On entitlement and the Mystery Hunt

The MIT Mystery Hunt ended a little over a week ago — the premise is that a coin is hidden somewhere on campus and teams have to solve a bunch of puzzles to find its location. The prize for winning is writing it the next year. It was the longest hunt on record — 75 hours and 18 minutes if you count from the kickoff event, and 73 if you count from when the servers went live. My team, whose name is the entire text of the book Atlas Shrugged (although we often used the shorter name PART I: NON-CONTRADICTION; CHAPTER I: THE THEME ‘Who is John Galt?’…), managed to emerge victorious. Here’s a footprint outline we were given as part of an event puzzle:

Our team name on a footprint

Our team name on a footprint

And here are some fuzzy snaps of the coin:
The coin, obverse

The coin, obverse

The coin, reverse.  Now we can raise the debt ceiling.

The coin, reverse. Now we can raise the debt ceiling.

The hunt was so long because many of the puzzles were underclued and the team running it, Manic Sages, essentially mis-estimated how hard the Hunt would be (from gameplay and actual puzzles). Naturally there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the internet after this, and a lot of people took the Sages to task. Some of this criticism was a bit unfair, I think. The Sages put on a huge event for more than a thousand people, and much of it was quite fun. There were problems, sure, but let’s not get hyperbolic here.

Of course, hyperbole is par for the course, and Wired ran this piece by Thomas Synder who indulges in some pretty questionable plot extrapolation to conclude that there is a “trajectory” towards longer and longer hunts. For reference, here are the solving times for hunts up to 2010, showing the mysterious trend Snyder flags is more or less fabricated. So basically that line of argument is just hand-wringing. But why the calls for smelling salts?

The crucial line is this : “[w]hat started as an MIT-only event has now become a mainstay on the puzzle calendar.” Puzzle writers and solvers such as Snyder think that MIT Mystery Hunt puzzles should be less… well, MIT. One of the metapuzzles required you to know something about Feynman diagrams. There was a fractal word search. This is not a complaint about puzzles having too many steps, but about them being too nerdy or too inaccessible to those who have a “puzzle calendar.” Of course, those sorts of things are right up the alley of some MIT students. The subtext of this article is that it’s just not “professional” enough.

The Hunt is a free event (for solvers) that costs several thousands of dollars to put on, is much longer than most other puzzle events, and is done entirely by volunteers. In the case of Sages (and my team), many or most of those people are students. The sense of entitlement voiced by Snyder in this article (and by others elsewhere) is palpable. The fact that it’s a mainstay of the “puzzle calendar” is irrelevant — the Mystery Hunt owes its participants a good time, and those participants are still largely drawn from the MIT community, I think. Sure there were moments when I was not having fun, but also moments when I was having a lot of fun solving. There were some great/innovative puzzles in this hunt, and other great/innovative puzzle ideas. I wouldn’t keep going to Mystery Hunt if it was going to be like any other puzzle contest, and this hunt definitely delivered, even if reading some of the solutions breaks my brain.

Just next year, we’ll try to make it shorter, of course.