The Tyranny of Numbers

on Compulsive Gaming and Picross

With the recent news that I’d already missed the release of a picross game this Summer, panic flew through me.  I remember my pulse quickening noticeably.  When I learned that on that very same day there was anotheradditional picross game just released?  Well, the feeling of joy was soon met with an opposing sensation.  One that looked me square in the eye and noted dryly that there was simply more work to be done.

It’s true: work.

I have always known that my favorite pastime was often equal parts enjoyment and compulsion (if not a little more of the former), but games like the recent DS Picross games bring so much of that rote compulsion to the table, it can send shivers down my spine.  Have you ever tried one of these dang little nuggets of OCD time-suck?  Have you?

You've got to whistle while you...

You’ve got to whistle while you…

Picross, for the uninitiated, is a relatively new type of puzzle invented and streamlined in (where else?) Japan.  The official term for the puzzle is a nonogram, after their founder, Ishida Non.  It’s kinda like a number crossword in which the player uses number clues to fill in a grid that paints a binary picture.

What is it about these puzzles that so enraptures me (and scores of Japanese fans)?  I believe it to be the same thing that makes us sit and watch an entire, unbroken season of television in one bleary day: we know the rules, and they are simple.

Math + Game = 2x (where x equals "Help me   stop playing.")

Math + Game = 2x
(where x equals “Help me stop playing.”)

These games are Real Life, folks.  See, with enough searching through clues, I can find the solution to the puzzle.  At times, there is a bit of guessing, yes, but one good guess can then release a flood of information on a problem; a risk can quickly become a boon.  When I play Picross, I’m only minutes away from THE ANSWER.

Video games are nothing without their rules, and when we obey them, use them, abuse them, we reveal things about ourselves we may only have suspected, or perhaps only dreamed. Beyond escapism, though, they offer a path, a road of ideas that end at AN END.

This end, these guideposts, this plan is the tantalizing reason I go back to my favorite hobby again and again.  When there’s confusion in the world, gaming solidifies a trajectory – prioritizes an action or a goal.  Simply put: when the real world offers seemingly innumerable questions, a game can come along and offer a brilliant focal point.

But, back to the idea at hand: picross scratches a certain kind of direct-gaming itch with a vengeance.  Put me in front of one of these puzzles, and compulsion overtakes me, pushes me along, and then asks for more as soon as it’s done.



This is most true of the fantastic Picross 3D, released in 2010 for the original Nintendo DS.  Where the other Picross games are two-dimensional, Picross 3D manages to brilliantly throw the formula into the third, and it’s adorable to boot.  After playing the flatter version recently (with Picross e and Picross e2), I just had to go back to the 3D version, and it is still so good.  After hundreds of puzzles and probably close to that many hours with that one game, I can safely say that it was my 2010 Game of the Year.  Mull on that (and perhaps consider that your 3DS is backwards-compatible!).

Sure, too much of this style of pure, no-filter gaming can make one feel a little loopy after prolonged sessions, but strangely, can also be occasionally more engrossing.  The simplicity of these feedback and result / problem and solution situations gives games like Picross a special place in my OCD little heart.  I can accept that.

And that, they say, is the first step.

-Brandon Bales

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