There are two free daily newspapers in Boston. The Boston Metro and the Boston Now. Both run crossword puzzles. The Now runs a puzzle edited by Stanley Newman. The Metro’s puzzle is unattributed. When my friend Seth Schoen was in town for several days, he did several crossword puzzles in the Metro. He pointed out to me that a clue in the crossword was repeated on two consecutive days. The crosswords in the Metro, he concluded, were computer generated.
I picked up the Metro each day for several weeks and, sure enough, there was a large amount of overlap in answers. “ALSO” and NIL” were answers three times in two weeks. More suggestive, however, were the clues. In all three instances of each repeated answer, the clues were the same. The clue for “ALSO” was always, “Part of a.k.a.,” while the clue for “NIL” was “Zilch.” Capitalization and punctuation, even for the uncapitalized “a.k.a.”, was consistent. Despite the fact that there was some variation in clues, I found some answers with different clues on different days. The high degree of consistency was undeniable.
Unassisted by a computer, no human editor would use the same clue for puzzles two days in a row. Frequent reuse of clues makes puzzles too easy for regular players and slight variation in clues is easy for a human puzzle editor to do. But even if the puzzles had been written in a different order than they were run in the paper, it is unlikely that a puzzle maker would repeatedly have come up with the same clues. The chance of capitalization, phrasing, and style resulting in identical clue text is even more improbable. Humans simply aren’t that consistent. Computers are. Through the reuse of the clues, a computerized provenance is revealed.
Perhaps a little ignorant, I’d always assumed that crosswords were human generated. In fact, computer generated crosswords are widespread. There have been published papers on computer generation of crosswords since the 1970s and a New York Times article on the subject was published in 1996 when the practice was beginning to take off. Computers are able to generate puzzles quickly and in quantity and, as a result, are in common use in magazines and on websites.
There’s resistance, however, from both human crossword editors and from solvers who find computer generated puzzles unsatisfying. Great crossword puzzles, they argue, showcase wit and creativity with language; answers are often tied together by themes and wordplay. Computers excel at taking a database of answers and creating grids that match up correctly; they are much faster and more accurate than humans. But as the error that revealed the computer to my friend Seth illustrates, computers are less adept at varying when or how they employ answers and clues in puzzles.
Quoted in an article in Tulsa World, Mark Lagasse, senior executive editor with Dell Magazines, justified his magazine’s choice to fund the more laborious human methods of crossword production saying, “with themes and the better, larger puzzles, it’s best to have a constructor working them out and filling in the diagrams. A lot of the words are a bit more dry and boring when done with computers.” Ultimately, he concludes, computer-generated puzzles simply are not as entertaining as those made by humans.
I did the crossword puzzles in both the Now and the Metro for a couple weeks and I agree with Lagasse. The human generated puzzles are less repetitive, more interesting, and ultimately more satisfying. The computer generated puzzles almost never use word play and have no thematic connections between answers or clues. Of course, I did both Metro and Now puzzles in the past and I always preferred the Now puzzles and found them more fun. But I would have been hard-pressed to justify my feelings. It was not until Seth pointed out the repeated clues, an error, that I was able to understand why I felt the way I did.