I like Sudoku. I quite enjoy Sudoku, as, it seems, does a vast proportion of the British population. Various people have, in recent weeks, used up an awful lot of newsprint trying to look at why it’s so popular, trying to out-Sudoku rival publications, and none of it seems very satisfactory. I mean, they bang on about how it appeals to both men and women – as opposed to chess problems, which are primarily male, and cryptic crosswords, which in my experience appeals equally (and usually equally little) to both men and women, but I think they’re missing the point.
The reason it’s popular is that it isn’t a game. It’s an exercise.
There’s only one right answer; any “wrong” answer quickly reveals itself as one. Compare that to a cryptic crossword: there’s only one right answer, but you could be wrong for quite a while before noticing it – and there’s no absolute proof that an answer’s wrong; it could be an intersecting answer that’s wrong. And so forth.
Sudoku is algorithmic. It can be solved with brute force, and brute-force solvers don’t have to be programmed with any grace (given today’s processor power). The least efficient Sudoku solver just looks at every single possible layout of the board. More efficient ones can make inferred guesses from numbers already on the grid. None are as complex as chess AI or chess problem solving. They might even be simpler than a checkers/draughts solver.
But they’re taxing enough for your average commuter. The built-in proof – that the number you’ve just entered must be right – is very satisfying, and yet also comforting. No effort put in to the solution of a Sudoku problem is ever wasted, really.
The hardest Sudoku problems tend to require a little lateral thinking, but it’s a world away from the lateral thinking a cryptic crossword demands. Once you’ve found the approach, the puzzle tends to fall into place. The cryptic crossword requires you to constantly re-adjust your approach for every clue. It keeps you on your toes.
I love solving problems I know the answer to, mainly because I love the mechanics. It’s why knowing the end of a film doesn’t make much difference to me – if anything, it excites me more because I want to know how that conclusion was reached. And I enjoy Sudoku because it’s about process, about working-through, not about the destination.
So what I find entertaining is this: all over the tube, the train, I see people solving equations – people who probably hated solving equations at school. Not playing games, not even solving anything particular puzzling. Just stepping through algorithms to solve equations. It may be on the games page of the paper, but it’s not a game: it’s an exercise. In fact, forget the pronoun: it is exercise, of sorts. Rather than being “properly” taxing, Sudoku is time-consuming. The two are easy to confuse, especially if you’re caught up in what you’re doing, much like exercise – you can push yourself, or merely fill time.
What Sudoku isn’t, then, is a game.
Now for my next question: if Sudoku isn’t a game, can the act of solving it still be described as play?