What Sudoku Tells Us About America

Sudoku, a numerical puzzle game, is elbowing aside other boredom busters like conversation and crossword puzzles. Even Will Shortz, longtime New York Times crossword puzzle editor, has started constructing Sudoku puzzles. He recently said the new fad is "crushing" crossword puzzles in the United States. The success of Sudoku is reflecting social and cultural trends. And this is not good news.

The object of Sudoku is to place nine different single digits numbers into nine sub-box, rows and columns. In each sub-box, row and column the numbers must add up to 45. Each number must occur only once in a particular column, row and sub-square.

The game first originated in France in the late 19th century, but died out in the trenches of World War I. Sudoku was later revived and gained popularity in Asia in the 1980’s. Sudoku, the name we use now, means, “number must only occur once” in Japanese. Soon it spread to North America. Now, Americans are getting their fix in newspapers, magazines and books.

Unlike the crossword puzzle, Soduko’s enjoyment is not dependent on an extensive knowledge of the English language. That makes it perfect for people who read rarely or poorly. And, for better or for worse, this is a large market. A Census Bureau report, revealed nearly one in five Americans speak a language other then English at home, an increase of 15 million since 1990. Nearly 40 percent of this group spoke English less than “very well.” This creates a real problem for puzzle makers who presupposed baseline knowledge of English. Sudoku solved this puzzle with its simple design, which doesn’t require knowledge of any particular language.

Crossword puzzles and other trivia games are hurt by the lack of cultural literacy in Americans, particularly in young people. A recent survey commissioned by the National Association of Scholars revealed college students today are barely more culturally literate than high school graduates 50 years ago. When compared to college graduates 50 years ago, today’s college grads were beaten by 23 percentage points on the same test. This suggests that today’s students are receiving more education, but it isn’t bearing the fruit of cultural interest and appreciation.

No one is saying Sudoku itself is a bad thing, only that it reveals some disturbing details about America today. The puzzle has more educational value for young people than television or video games and could possibly increase logic and reasoning skills.

But the game’s popularity results in large part because of decreasing knowledge of culture and the quickly evaporating common American culture. We should mourn the passing of the crossword puzzle, even if we never lingered over the answer to 27 across.