Cute Mage's Tower

Giving Feedback

Feedback is tricky to navigate in puzzle hunts. Theoretically, the idea of giving feedback is a good thing - even if the puzzle writer will never be writing puzzles in that context ever again, it still helps them grow their skills for the next time they write any puzzle. The problem is that most feedback given after a puzzle hunt is not useful.

Why Give Feedback?

The problem is, feedback after a puzzle hunt doesn’t really help at all for the event. The puzzles aren’t (usually) going to change after the event, and the structure certainly isn’t. In fact, there’s no guarantee that the people who wrote that puzzle hunt are ever going to write a puzzle hunt again. Even puzzle hunts that we think of as being run by the same people every year don’t necessarily have to run again - especially if people have been burnt out. (Running a puzzle hunt every year will do that to you.)

There is, however, a real chance that feedback can cause harm. Puzzle hunts are great labors of love, and constructors pour so much of themselves into it. Unfortunately, the internet can be the internet sometimes, and the feedback given in feedback forms or posted on blogs online can be hurtful, especially in the quantities that come from having all of our social interaction since March 2020 happen online. No one, no matter what they may have done to “mess up” a puzzle hunt, deserves to have that happen to them. I know that some people believe fully in “Don’t read the comments” or “toughen up if you’re going to be on the internet,” but there shouldn’t be a requirement that someone should have a thick skin in order to write a puzzle hunt.1

Okay, so if feedback won’t affect the puzzle hunt that just happened, it may not be useful at all for the people who ran it, and in fact may hurt them, we just shouldn’t give feedback at all, right? Wrong. It is still important. Besides the fact that the mere act of thinking about feedback can help crystallize the lessons that you’ve learned from the previous puzzle hunt, it also adds to the overall discussion about the puzzle hunt. While the constructors may not need the feedback, the only way that we can get better as a community at writing puzzle hunts is by looking back at previous puzzle hunts that were or were not successful, figuring out why, and adjusting our knowledge base appropriately.2

Negative Feedback

On a certain puzzle discord, in response to a discussion about negative feedback I posted guidelines about how to approach negative feedback, which inspired this whole post.

I still 100% stand by all of these points, but some could use a little more elaboration.

Don’t Dogpile

This may seem like a weird one. After all, if there was something that affected lots of teams negatively, shouldn’t it be the number one message in what everyone says?

The answer is, kind of?

The better answer is, what is the purpose of your writing? Are you telling a story of this Hunt? Then mentioning it is reasonable. It is true that it is impossible to tell the story of the 2003, 2013, or 2023 MIT Mystery Hunts without mentioning the difficulty of the puzzles contained within. Are you giving feedback in a form where you can’t see other responses? Maybe mention it, but don’t go into a ton of detail. Are you adding your voice to the conversation around the Hunt, helping to analyze it? Then you should only mention it if you are adding something new to the conversation.

At some point the constructors get it. They don’t need to be told five million times. It’s very easy on the internet for one opinion to be amplified and come from every angle. When everyone is saying the same thing over and over again, the conversation stagnates, and the writers aren’t going to want to read anything that you’ve written.

You Cannot Read Minds

Another way of reframing this is to say “Identify Problems, Don’t Give Solutions”. One of the most annoying things to me as a person who constantly gets feedback professionally in a variety of different contexts is when people say “Oh, you should do X! It would be great.” First of all, why did you think that I didn’t think of that? Second of all, are you sure that you considered every single ripple effect from that? When a decision is crucial to something, I spend a lot of time thinking about it, and there’s usually a reason why I made it a certain way. This doesn’t mean that I can’t be wrong, but it does mean that you are unlikely to come up with a quick solution.

That being said, other people are great for identifying pain points in creative works. For example, a testsolving team might notice that something in a puzzle seems awkward or unintuitive, and points it out to the constructor. Fair enough - the constructor might not have noticed that pain point or might have thought it wasn’t as bad as it was and needs to change it. But when the testsolvers start pointing out solutions, they may not be considering everything the constructor experienced while writing it. Perhaps the cluephrase is awkward because they cannot extract the letter A. Perhaps this uses something in real life that can’t be edited and therefore has to be awkward to fit it. Perhaps there’s more than one way of solving the problem, and a different solution than what you’re thinking of is a cleaner way to go.

I’m not trying to say that you should never suggest solutions, but solutions are best done as a dialogue between the constructor and the person giving feedback, not as just a random suggestion.

Your Experience is Not Universal

The writers of a puzzle hunt are not the only people who affect your experience. Your team also plays a huge role. The same puzzle hunt can be experienced differently just based on team size, organization, and who the specific people are. The MIT Mystery Hunt is a huge example of this, where teams range from just a couple students in a dorm room to over 100 hunters flying in from everywhere. This is still true in other puzzle hunts, where the amount of dedication, organization, and solving skills your team has can drastically change how you feel about that hunt.

And this all should make sense. While the puzzles that you are solving will have an affect on your experience, the people you are solving with provide the filter through which that experience happens. A puzzle can be absolutely terrible, but if you’re solving it with friends who are laughing the entire time, it can still be a blast. In addition, sometimes you have a person who happens to have the skill set to crush one puzzle. making what was a hard and grindy experience for some teams a breeze for others.3

But with all of the different team compositions, atmospheres, and values4 that make up the teams in a puzzle hunt, there are going to be some that line up well with what the running team designed, and some that don’t. This is okay. Not every hunt was designed with you in mind. Could a running team possibly do better in accounting for a wider variety of teams? Sure. But in the end, some people are going to be more catered to than others, and there’s nothing that can be done about that.

This also means that you can have a better time at a puzzle hunt by adjusting your expectations and changing who you hunt with and how you hunt. When I moved this year, I moved to a city that has a Puzzled Pint location every month. If I had attempted to solve Puzzled Pint like I did any other puzzle hunt, it would not have been fun. The puzzles don’t push back enough to give an interesting challenge for me on a team of people.5 So instead, I go with a group of family members and friends, they split up into teams, and I solve on my own. I try to solve all the puzzles solo in the same time that they can solve it as a group. There is a bonus here in that we can talk about the puzzles afterwards from two different perspectives, having a richer conversation about them. By changing my perception and attitude towards the puzzles to better fit with what the hunt runners are making, I had a much better time.

Of course, this is harder with puzzle hunts that change who runs them every time (MIT, BAPHL), or hunts that are being run for the first time ever. But the more puzzle hunts you do, the more of a feel you can get for what is the best solving experience for you, and you’ll have good instincts for how to adjust it in the future.

Wrapping This Up

I have a tendency to talk for a long time, and one of things I’m trying to do here is to push myself to write shorter, quicker things and not just ramble on, so now is a good time to wrap up. (I never finish the longer things.)

When I’m not writing puzzles, I’m a middle school math teacher. My entire job is about giving and receiving feedback from all sorts of people. As a math teacher, the words I say have a lot of power. If I make people feel bad about how they’re doing in math, I can make students who are doing okay in math hate it and never like the subject again. If I make people feel good about how they’re doing in math, I can encourage students who are struggling to keep at it and improve.6 There are places where I need to give people negative feedback - if they’re not cross-multiplying correctly, then they are wrong and they need to know that. That is the way that math works. However, it is also my responsibility as a teacher to give them feedback in such a way that they understand that they are doing the math incorrectly while also encouraging them and making sure that they don’t feel hopeless.

The secret is - this isn’t just true for middle schoolers. While middle school math is a particularly vulnerable time in a student’s educational career, the idea that your feedback needs to take into account how people will react to it is important. This is doubly true for a medium like the internet, where a lot of nuance involving emotion is lost. You should feel free to give feedback on whatever you want, but you are still responsible for your words and the effects they have on other people.

– Cute Mage

  1. Of course, let’s not forget about the fact that the internet tends to be harder on people with certain socially-significant identities than others, which makes this problem that much worse. 

  2. The unlocking structure for the 2022 MIT Mystery Hunt is very similar to the 2014 MIT Mystery Hunt on purpose. In my mind, the 2014 Hunt was one of the hunts that did unlocking the best7, so I did my best to imitate it while also fixing the things that I thought were errors. I hope that in the future, I did well enough with 2022 Hunt unlocking that someone else looks to it in the same way. 

  3. A great example of a puzzle like this is The Mlystery Hunt… (MIT 2022). If you happen to know about the subject matter, then you’ll be able to breeze through a lot of the puzzle without looking things up. If you don’t know, then you’re in for a bit of a grind. Definitely doable, but you’ll be doing a lot of research. Both of these experiences can be fun with the right people, but they are very different experiences different teams could have with the same puzzle. 

  4. One great example of different team values having an issue was from the round ⊥IW.giga (MIT 2021). In order to complete this round, teams would need to backsolve the puzzle Twins. Different teams have very different views on backsolving, and those who were not too excited about backsolving had trouble getting farther in the round. 

  5. This is not to say that Puzzled Pint can’t be done with a team of people, just that the team of people should probably not include me. Unless I was teaching people how to solve puzzles I guess. 

  6. This is yet another thing that is affected by socially-significant identities. Yaaaaaaaaaay. 

  7. I am not saying this because I am now on the team that constructed the 2014 Hunt - I really did think that way at the time. Well, okay, I’m not JUST saying this because I am now on the team that constructed the 2014 Hunt. 😜