The Gen Z Crossword Era

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My 20-year-old niece, Emma, texted the other day to tell me she’s addicted to The Times’s game Connections; she and her friends play every day, along with the Mini and Strands. “The people who make the games need to make more fun games,” she declared.

I don’t mind her treating me as her personal on-demand suggestion box for The New York Times; she’s my personal on-demand focus group for Gen Z. She’s used to my asking her about Snapchat etiquette, or which athleisure brands are cool, or if it’s true that her generation is grossed out by feet.

I’d read about how younger people are getting into puzzles, but this was the first time my Gen Z rep had volunteered a report from the field. I was charmed; I’m a games nerd, but I’d never thought this was an activity that Emma and I would geek out over together.

I, too, love Connections, but my deepest and most abiding puzzle romance is with The Times’s crossword. I average a couple of puzzles per day, a simultaneously mindful and mindless diversion, a way to keep half my brain busy while the other half unpacks experiences and emotions for which there is no language, or no language yet.

I started doing crossword puzzles in my early 20s. From the puzzle, I learned the difference between ETNA and ELBA, ARAL and URAL, the names of golfers and pitchers and generals. I could give you dozens of clever ways to describe ASTA before I ever saw a Thin Man movie. The crossword filled gaps in my cultural and historical education, gave me an edge in bar trivia. Solving crosswords was like working out, something I got better at the more I did it, but while I acquired some niche familiarity with puzzle arcana, I never felt that I was getting smarter about the world that I lived in.

In the past several years, as puzzles have evolved from slightly esoteric entertainment to work that’s more quirkily personal, the experience has changed, so that doing a crossword today is less a quiet test of mid-20-century minutiae and more a spirited conversation with modern culture. The reasons are manifold: The technology used to make crosswords has improved, the online spaces where people commune over puzzle making and solving have proliferated, and there has been an industrywide effort to increase constructor diversity. The result? “Constructors today are more inclined to express themselves in their work,” as a piece in today’s Times about crosswords in the age of Gen Z explains.

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The Gen Z Crossword Era

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