More self-confidence for approaching games and puzzles
July 2, 2015 4:01 PM   Subscribe

I've reached the proverbial straw moment where I'm realizing that, approaching any sort of numbers/critical thinking game or challenge that is meant to be fun, is instead filling me with absolute dread. I find myself becoming incredibly tense and anxious, and very often preemptively angry at myself for OF COURSE being too stupid to pick it up, which means that often I don't even try to pick it up, which then becomes an inescapable feedback loop. I need to change this, please tell me how!

I was raised in a "Get this right immediately or you're a complete failure" environment, which clearly haunts me to this day. As soon as I was able to escape into the arts at school I dove in head-first, and this meant that I was one of those girls who grew to hate math and thought most science too challenging to be truly enjoyable. I don't want to live the rest of my life like this.

This isn't a problem when it comes to playing competitive games - no problem losing to another person. It's more of the "See if you can figure out this thing with numbers/logic (oh woops the way it was set up was a trap too *wink*)" thing that kills me every time. Even with neat things that are meant to display how weird or finicky the human brain is my main takeaway is always "OH GOD I FAILED I DID IT WRONG."

What's the solution? What are the baby steps? What giant books of puzzles should I stash underneath my bed to do in the moonlight?

(I'm also married to a programmer who has no problem going "Huh, I got that wrong. Oh well! Let's try again" while I'm off whimpering in a corner hating myself. I want that confidence. ...Should I learn to code? Oh god.)
posted by erratic meatsack to Education (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Go into a book store (an actual, brick and mortar bookstore) or a library, walk into the kid's section, and find the section with puzzle books. You'll want something that says "lateral thinking" or "logic" or "brainteaser" on the cover. Flip through a few books to get a feel for the stuff inside. When you find one that's written in a style you like, bring it home and work through a few puzzles every night.

They're meant for kids, so the difficulty level won't be insurmountable, and doing them will give you a feel for how these puzzles work in general. (Most kids' books will give you hints, too. Use the hints!) Doing a lot of them will build your confidence up for that general style of puzzling.

Remember, the fun of these things isn't in finding the right answer. The fun is in the process of solving them. If the process isn't fun for you, that's fine. Different strokes for different folks. It's not a moral failing to not enjoy solving puzzles.

If you get tired of the pen and paper game, give these escape the room games a whirl.
posted by phunniemee at 4:14 PM on July 2, 2015

If you're talking specifically trick questions, try to remind yourself they're trick questions precisely because the trick has worked on a lot of people.

And yeah, I'm probably good at trick questions because I've seen enough of them that I've started getting an intuitive feel for what sorts of tricks to watch for. You know on an intellectual level, if not at an emotional level, that practice makes a difference since you say "which means that often I don't even try to pick it up." If you have no experience skateboarding, expect to fall down a lot when you first start.

I think you're right to see a connection with programming. People often intermingle being correct or incorrect with a social dominance thing. The computer will not let you dismiss something as unimportant pedantic details so you can save face. You can't cow a computer into submission. The computer will not let it slide to avoid an argument. The computer won't play along because your heart is in the right place. You can't agree to disagree. The computer will sit there implacably not working until you discover and correct your mistake.

Learning to program might be akin to treating a fear of heights by skydiving, though.

You don't mind competitive games? How would you feel about something like Mastermind? (If this question is inspired by the same blue post I'm thinking of, it does follow a similar "guess the secret code" form.) Would it be okay because it's two-player, or is it the same problem because it's asymmetrical? Or is it not relevant, because the "Mastermind" has a limited domain to "trap" you? You could probably also find a Flash version or phone version, if you would find it worse to deal with a real-life "Mastermind" face-to-face.
posted by RobotHero at 7:44 PM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Well, there's lots of different types of puzzles. There's logic puzzles like these, which I am very bad at and almost always annoy me. The lateral thinking ones (different tab on the same page) tend to annoy me as well, even if I sometimes get them right. They seem like tricks, designed for you to fail. However I love this kind of logic puzzles, where you systematically work through what you know to be true and what you know to be false and then work out the specific combinations. The grid really helps too. Tutorial.

Other games like 2048 I find fun, even though I might not necessarily win at it all the time. There's just something soothing about swiping the blocks around. Interestingly, I win more when I play the Dr Who version where you try to combine the Doctors to get a Matt Smith. I don't know why that works better than the numbers, or the cat version, or the innumerable other kinds of 2048 out there, that just seems to be how I roll.

But yeah, ultimately these are meant to be fun. If it's not fun, why would you bother? I found this site of math/logic games geared for kids. I haven't played all of them, just tried a few - some are pretty challenging with the way my mind works, while others are dead easy. Some I can tell I'd get better at if I practiced, others would have me wanting to throw the computer across the room. Give it a bash, don't beat yourself up!
posted by Athanassiel at 8:09 PM on July 2, 2015

Or what about Minesweeper? Does that bother you when you get blown up? Or does it feel less like a "wrong answer?"

I'm specifically going for games that have hidden information that you can deduce from visible information. So if you make a mistake in your deduction, you'll think you know something and then discover you were wrong. 2048 doesn't have that, so I think it's probably less useful. Let me know if I'm off-base with that criteria.

Clue has this. The beginner way of playing is you just eliminate the cards you see, but you can get fancy, and note things like "So-and-so showed one of these three cards" and "does not have these three cards" and try to deduce something from that. It can get similar to the grid logical deduction puzzles Athanassiel linked.

I suppose there's also things like 0hn0, 0hh1, Sudoku, which I had a question about before.

These games require logical deduction, but they don't have the sort of gotcha traps, trick-question sort of thing. That may be a good thing, it makes them approachable. Or it could mean it's not addressing that particular element of what bothers you.
posted by RobotHero at 10:09 PM on July 2, 2015

Can you do puzzles on your own and give yourself plenty of time? I know that doesn't help in the short term, but maybe you'll train your brain in ways you didn't think possible.

I'm like you and get flustered when my [also programmer] husband reaches answers before I do (I too do the thinking about thinking--hm, kinda meta, eh?). But I'm competitive, so for example, with 2048, I beat his score on my own time, and if he ever goes back to that, I'll likely play til I "win" again.

Also, not a direct solution (but certainly good for brain plasticity), what about games like Monument Valley? If I had to race someone, I'd never have figured it out (for reasons of anxiety like you mention), but on my own I worked through the mind-bendy-ness of it far more quickly than my husband could, and the more I do things like that, the more confident I am when faced with a real-time competitive game.

I like the suggestions of websites for kids. It can't hurt to amass a combination of practice and increased confidence.
posted by whoiam at 11:54 PM on July 2, 2015

Best answer: What's the solution?

Unravelling the "anything but instant success = total failure" programming. That's actually just a lie that you were told early and often, and that you now believe, and it's an absolute barrier to learning anything.

It would pay you to replace that with the truth, which is that the way to get correct results quickly is to learn how to get them reliably, then practise practise practise practise practise.

If your arts practice has any sort of technique component, I'm sure you actually already know this. Numbers and logic are no different.

What are the baby steps?

Start with basic arithmetic.

1. Memorise all the single-digit addition results from 0+anything=itself, 1+1=2, 1+2=3... all the way through to 9+8=17, 9+9=18. Make yourself a bunch of beautifully drawn worksheets to help with this.

2. Building on the results of step 1, memorise all the one-digit from two-digit subtraction results from 18-9=9, 17-9=8, 16-9=7... down to 0-0=0. When you're up to the practise practise practise practise practise stage of this step, incorporate practice for step 1 as well.

3. Memorise all the single-digit multiplication results from 0×anything=0, 1×anything=itself, 2×2=4, 2×3=6, 2×4=8... all the way through to 9×9=81. Again, when you're doing practice for these, incorporate practising the earlier steps as well.

Having spent a couple of months on steps 1, 2 and 3, you will find that you gain a kind of feel for numbers: instead of being opaque scary annoying baffling scribbles, they'll become the ideas the scribbles stand for. And you will also find that you can go on to learning and practising rapid, accurate multi-digit arithmetic in the same systematic brick-by-brick way without getting bogged at the first hurdle.

When you encounter a puzzle involving - for example - 36, you will just know that 36 is a square number that's also the product of two other square numbers. You will find that numbers gain depth. The experience will be rather akin to learning what to do with your eyes in order to make sense of those magic-eye 3D things.

What giant books of puzzles should I stash underneath my bed to do in the moonlight?

Basic arithmetic worksheets in vast quantities.

There is almost certainly nothing at all wrong with your ability to solve puzzles; that's almost certainly not the skill you need to improve. What needs to change is your present aversion to and fear of (a) numbers (b) not being able to see the correct answer straight away. Grinding away at basic arithmetic in a self-motivated fashion will help burn that fear completely away.
posted by flabdablet at 7:18 AM on July 3, 2015

Oddly enough, learning to code did help train me out of this reaction (which I also had, big-time). But I was motivated to learn to code because I needed to solve a real-life problem. And it took a good year or more of getting stress headaches and feeling very frustrated and anxious while coding, before I was able to develop enough confidence to change my initial reaction from "I'm so stupid, I will never get it, I suck" to "I know I can figure this out; let me think through it step by step."

But then again, I also had to teach myself to code. So maybe learning in a more gradual, guided way would be more effective exposure therapy for this anxiety. Code Academy, maybe? When your programmer spouse is not around to watch?

And as with classical exposure therapy, do it for just long enough that you feel a bit stressed, but not so much that you're full-on panicking. And do a relaxation exercise afterwards.
posted by snowmentality at 7:41 AM on July 3, 2015

Best answer: Seconding the idea of escape-the-room games! A good one might combine math puzzles, finding clues, codes, mini-games, creative use of tools, etc. They are generally not timed, not linear, free, and nobody will know if you succeed or fail. And it's a situation where even partial failure can be fun - maybe you can't do one puzzle but you kick ass at the rest of it.

Some of these games are really pretty to look at. For me, the immersive element means I enjoy being in that world so much that I don't care if I can't dominate every puzzle. There is no shame in getting hints to help you through a section of a game. So this might be a way to learn fun without perfection.

It might also help to see other very smart people having trouble with the same thing you're working on. The following links are aggregators of puzzle games (especially escape games), formatted like a blog, where each game gets a post, and then the community leave comments to help each other when they're stuck. Everybody gets stuck. That's not necessarily a reason to quit, to stop enjoying yourself, or to feel bad.

Also... I think it's ok to have moments where you feel like a dummy; everybody feels dumb sometimes. "Argh! Why didn't I see that clue!?" But is there a way you can work on shortening this feeling? Like, letting yourself feel that normal ARGH, quickly acknowledging that your brain is not perfect but it's pretty great, and then moving on to the next challenge or enjoyable moment? I wonder if this might be a self-forgiveness thing, in a way. (It is for me.)

Here you go, have fun (I promise it is possible!):

Escapegames24 - a huge number of free online games, ranging from amazing to pretty crappy in terms of look and challenges. (Even crappy ones can be fun though of course.) Also has subsections for other sorts of puzzles.

JayisGames - a huge archive, with fewer new additions, but they're all top-quality, gorgeous, and tend to be harder. The comments sections are great and usually have full walkthroughs posted.

I can recommend specific games if this stuff sounds at all fun, either here or in memail. I play... way too many of these things.
posted by jessicapierce at 8:21 AM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

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