Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have taken up a jigsaw puzzle amid the pandemic, a phenomenon which is quite, well, puzzling. Top jigsaw puzzle companies have been struggling to keep up with the demand. But what’s driving the surge?
The psychology of solving puzzles
University of Toronto’s professor of semiotics Marcel Danesi, who is also the author of the book "The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life," shared via Medical Xpress that puzzles restore the chaos in our minds. Even before the pandemic, humans already had a sense of chaos within them, probably because life is unpredictable. It is a puzzle without answers. However, jigsaw puzzles have answers and reaching those answers provides the person with temporary or instant relief from the angst. Semiotics, which the professor specializes in, is the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation.
When there is a sense of order in the mind, it can conclude that the illness can be obverted, even for a while. Puzzles can also be a form of escape. When asked how puzzles combat uncertainty, anxiety, and negative feelings that come while we cope with the pandemic, Danesi answered that the outside world temporarily recedes the moment a person concentrates on doing the puzzle. One is immersed in the intricacy of the jigsaw puzzle and they tend to forget about other things. This kind of escape is also afforded by other activities, including video games and reading. Puzzles fall into the same category.
He further opined that puzzles are a solitary pursuit instead of an activity that brings people together unless puzzle lovers share their experiences concretely just like crossword clubs, where members are brought together by a common pursuit.
The joy of piecing together puzzles
Danesi also believes that like reading or music, certain people stick to particular puzzle genres more fervently than others. Some people may stay away from it for fear of failing. To them, not finding the solution can also be self-demeaning or frustrating because solving the puzzle is viewed as an indicator of intelligence. He recommends the digital literary-themed puzzles that can be found in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library online page. There is also a timer for jigsaw puzzle lovers to measure their speed.
Puzzle designer Stacy Costa also told NOW Magazine that since we are living in a world of chaos, puzzles make a person feel that they are in control of things. It helps people take the chaos in their mind and create order. It gives them the satisfaction that they can deal with something controllable in front of them. Costa is also a Ph.D. student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where one of her areas of research is the brain and puzzles.
She went on to say that a few years ago, the trend was adult coloring books. People use them to calm themselves and give them a sort of mental release. She shared that even when she was a child, she would spend hours on puzzles and her parents were always open to giving her challenges. “It was solitary but very satisfying to do.” When she enrolled at the University of Toronto, she took a course on puzzles out of interest. When their professor asked them to either write a 10-page essay or create a puzzle, she did the latter. “The professor was blown away by it.” Later, she got her BA in anthropology and semiotics.
More than just a pastime: solving puzzles for science
In her TED Talk last year, Costa said that puzzles are more than just a pastime. She mentioned the relationship between puzzles and Alzheimer’s Disease and how puzzle solvers respond to the challenges in AIDS research. This was also mentioned by online puzzle video game Foldit, which attempts to predict the structure of a protein by taking advantage of the puzzle-solving intuitions of players.
The Fold.it site explains that problem solvers are now finding patterns regarding Covid-19 as well as the genome sequencing that may help produce antiviral drugs. Even the concept behind coronavirus contact tracing is also approached like a puzzle.
Puzzle sales soar
Game publisher and toy company Ravensburger has seen puzzle sales soar in the US by 370% year over year while people are under quarantine. Ravensburger North America’s CEO Filip Francke said he had never seen anything like this before in the company’s 136-year history. The company averaged that about 20 puzzles are sold per minute in North America alone this year. While Francke admits that puzzles are not a necessity to purchase during a pandemic, consumers are telling them that there is a large need for the product and Ravensburger can help fill such need.
The increase in demand is comparable to during the Great Depression, said Bates College’s puzzle historian and professor emerita Anne Williams via CNBC. She narrates that in February 1993, puzzle manufacturers were also producing 10 million puzzles a week and people could even rent a puzzle for one nickel a night. She believes it is not uncommon for Americans to do jigsaw puzzles during economic uncertainty because, at least, they have a challenge that they can overcome. It is something that they can control when they feel like their lives are out of control as far as the economy going.
In 2011, game and puzzle retail sales in the US amounted to approximately 1.91 billion but it reached 2.15 billion in 2019, according to database company Statista. The puzzle market is expected to grow annually by 6.1%. The revenue in the puzzles segment currently amounts to US$609 million and is expected to reach $665.8 million in 2021, 694.6 million in 2022, and 727 million in 2023.
Globally, most revenue in the puzzle market this year has been generated in China (US$977m), followed by the United States ($609m), India ($572m), Japan ($197m), and Indonesia ($170).
At this point, it’s hard to tell when the demand for puzzles will stop but companies are trying their best to reach their retailers that are open to getting the puzzles to consumers. It’s a nice activity as people can chat with someone over puzzles or entertain their inner child again while social distancing, the screen-free way.