Curiosity: Crosswords & crossroads
by Marguerite Coetzee. Play. It’s something we associate with childhood, somewhat carefree and careless. However, there’s more to it. Games usually have rules and rituals attached to them which make them far more complex than mere child’s play. Games are reflective of both the players and of the times in which they are played. Social life is reflected in play.
In the world of companies and commodities, game theory is often applied to understand scenarios involving:
- participants, such as consumers or competitors
- strategies, such as finite or infinite, and
- objectives, such as achieving reward or avoiding punishment
A common problem we see arising is that businesses often play a “finite game” (having a definite end-goal in mind) but need an “infinite strategy” in order to survive long-term (having options not restricted by time or resources).
The crossword puzzle is a multifaceted game. It was conceptualised at a time in which society was undergoing drastic changes: 1913. Emerging from the Victorian era and into the cusp of war, the crossword has survived economic depression, political conflict and the distraction of technology. What’s its secret? It speaks to the perpetual human need for leisure-time. The idea of work-life balance is not all that foreign to pre-21st century life. Crosswords have long been a reflection of society, enabling us to trace the development of both culture and language over time. Clues assume a shared knowledge and experience. Participants are expected to draw on these information reserves in order to respond to the clues.
Originally, the crossword puzzle was developed to test intellect and knowledge, in a somewhat amusing manner. It’s since been shaped by the consumerist desire for engaging entertainment. People want to interact with content, not simply be passive viewers. Even though puzzles of this nature are often associated with an older population — think of the generation that grew up with newspapers — they are gaining in popularity among youths who yearn for a past they missed. So-called ‘digital natives’ or ‘digital dependents’ are reviving ‘retro’ past-times in an attempt to have more IRL (in real life) experiences. The past is a playground that gives them this freedom from technology.
A successful crossword puzzle is ‘creative, clever, and current’. It is about exercising your brain, escaping from daily responsibilities, and passing the time. Ford, intentionally or not, recognised the value of connecting with consumers through something that mattered to them: leisure time. The multinational brand had been part of South Africa’s motor industry since 1923 — 10 years after the crossword was introduced. In the late 1950s, a local newspaper printed a crossword puzzle. The sponsored prize was a Ford Consol. My grandfather filled in the puzzle and, when he reached the final clue, he thought he would write a humorous answer to make my grandmother smile. What was it? “Mary would be really sad to lose this: L _ M B”. The answer he wrote? “LIMB”. He won the car.
Social life is reflected in play. What we do with our leisure-time is an indicator of why, when, and how we escape from daily pressures.
The need for work/life balance is a timeless — and evolving — human need that businesses and brands could adapt to in order to remain both relevant and meaningful.
Pay attention to different forms of escape, and identify the triggers, drivers, and behaviours playing out. These could be the points in which your brand or business plays a role in the life-steam — not simply the consumer journey — of the people you wish to connect with.
Marguerite Coetzee is a senior strategist at Instant Grass International and an anthropologist, artist and futurist who provides research and insight services through Omniology. “Curiosity“, the latest series in her regular column on MarkLives, explores the hidden and obscure histories, stories, and experiences of things in South Africa.