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.

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5 thoughts on “On entitlement and the Mystery Hunt

  1. “the Mystery Hunt owes its participants a good time”… I think this is exactly why many people are frustrated with this year’s hunt. Puzzles that are too long, too convoluted (zero-or-one aha is the right number per puzzle), and metas that require almost all the answers, these all add up to many teams stuck for long periods of time on limited number of puzzles, or, almost worse, having to buy their way past them (so any pain spent on trying to solve it doesn’t even result in the payoff of solving).

    I think, as the primary goal, the hunt organizers should aim to get as many puzzles in front of solvers as possible, with every team making progress on them. Sure, puzzles can be difficult and very MIT-centric, but they shouldn’t be inelegant, nor too long for too little payoff.

    I think there were many great ideas in the puzzles this year. Unfortunately, many of those ideas were lost under layers of obfuscation or slog-work. It pains me to read some of the solutions, since even I (not a great puzzle writer or editor) can see that there are obvious ways to improve some of them.

  2. Thank you! I’m so glad to see a voice of temperance and sanity. The severe negativity of the online commentary over the last week (added to the months of mind-melting work leading up to Hunt, and the nightmare of seeing things fall apart at the end) has left me an emotional wreck. I know this sounds melodramatic, but it has been one of the worst experiences of my life, and I will never again help write a puzzle hunt. I sincerely hope your experience next year will be better.

    I really wanted to talk about the neat things we did, highlight some of the amazing puzzles people made (there are plenty!), and celebrate the sheer insanity of a weekend where over a thousand people converge on Boston to crack some of the hardest puzzles in the world. But I was naive. As always, the loudest people on the Internet are the ones who are dissatisfied and want to make absolutely sure that everyone else knows it.

    (Speaking of which, Mr. Jones: your opinions are not facts; you already posted these exact complaints in other less inappropriate places; and by the way, your expletive-laden e-mail to Hunt HQ when solutions took a day to be posted was highly inappropriate. You are part of the problem.)

    • I’m not complaining for the sake of complaining. I don’t particularly care if anyone on Sages reads posts critical of their work (unless they plan to write again, in which case, they should probably pay attention to what’s been written). I’m complaining to try to make sure future constructors understand what went wrong this year, and how to avoid it.

      You can call my complaints “opinions” or “theories” or whatever you want. However, hunts that stick to a few simple rules/opinions/suggestions/diktats (and break them carefully, if at all) seem to run smoothly, and those that don’t end up having to cut pieces of the hunt and hint a lot to keep things moving.

      As for my email, first of all, if that’s what you call “profanity laden” you obviously have forgotten getting emails from me when you were constructing with Setec. Second of all, whatever. I wondered when the puzzles were coming back (who takes the puzzles down the day after the hunt?), and got an answer of “TBD”, which yeah, sent me into asshole territory in my reply. At that point, I was staring at a 404 where the hunt used to be, not 24 hours after the hunt had ended.

      Trying to bring this back to the original topic (the MIT-ness of the hunt), I think the hunt had a lot of good ideas, a lot of very MIT-centric stuff which was awesome. However, it was surrounded by a lot of stuff that should have been cut back or cut out entirely. At MIT there’re no points for working hard, only for results. If you’re an emotional wreck, figure out why. Because people are complaining about the hunt? Are their complaints valid? If not, get over it. If yes, figure out what to do differently.

      • I agree that much of the hunt was pretty broken — I just think that the Hunt is by-and-large a volunteer effort put on by people who really love the event and love puzzles and (often) have a strong affiliation with MIT. So I agree with you, keep that part and cut out the broken-ness.

        I also take issue with you that you only get credit at MIT for results — you get credit for trying something awesome and having it sort-of work (that’s the nature of prototypes). Perhaps this hunt didn’t make that criterion. But to say that the Hunt as an *event* has become untenable / unsolvable is just a load of crap.

      • Yeah, I agree with the last part. But I disagree that you get credit for trying awesome. You get credit for achieving awesome, or for approaching awesome in some unexpected, hackish, or elegant way. Just working hard in the direction of awesome is not enough.

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