This play journal is about The NYT Crossword Puzzle iPhone Application (henceforth referred to as “NYT Crossword”) and my interactions with the game as a learner/player. A crossword puzzle (print or electronic) consists of a series of enumerated connecting boxes that run across and down. Each numbered box corresponds with a clue for what word/letters should be filled in the box with topics ranging from academic disciplines to news to popular culture. As the player attempts to solve the crossword puzzle, they are required to employ knowledge from several topics and spelling skills.
1 Down: ………
2 Down: ………
1 Across: …….
Since my first attempt at solving a crossword puzzle over two decades ago, I have been a devoted enthusiast. Determining the correct word in each space combines my love for knowledge, my strong spelling abilities, and my fascination with popular culture and news. Despite an adequate amount of practice and experience, however, I have always struggled with the crossword puzzles of the New York Times (NYT). Like many subscribers, I make more than my fair share of mistakes and long for more opportunities to practice. With this in mind, I decided to use the NYT Crossword App as the subject of this critical evaluation.
My selection of NYT Crossword as a subject stemmed from my desire to focus on an activity that is common for me and to start developing my skills in analyzing gameplay with a fairly low-complexity subject. Despite these intentions, I was aware of several limitations to using this game as an example. In the chapter “Toward an Ecology of Gaming” by Katie Salen (2008), the author includes a list of previously held misconceptions in the study of gaming such as “no two players ever experience the ‘same game’” and “players determine how they learn,” (p. 10). These characteristics of gaming led me to think that NYT Crossword is a somewhat limited selection in that a crossword puzzle seems very narrow in focus and not allowing for much creativity in responses or skill development.
After downloading and installing the App, I clicked on it from my iPhone homepage and loaded the game. I allowed the App to access my personal information through Facebook and arrived at the game’s main menu. This homepage consisted of four vertically listed and scrollable categories: The Daily Crossword, The Daily Mini, Latest Picks, and Get Started Here. Due to my experience with NYT, I was familiar with the first two sections (the daily big crossword and a smaller counterpart) and decided to click on first one to complete a puzzle. I also noticed that this section, as well as the others, has on “archive” option listed above it with access to decades of previous puzzles. When inside a section, the app has an omnipresent “back” button that allows the player to return to the homepage. Eager to start a puzzle, I clicked back to the homepage and selected The Daily Crossword (Thursday, 1/25/18, by Alex Eaton-Saliners).
Once I selected the puzzle, I was taken to a screen that looks like a crossword puzzle except for some features such as the box to type in is highlighted, a keyboard to enter the letters, the clue for each box displayed individually, and a variety of other features on the top of the screen. To type in a particular box, the user simply clicks on that box, sees the clue, and types with the virtual keyboard. The first box I solved was “2 Down” consisting of six letters with the clue “cough drop brand”. After trying “Vicks” and “Halls”, I entered “Ricola” and felt satisfied. I was beginning to get the hang of the technology and enjoy myself.
This progressed for several more spaces in the puzzle. Using my previous experience with crosswords and my strong spelling abilities, I filled out at least a dozen more.
When I could not find any more answers and felt stuck, I decided to take a look at the additional features available at the top of the screen. The first icon looked like a small pen and allows the player to fill in lighter shaded answers in case they are not certain about their progress (like erasable pen). Next to the pen was wheel shaped and allowed the following options: check square, check word, check puzzle, and reveal/clear. I decided to try each of these and felt instantly horrified. These options allow the player to do what most crossword puzzle enthusiasts consider “cheating”. This experience led me to understand my own degree of literacy with crossword puzzles as “learning what degree of transgression is acceptable and when a player has crossed the line,” (Salen, p. 8). I had always believed that looking up words, finding answers online, or use of other resources constitute extreme and unacceptable transgressions.
This experience with the NYT Crossword App proved revealing in that it illustrates the extent to which games are shaped by technological and social forces at work. In his concluding chapter to Teacher Pioneers, Kalir (2016) illustrates the similarities between schools and conventional games as “material technologies” that conduct specific actions, promote values, build significance in the learner (p. 361). Accordingly, a crossword puzzle is as much a game as any other (including school). In the print version, none of the “cheat” options are presented on the paper whereas the App has them readily available. The presence of these options inevitable shapes how players react to the puzzle in that they are presented as acceptable tools for completion. In doing so, the experience of play is permanently altered.
After playing with NYT Crossword, I decided to keep it on my mobile device as a convenient way to spend time when a print puzzle isn’t available. I much prefer the print version in that it better supports the traditional boundaries and constraints of the game and, in doing so, enhances the quality of skill development in users. More specifically, players might feel more enticed to develop their knowledge and spelling abilities when the aforementioned resources on the App aren’t present.