences.  I’m learning that puzzles are everywhere, and that makes them somewhat less compelling.


The other topic I want to discuss here is mysteries.  The narrative, the aesthetic, the feeling of something obscured and hidden, something greater than yourself waiting to be uncovered.  I think originally I couldn’t see much of a difference between mysteries and puzzles, probably because my only puzzling experience was with The Stone, which is extremely enigmatic by nature.  Now I’m learning that there are all sorts of puzzles out there, and that narrative is not necessarily something valued within the puzzling community.  Even if a mysterious narrative surrounds a puzzle, I have a feeling that as one’s puzzle toolbox grows more robust, one becomes quicker to toss that narrative aside and look straight to solving the puzzle from the most analytical approach, especially with puzzles that are presented in a competitive, time-based event.  There’s no time for goosebumps or experience beyond the satisfaction of a clever puzzle and myriad of feelings that come with teamwork and competition.

Maybe this all comes down to a battle between those experiences that cater to the brain and those that cater to the heart.  The consumer of a mystery novel or movie may attempt to solve the puzzle, but they certainly aren’t expected to (and the media is usually not designed for the consumer to be able to do so).  The primary intended experience is to be affected by the work in some emotional way, to experience the chill and thrill of the chase, of the protagonist uncovering the next clue, tracking down the suspect, or uncovering the conspiracy.

With a mystery, your heart is supposed to beat faster.  With a puzzle, your brain is supposed to work harder.  Ideally, I would combine those two things into one cohesive experience.  You are the protagonist of the mystery novel, and the puzzles you solve actually mean something in a greater context.

There is a lot more on my mind, but I think that’s all I have to say for today.  I’d love to hear some thoughts from the members of the puzzling community out there that seem to be reading.  Are you interested in mysteries and the touchy-feely part that a puzzle experience might offer, or are you strictly interested in the intellectual brain-workout aspect?  For those of you who have played a Game, how big of a role does “presence” play (it seems like a big one!), and does the narrative enhance your experience or get in the way?  What is your ideal experience?

10 comments on Experience: Presence, Novelty, and the Heart vs. the Brain

  • D.O.L.E.A.C.

    First! 😉

    • clavicarius (author)

      I’m afraid that won’t win you much around here, first is often only! =) Thanks for stopping by, and well-done on Artifact #3!

  • D.O.L.E.A.C.

    Good luck, fellow Intern! Enjoyed/ing your blogs about the Assessment Program. The bad thing about decoding the Artifacts is that, once you are done, there is nothing to do. Thus, reading about other Intern’s struggles is one way to ‘solve’ vicariously through others. Keep on keeping on and I’ll be keeping an eye on your progress! Cheers!

  • Jen

    Funny thing how the “languaging” tornado sticks with one…

    Your concept of presence is very interesting! I think I side with you, in wanting presence in puzzles. For example, if puzzles are online, I find my interest wanes after awhile because you only have this screen to keep you engaged. And sometimes I’m just like, oh I’ll come back to this later (to never go back to it later). There’s just no sense of urgency. That’s why, even though there are many issues with the Post Hunt, it still is fascinating to me and I like it a lot. I remember getting on Skype with Greg to talk about it afterwards last year, and it was really exciting to show the map and try to explain all the puzzles, but sometimes it would come down to “you just had to be there”. Presence is exciting because it’s unique, you’re totally right. Also, the phone thing! Haha, I love that too! I think part of it is just that (I’m thinking of the Post Hunt…) you’re caught up in this puzzle/game/race and it’s like a whole different world (cf: no Post Hunters paid any attention to irl cars and road rules, hahaha), but having a clue where you have to call a phone number is just like whoa, you’re connecting to the “real world” again. And it’s crazy! I think it also shows how thoroughly a puzzlemaker thinks things through? To prepare for something like that… and that’s cool, when the maker is very deliberate and doesn’t underestimate the solvers. Anyway, really interesting thoughts and questions you pose!

    • clavicarius (author)

      Ah, there’s something I hadn’t really thought about! Presence does give a sense of urgency like nothing else, and that keeps the player engaged by nature. I may never go back and play all the old DASH puzzles, but if I go to a DASH I will definitely at least attempt them all over the course of one day (AND it will be more fun that way). Also, with online puzzles, like I mentioned, there are just so MANY out there… it’s like, why do this one over any of the other ones? It’s overwhelming, maybe even a paradox of choice situation. But a puzzle event that requires presence usually has this kind of expiration date on it, where you’ll only have this one opportunity to experience it. Presence means no procrastination!

      I think, though, that ‘presence’ is pretty loosely defined here, and I’m mixing ‘presence’ and ‘physical’ pretty liberally. A puzzle event like Post Hunt requires presence, has a sense of urgency, and incorporates some physical elements. The Black Letter game incorporates physical elements, but does not require presence, and its only sense of urgency lies in the scoreboard (indeed, our current artifacts have sat unsolved since our big attempt on Sunday. No urgency whatsoever.). In DASH, presence is optional if you desire that urgency, but there are no physical elements at all.

      It’s also interesting that you bring up the concept of immersion. I totally remember the endgame in Post Hunt when this huge mass of people started crossing through traffic to get to the first location! I was like, oh my god, this is madness! (And there was an alarm going off in the nearby parking garage I think, it was like this mass panic atmosphere, haha. I was totally overwhelmed from minute one!) But I was also totally caught up. HOWEVER. I think that presence or physicality does not necessarily guarantee THAT level of immersion. I think that any presence at all can automatically make you feel more immersed than an online puzzle, or at least immersed in a different way, but… So let’s look at Post Hunt: I don’t recall really feeling immersed or caught up in any way until the end game, when the masses all suddenly started running in one direction. I think that was an inescapable immersion just because it was so in-your-face, and SO URGENT. Then there is DASH, where I don’t think I felt immersed all day. I did get a little caught up in the end when we were running out of time, urgency again. But I feel like something else is required to get that same immersive experience we get from really great books or really engaging video games. It might be narrative, it might be aesthetic/world-building, it might be gameplay. I am reminded of a talk we sat in on briefly at MAGFest about immersion… Actually, this comment is getting super long, so I think you’ve helped me solidify my post topic for today, haha.

      Thanks for commenting, Jen!!! Your thoughtful comments always get me thinking more =)

  • Jude

    Probably should’ve read your comments here before commenting on the next post LOL

    Guess I just want to say I’m really glad someone is talking about this stuff. We have slightly different takes on things but overall I completely get where you are coming from and am thoroughly enjoying the discussion.

    As for immersive experiences, Seattle has SNAP which is sort of like DASH- one day running around the city solving puzzles. At least one of those (there have only been a few I think) had an incredibly immersive storyline about zombies and several of their puzzles were physical. One of my favorites was coming across “security video” playing in a room that showed various zombie on zombie encounters. Each performed a dance move to show dominance or something and at some point one zombie won or lost. We had to figure out the various dance moves and what countered what move then face a “real live zombie” in the next room and attempt to defeat them with the right moves. (I still run into a few of the “zombies” at other events and chuckle when I realize where I recognize them from LOL) They had a few other cool puzzles too. One of them required the whole team to solve because you all had to be paying attention. Again, there were security cameras showing views from 12 different rooms. To solve the puzzle, you needed to figure out the order in which various letters were killed by Z’s. The action was happening across the 12 camera views.

    It would be neat to do something like those puzzles for DASH, but the distributed nature of the event makes it hard. You get the benefit of having a larger diverse group across the country devising puzzles, but you suffer from needing them to be relatively portable and not so volunteer intensive. That means making the event immersive is way more challenging. Also, I wonder how different the experiences are in different cities. I talked to some folks who did DASH here in Seattle and thought it was one of the better ones. I wonder if we have so many folks with extensive experience participating and running puzzle events, that our DASH may be more immersive? Also, at this point we have sort of developed a puzzling community here. There are teams you recognize over and over again e.g. we ALWAYS look for the Silly Hat Brigade because they wear cool goofy hats. Again, the shared experience is enhanced by that. You feel like a part of something bigger and it starts to tie the events together somewhat.

    The Game is the one puzzle event I still haven’t tried. I’m working hard to get a team together for Wartron in Portland this summer. I’m assuming it’s one of the more immersive puzzle experiences available. Can’t wait… hope we get in 🙂

    • clavicarius (author)

      Thanks for all of the thoughtful comments =) Keep in mind that my opinions are based on minimal experience, and are evolving as I learn more about this community and actually get to participate in it.

      That zombie dance puzzle sounds incredible! It sounds like there are a wide variety of events and puzzles out there. I definitely enjoyed DASH and appreciate it for what it is and the types of puzzles it features. I’m not really trying to argue that DASH should be more immersive or different in any way (and I can’t wait to go again next year). But there is still a vision of the ideal event for me and my interests that I haven’t found yet. It sounds like, by nature of its strong community, that kind of event might already exist somewhere on the West coast! Though hopefully, as I get to attend more events and as the East coast community grows, I can experience the same kind of social/community aspects you enjoy at your DASH =) I did meet one person at DASH D.C., so I can look for them next year!

      Good luck on your Wartron application! I’ve been listening to SnoutCast and it sounds like they run amazing Games with the coolest features! Hope you guys get in =)

    • Steve

      Did you get in to Wartron?

  • Dan Egnor

    This may sound weird, but I think one reason overnight games may be popular is that being tired makes the experience more immersive — you fall deeper into “the zone” where the puzzle system becomes the main lens you see the world through, where you are in the Game and always have and always will.

    But I have never found a puzzle experience to be really immersive the way going to Burning Man, playing a game of paintball, or walking through a crowded foreign city at night is immersive. There’s always a little bit of “yeah, we’re overgrown kids playing pretend games”.

    • clavicarius (author)

      That doesn’t sound weird at all, and makes a lot of sense. Though I imagine maybe the pendulum can swing the other way instead if you’re having a bad time (we’ve been out here for hours for some dumb game and I’m sick of it).

      These thoughts on immersion all the more make me wish I had the means to run a weekend or week-long game or event in a closed and controlled environment, like an old bed and breakfast or somewhere where the players could stay, and the game is kind of “on” all the time with no outside distractions. Could be a very interesting experience =)

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