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MIT student blogger Rachel F. '12

This School’s Big Game: a fun way to think too hard by Rachel F. '12

(how MIT Mystery Hunt works, now in Up-Goer Five)

I love to play with big weird words, so writing in Up-Goer Five makes me feel like my brain has broken and turned into soft food for babies 🫠. But because the point of using only simple words is NOT to make things more confusing, I have hidden some real words used by game-problem-loving-people01 puzzlers and other studying-people that might be hard for you to find if I did not say them. You can see them if you hold your computer-pointing thing over any words with a small number to the right of them.

ANYWAY, This School’s Big Game02 just so we're being clear, MIT Mystery Hunt happens once a year, and it is filled with up to 3 days of many very-hard, fun, made-up game-problems03 puzzles that are fun to do together with friends. There are many other big-games04 puzzle hunts , but ours is one of the oldest and most layer-on-layer big-games in the world. It is a very important bringing-together time for this school and people who went to this school, but others can play too!

I thought I could write a short paper of words about the Big Game, but it turns out that the Big Game is so layer-on-layer that I needed to write quite a lot to say not just what it is like, but why we love it, which is an important part of understanding why the Big Game works the way it does.

It is the best, hardest, and most fun big-game in my life. It is my favorite break time of the entire year. But it is not a break time for resting. Instead, we spend the time thinking very hard together, harder than we think at any other time of the year.

what is the Big Game like?

first, what are the game-problems in the Big Game like?

Do you like fun made-up game-problems? Many people enjoy doing game-problems in the news-paper, like “cross words”, or moving the letters of words around to make other words05 anagramming , or putting lots of numbers into boxes to make the numbers add up right in many different ways at the same time06 Sudoku, and sometimes other Nikoli puzzles .

Think about those normal game-problems, but now: what if they were VERY, VERY hard? What if it did not look like any problem you had ever seen before, and did not tell you how to start or what to do? Or what if it looked like a normal game-problem, but had very different ways than any other game-problem?

What if it wrapped around its self (maybe in a way that goes through its self too!), or repeated its self in small ways if you looked closer, or it was very well hidden inside a thing that you listen to, or mixed up bits of ten different speaking-ways of the world, or was ten hundred times bigger than normal so you had to write computer-words to tell a computer how to help you?

if it helps you to look at pictures, here are some things that repeat themselves in small ways. their edges go in and out and when you look closer, you see the thing again but small. there are also some things that wrap around themselves. one looks like a round food that is missing the middle, and one is a funny bottle where the neck goes back through inside its self to the bottom.

I was good-surprised by how easy it was to give Up-Goer Five names to these groups of hard number-like things. Of course, it would be harder to talk about exactly how each of these things works and how it is made.

What if the problem then did that kind of thing more than once07 recursion ? What if it also took many of the brain-hurting game-problem-ways I just talked about, and pushed them all together into one game-problem at the same time?

That is what Big Game problems are like, and that is why it is such a hard game. Each problem can take many hours. Even for someone who is very good at Big Game problems, the hardest problems in the whole game could take ten or more hours!

how you know if you are doing the game-problems the right way

But if the game-problems are so strange and hard, and they don’t tell you how to do them, then: how do you know if you are doing them right?

You see, they are very well-made. It can take a while to figure out what to do, but the game-problems are made so that once you find the right direction, all the pieces fit together just right, and there is no other way things could be08 tight puzzle construction . If you go in a wrong direction, then the pieces won’t fit together well, and you have to think of different ways to use them.

You will not get the answers only by guessing, because the answers are very weird, and you are not allowed to send in too many guesses too fast09 rate limiting . (It is okay to miss some pieces and send in just a few wrong answers while you try your best to answer a game-problem.)

To make sure they are well-made, the problems are checked a lot before they get put into the real game, by different people on the game-making team who have never before seen the problem they are checking. These game-problem-checking-people10 testsolvers figure out where the problem is not well-made, and help it get fixed. If a problem’s pieces all fit together just right with a bad answer that the game-problem-making-person did not plan for, or if no checking-person is able to get the right answer without help, then the problem is not well-made.

The problems in the Big Game have made me so used to very-well-made problems that I get mad when I do different games where the game-problems have not been checked well. It is no fun to just guess from ten possible answers where each one feels as right as the other ones. I love the feeling of finishing a Big Game problem and seeing all the problem-pieces fit each other just right. 😌

the Big Game as a whole

In the Big Game, each problem is usually in a round with ten or twenty other problems. You fit the problem-answers in the round together to figure out the around-problem11 meta-puzzle . Then there are ten or twenty more rounds, and the rounds also fit together with each other in round-rounds, to make around-around-problems. There are so many problems! This year there were 237 problems, the most ever seen in the Big Game. 😱 (Although 50 of them were easy ones — long story. Even without those, it was still a lot for the Big Game!)

There is no way for just one person to play through this whole game on their own any more. As with anything in life, you will get farther with a team of friends! My team has a lot of people who lived in my school-home building at this school, which warms my heart and makes me think of the good-times I had in my school-home. My team also has a lot of people who did not go to this school at all, and they are great too.

My team is big, but the Big Game is usually made so that teams don’t win just by being big. One of the strongest teams is 3-4 times smaller than my team, and they still get first place often. That is another hard part of making this game: making it feel good and fun to all kinds of teams, small and big, new and old.

You do not need to finish every problem in the Big Game to get to the end of the game. You can finish all the around-problems and around-around problems if you get most of the game-problems. The around-problems are made to let you figure out their answers if you do not have every single problem-answer, although that is more hard than when you have every answer.

Big Games have stories!

The Big Game has more than just game-problems! Every Big Game going back for a long time (maybe the 90s) also has a fun story. The people who make the Big Game play-act that they are other people with different life stories. They pretend that a bad thing has happened to them, and we can help them by finding the answers to the game-problems. Sometimes the play-acting people visit our team-rooms to show us fun story-bits12 interactions , and sometimes we visit them to play games like the ones kids play (but a little harder) that are little pieces of the Big Game13 event puzzles .

This year, the story was about people who study space, and old gods from long-ago who share names with the biggest space-rocks in our part of space. A well-known space-studying person broke the smallest of the biggest space rocks while the studying-people were very-not-agreeing about what kind of space rock it was, and this killed the god who shares a name with that space rock. The other gods were VERY mad. We helped make it right, of course by figuring out many game-problems that helped us bring back the dead god and his space rock.

I loved last year’s story because of the way the problems and the story were built so close together with each other. There were cute pretend-game-people where their way of saying and being told you many things (even hard number things!) about the way the game-problems in their rounds worked. Also, many around-problems were real not just in our world, but also real in the same way in the story14 diegetic , although that is only the smallest bit of why the story did a good job. But I will not tell you all of it here in case you want to read or hear it for yourself in words besides only the most used words.

sometimes, the Big Game is made in a completely new way!

2021 was the first year ever where people were not allowed to come in person, because of the very bad sick that made the entire world stop working the year before.

The 2021 Big Game making team did something that is so hard to do very well in such a short time, that anyone who speaks to computers would say it is a bad idea to even think about trying. But they somehow did it well anyway!! They built an AMAZING computer game as part of their Big Game, that let us walk in it together. The computer game was set up so it looked like we were at a place like this school but different, in another world that was part of the story.

The computer game was made to let 1500 people walk in just the same computer-game-room at the same time, and for many more to be in the whole game at the same time. They made all this in less than a year and it worked very well for people all over the world without breaking, which is so hard that many computer-game-making money-making-groups would have a hard time doing it even with lots of money. But no one got paid with money for this! They made it all from love of the Big Game.

As we walked around not-quite-this-school together to find game-problems in the computer game, it really felt like we were walking together, the way we would at the Big Game in real life. After the sad year of feeling alone and not being able to hug most friends, this game touched my heart and made me cry in a happy way.

No Big Game has ever done anything like this, and now that we can go back in person for the Big Game, probably no Big Game ever will. I will always remember this Big Game for the way it warmed my heart after the long year of worst sad times.

why do we love the Big Game so much?

Besides having a cute story, the Big Game sounds strange to many. It hurts our brains so much that we groan and even get mad a lot while playing. You might think that not very many people would want to play. But did you know that more than 4000 people play it every year? (That is four times more people than the number of different words I am allowed to use right now!! 🫠)

first, a bit about type 2 fun

I think that the Big Game is so strange and so loved by many people from this school because we love working with numbers in strange ways, thinking too hard πŸ˜…, and making hard interesting things happen that can only be done by working and thinking too hard. People who don’t like these things have a bad time here and do not like to stay, because those are the kinds of things this school makes us do every day.

The things we do in the Big Game and at this school are a kind of “type 2 fun”. Here is a place that tells you how these types of fun work.

  • Type 1 fun is just normal fun, where everything is good.
  • Type 2 fun is when you do something so hard that it hurts you a lot, but when you finish, it is fun to think back on all you did. To me, type 2 fun feels even more amazing and fun than normal fun, but only after it is done.
  • Type 3 fun is never fun at any time. It is not fun while doing the thing, and it is not fun even after you are done. (If your body gets so cold that you stop thinking right, or you have to share a broken bathroom with many people who are sick, those would be kinds of type 3 fun. No one wants those!) Type 3 fun can make a good story even though nothing about it was good.

To help you understand, here is a kind of type 2 fun that is more well-known than the Big Game: doing body-game-problems for many days in the cold to get on top of a very tall rock, and feeling very happy when you have reached the top, even though your body hurts a lot and you had to carry a small bag to use as a bathroom. It is no surprise that some people from this school love going up very tall rocks! (Though I know one group that would much rather only go down tall rocks15 rappelling , and another group that only likes to go inside big rocks16 caving .)

what this school’s type 2 fun is like

This school makes you think in new ways about using numbers, makes you think very hard about what you don’t know, and makes you work very hard all the time, ten times harder than you have ever worked before, even if you were already a very hard worker and everyone at home thought you had the biggest brain in the world. (Yes, I know this sounds very funny to hear in Up-Goer Five. πŸ˜’) In our number-studies, the problems are so strange that it can be hard to fit all the problem-pieces together just right to be sure you have the answer!

And even then, in real life, lots of other problem-pieces can be found in the world that make you have to change your answers and ways of doing. In all studies, but especially in studies of person-problems, it is very important to keep an open brain and not think you know everything just because the pieces you hold happen to fit together17 algorithmic bias at the computing level, or systemic bias at societal & policy-based levels, which necessarily affect data-collection bias . There are many types of people in the world, all holding different problem-pieces and life-ways that you do not know well.

In the things we study at this school, there are some number-like-problems where no one in the whole world knows the answer yet. We call these “ open problems18 shockingly, the first time I have been able to use real terminology here ”. Sometimes teachers at this school even put small open problems at the end of normal home-work just to think about for fun! This school forces you to learn in strange and hard ways so that you can get good at finding new answers that no one knows yet.

When I was new to this school, in classes like 8.012 and 8.022, we did very strange number-problems that were not like anything I had thought about before, even though I was very good at high school classes and other-college classes about these ideas. We did number-problems such as figuring out how cars acted when moving almost as fast as light, while ON TOP of many other cars that were also all moving almost as fast as light. So strange! Do you see how problems like this are like the strange problems in the Big Game?

how Big Game “fun” is like the “fun” at this school

The Big Game is a “fun” “break” for me because it feels like work for this school, but faster and funnier. In the work world, we feel sad when we do a lot of hard work for many weeks or months to find problem-pieces and put them together, only to find that we have gone in a very wrong direction and need to start over. That is a kind of type 3 fun.

But in the Big Game, even though the game-problems are so hard they make our brains hurt a lot, they ALWAYS have an answer, because it is just a game. People like it when their hard work pays off. The Big Game feels like working at this school in a world where all the pieces are already in front of us, we know we will find answers in only a day instead of five years from now, and the answer-finding way is made to be fun. 😌

Also, type 2 fun is easier to have with friends. If you do something too hard without friends doing the thing with you, it can become type 3 fun.

This school has lots of type 2 fun. But without friendship, helping each other, and the type 1 fun we have together in our much-loved school-homes, it would turn into type 3 fun, and we would not want to be here any more. Even though it has been so long since I went to this school and I have made many amazing new friends since, many of the closest people in my heart are people from my school-home, which is the best place I have ever lived.

We love to build very strange things for type 1 or 2 fun at this school. When someone likes those things, they might make them again next year but even MORE strange or MORE fun. After many tens of years of this, our made-again things get so strange and fun that you will not find anything like them in the world. The Big Game is like that too, the way people make it again every year but build on it in strange new ways.

playing the Big Game feels different after this school

I played the Big Game a little bit while I was still at this school, but not seriously, and not all the way through. Back then, I was too busy learning other things and working hard all the time πŸ₯² Although this school does not say you must take classes or work during the first month of the year, I always did a lot of learning-work during this month anyway, because I love learning so much. The learning I did at this school was my favorite kind of learning. Sometimes (during other months) I did 90 hours a week of school work, and that was way too much. 50 hours of school work was an EASY week at this school.

Many people play the Big Game (or even write it!) while they are still at this school, and I love that for them. I wish I played it more in school. But there are reasons besides time why more people want to play the Big Game more seriously after finishing this school. At this school, we never ever stop doing hard brain-work! But after this school, the brain-work is easy, and we miss thinking hard. No kind of numbers-brain-work (besides things like the Big Game) is close to as interesting as the numbers-brain-work this school made us do.

I am too old now to do this school’s brain-work for 50 hours a week like I did when I was young. But I still want to do SOME brain-work that is too hard! I loved learning at this school, and The Big Game is my favorite way to fun-hurt my brain by thinking too hard the same way this school made me do. πŸ₯°

who makes the Big Game?

If you finish the Big Game faster than anyone else, you are now in…a situation. The first-place team must make the next Big Game. In the 1980s, it was a small game started by one person, but then it got bigger and bigger. Now it has so many parts that it can become a whole job for many people working together for many months (although not the kind of job that gives you money).

In some ways, having to make the Big Game is like this year’s Big Game story, where the gods of the big-space-rocks sent us to hell and we had to escape from hell and help a dead god come back to life. (I am very surprised that “hell” is in the ten hundred most used words!)

Because the first-place team must do this hard and tiring thing, most teams try to have fun, but do NOT try to finish first19 getting second place is widely considered the true win . In fact, if a team has made the Big Game in the last few years, they are usually still so tired that they MAKE SURE they do NOT finish first.

…My team got first place this year! 🫠

the thing given to the first-place team this year. it is round with a three-headed dog looking at a big space-rock inside the well-known building at this school with a big round top.

this is the thing I was given for being on the first-place team! different ones are made every year, with story-memory pictures on them.

(Here is a place where you can see the things given to the first-place teams20 the Hunt Coin in other years.)

My team has not been in first place for seven years, so we felt okay about maybe having to return to hell to make the Big Game again. The last time my team made the game was 2018. I decided not to write with my team then, because I was very busy that year and did not know the Big Game as well at the time, so I did not feel ready to make it. Now that the Big Game has been my favorite time of the year for so many years, I have a lot of ideas and a much better knowing of the little things that make it feel good, and I am very excited to help make it!!

Of course, I am also sure that once we make the next Big Game, I will not want to get first place again for a very long time.

Making the Big Game also makes you better at playing the Big Game, because you need to check and fix all kinds of broken game-problems, which is harder than just playing at only your favorite kinds of well-made game-problems. Last year, I enjoyed helping check a smaller big-game made for a numbers-fun-studying-place I went to when I was young.

sometimes, the Big Game is TOO BIG

Even though the Big Game is meant to be big, the Big Game can be TOO BIG. 40 years ago it was a small game, just some fun problems on one piece of paper that one person could do on their own. Over time, it got bigger. 2013 was the biggest Big Game of all time, so big that many players had to fly home before the end. Even the very best teams got scared by how big it was, and feared that it would never end.

The Big Game should not be TOO small, because tens of hundreds of people take time off work and fly all the way to this school just to play the game, and it would be sad if everyone only got to play for a few hours. In 2017, my team won the Big Game on the first day, which is not-heard of. My heart was broken because I could not take that day off work, and I missed our whole play-through, which I had been looking forward to all year. But it was not the game-making team’s fault. They wrote a number of problems that was normal-big for the Big Game, and that year was nice for some teams who got to see the end of the Big Game for the first time ever.

For the last two years, the Big Game has kept us up very late, past when it was supposed to end, and we got too tired and brain-dead to love it as much as we usually do. Even though I look forward to the Big Game all year, and there are few things I love more than hurting my brain by thinking too much about hard game-problems, I wished it was 12 hours shorter. It is fun to play the Big Game 16 hours a day for two days, but by late night on the third day, I get so tired I fall asleep in the middle of doing game-problems, right on top of my computer. At this point, I am no good at thinking any more. I like it when the Big Game ends before I pass out on the third night.

It is very, very hard to make a Big Game that is just right for everyone, not too big and not too small. My team is one of the strongest teams, so I have played to the end with them many times, but most teams do not get close to the end! I think it is sad when most teams only get to see a small piece of all the amazing work that comes from the hearts of many people who worked hard all year to make the Big Game happen.

Since lots of people liked the way my team made its last Big Game, I hope from deep in my heart that we can make a Big Game that is not TOO BIG, and one that can be lots of fun for everyone who loves game-problems, whether they are new to the Big Game or whether they have played many times.

  1. puzzlers back to text ↑
  2. just so we're being clear, MIT Mystery Hunt back to text ↑
  3. puzzles back to text ↑
  4. puzzle hunts back to text ↑
  5. anagramming back to text ↑
  6. Sudoku, and sometimes other Nikoli puzzles back to text ↑
  7. recursion back to text ↑
  8. tight puzzle construction back to text ↑
  9. rate limiting back to text ↑
  10. testsolvers back to text ↑
  11. meta-puzzle back to text ↑
  12. interactions back to text ↑
  13. event puzzles back to text ↑
  14. diegetic back to text ↑
  15. rappelling back to text ↑
  16. caving back to text ↑
  17. algorithmic bias at the computing level, or systemic bias at societal & policy-based levels, which necessarily affect data-collection bias back to text ↑
  18. shockingly, the first time I have been able to use real terminology here back to text ↑
  19. getting second place is widely considered the true win back to text ↑
  20. the Hunt Coin back to text ↑