Family Resemblances
by Wayne Saunders

Don't say:  "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games' " — but look and see whether there is anything common to all. — For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein

It seems as if the difference between games and puzzles might be useful to know. Understanding what it is that doesn't absorb us, sometimes helps us to see what it is that does. And seeing how small that difference really is can induce us to choose, or even to prefer, the greener grass.

Even public policy can be at stake. I remember a discussion a few years ago among some members of the American Game Collectors Association about whether puzzle collectors should be admitted to the organization. The members listed similarities between games and puzzles made in the United States, including their manufacturers, artwork, ephemerality, and social history, and even the vague appellation of "game."

Late in 1999 the AGCA acknowledged the similarities by changing its name to the Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors (AGPC). But what if the Association included, among its aesthetic and historical and socializing purposes, something more about how games "play" and how puzzles "work"? I'm not sure their decisions about the similarities and differences would then be so easy to make. These questions might involve investigations that would disappoint anyone looking for immediate results, not to mention common sense, conciseness, or finality. Complicated questions like this one don't work that way.

On the other hand, complexity has its rewards:   it teaches patience and humility in the face of philosophical questions that aren't overwhelming but are nonetheless serious and impressive. Its satisfaction is less like the relief we feel when we find the prescribed solution to a math problem than it is like the wonder that comes over us when we finish using a construction set to build something new.

Our initial inclination might be to build something using only one piece. We might look for a single and obvious characteristic that one sort of thing has and the other doesn't. For example, we could propose that games are for more than one person and puzzles aren't.

But the expedient that serves us so well in other cases fails us here, for we find that the simple act of intellectual "looking" has rendered what was obvious before we looked no longer so. Some puzzles, like jigsaws, can be tackled by whole teams of co-workers, and some games, like Yahtzee, can be played solitaire.

What's more, the single difference we started with has multiplied, at a glance, into many plausible candidates:

  1. puzzle workers have non-human opponents, game players human ones; thus

  2. persons working together on a puzzle cooperate completely, whereas those playing a game cooperate only so that they might compete; consequently,

  3. puzzles can prove only that we are good thinkers (observers, handlers, etc.), games only that we are better (than other players). Moreover,

  4. puzzlers work under conditions generally known to them, whereas gamers must contend with the fortuities of the spinner and the secret designs of the opponent; hence,

  5. a puzzle will usually let us return to an earlier position, if we remember how, though a game won't let us repeat a position unless the opponent cooperates; but

  6. puzzlers must accept the conditions of the puzzle once they're set out, whereas gamers can influence the kinds of obstacles their opponents throw up at them; to those ends,

  7. puzzlers set out to recognize what's already there, while gamers employ strategies for finding out what's there or dealing with what will probably be there or provoking what they'd like to be there (a game without strategy being only the simulation of a contest and hence arguably not a "game" in all the senses others are). Furthermore,

  8. the ways of solving a puzzle are tied to the finite number of its opening conditions and so are themselves finite in number, whereas the ways of winning a game are tied to the conditions the players help create and so are indefinite in number; we see, then, why

  9. a puzzle can't be worked again indefinitely, but a game can be played again and again.

All our candidates seem plausible. Can it be they're all real distinctive marks between games and puzzles? Apparently not, because some of what we believe to be either games or puzzles would be called puzzles by some of our candidates and games by others. Many of the best card and domino solitaires, for example, are puzzles according to 1, 2, and 3, but games according to the rest.

In fact, an entire class of "puzzle-games" resembles solitaire in that a game mechanism is substituted for the strategizing or randomizing operations of a human component, or is even made to simulate such an opponent:  solitaire war games, computer games, cooperative board games played against a common and (usually) non-human opponent, and even role-playing games.

Of course, we may employ the common taxonomic trick of keeping our original list of distinctions and declaring the anomalies to be hybrids, in this case the "solitaire family" to be both games and puzzles. Such a maneuver isn't always successful:  it won't work in address systems like the Dewey Decimal, which requires each book to be filed in (ideally) only one possible place in the library. It works in natural history only to the extent that the relevant plants or animals originate from a close common ancestor.

Artificial products like games and puzzles, on the other hand, may not answer to prior restrictions. There isn't even a rule here preventing mongrels from outnumbering the purebreds, except that such a system would be inelegant and inconvenient and hence unprovable. In the realm of intellectual construction sets, the question isn't whether our edifice of candidates is right, but whether it's as good as we can build.

Even if we manage to keep the hybrids to a minimum, however, our gut feelings may demand for themselves a role independent of our list of differences. In the case at hand, our instincts tell us (I think), that the solitaire group really feels much more like games than puzzles.

According to card historian David Parlett, "The best [patiences] can be won by strategic skill. Where there is strategy, there is a game by definition."

Thus 1, 2, and 3 don't test out as definitive criteria (though they may be useful for more limited purposes). In fact, however, there may well be instinctual exceptions to all our candidates, even the "strategic" one favored by Parlett. The principle stated in 7, for example, may not work for puzzles like cryptograms, in which some strategy is needed to handle the myriad possible maneuvers which would otherwise fall to trial and error.

(The same principle would seem to fail for those games, like tic-tac-toe, which are easily susceptible to exhaustive analysis, though maybe only because they then become puzzles and so really don't contradict the principle.)

Some abstract arrangement puzzles, like pentominoes, may have an indeterminate number of solutions (or a number determinable only by computer) and so contradict the principle in 8. Of course, we don't for a moment think that pentominoes or cryptograms are crypto-games just because our list suggests they share some gamelike qualities.

If hybrids make the rules seem inelegant, exceptions make them seem just plain inaccurate. Unless we can think of another role for our list besides our initial "roster of universally valid distinctions," we may be forced to ditch the whole effort and start over.

Starting over may not be so bad, though, if only it suits our purposes. If our purpose is, say, to make a quick decision about how to arrange our collection on our shelves, or in the index to a popular book, we may not need to see what they are as much as to tell them what we want them to be — by fiat — "games are for more than one person and puzzles aren't." Sometimes detailed conceptual understanding only gets in the way.

At the other extreme, if our purpose is to let the games and puzzles tell us about themselves in all their distinctiveness and complexity, we may be forced by our insights — flights of imagination? — to make up a new list, with groupings so radically different from what we're used to that not even "games" and "puzzles" figure among them.

Maybe the categories we presently take for granted are the accidental products of history, and if the solitaire group had appeared on the horizon before backgammon and chess and not in the eighteenth century, we would all be wondering about the differences between "solitaires" and "pluritaires" rather than between our original dichotomy.

In fact, maybe the reason we're having so much trouble describing the differences between what we call "games" and what we call "puzzles" is that the differences those labels are meant to pick out are somehow less interesting to us than are others which cut across the earlier ones and so need identifying labels.

Many puzzles as well as games can satisfy the addict's need for strategy; we could say he needs a "strategics" fix. Games and puzzles with indefinite numbers of winning combinations could be designated "indeterminables." And we could be more faithful to some priorities by grouping jigsaws and [the proprietary "game" of] Blockhead with other "construction sets" rather than highlighting their character as either games or puzzles.

In between the extremes of fiat and imagination lies the more everyday purpose of dealing with the things at hand. It isn't forced to play God by inventing meanings for words; nor does it stare reverently at things until new meanings suggest themselves. Rather, it takes the old, inherited meanings and asks only for clarification. Here reside "games" and "puzzles," and maybe the old list of differences (with attendant hybrids) we're content to fiddle with as it suits us.

We can live with the list if we just remember to look at its distinctions as tendencies rather than as essentials. Something doesn't have to give up its claim to puzzle citizenship just because it pays a friendly visit to the shores of gamehood, though enough visits (and of the right sorts) and we might be prepared to grant it dual citizenship, or even to deport it.

Members of the list are only tendencies because they're abstracted from experiences and intuitions which are themselves partial and revisable. We let the list help us classify games and puzzles, at the same time using our instincts about these objects to fine-tune the meaning and scope of the list itself. We never get to the bottom of the cycle, for there is no bottom. Games and puzzles resemble and differ from each other in complicated ways that are sometimes worth worrying about and sometimes aren't, and in any case change with our priorities. In this they are like the rest of life.

Our early analysis does suggest, however, that hybrids aren't merely loose ends of a system designed to separate, but signs that what we would like to separate also, in ways we need to see, belong together. The same resemblances between game and puzzle mechanics that made codifying their differences so complicated can be used to support the AGCA's decision to accept puzzlers within its ranks.

Games and puzzles may approximate two discrete classes of wonderments. But they can be described only in terms that remind us of them both. As the philosopher Wittgenstein wrote, "I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than 'family resemblances'" — resemblances that make their devotees a family, too.

Wayne Saunders holds an M.Div. from Vanderbilt Divinity School and a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from Drew University and is a charter member of the American Game Collectors Association (now the Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors). This article originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the August 1993 issue of Game Times, a publication of the AGPC.

The Life of Games
No. 2 (April 2000)
©2000 Kadon Enterprises, Inc.