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How Gen Z Made Crosswords Their Own

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30-Across: “___ and dry food (categories I will now be using to describe human food. Oh, so suddenly it’s weird?)”

31-Across: “TikTok videos of ‘Family Guy’ clips accompanied by Subway Surfers gameplay, e.g.”

26-Down: “Lili ___, one of the first trans women to receive gender-affirming surgery”

Who’s this “I” cracking jokes about WET food in the middle of a crossword clue? What is SLUDGE CONTENT doing inside a puzzle? How did we get to learn about Lili Elbe when the answer ELBE almost always refers to the German river?

Welcome to the crossword in the age of Gen Z. Clues require internet meme literacy. Solutions may reflect the identity of the person behind the puzzle. And the way they’re constructed can involve vibrant online forums in addition to scraps of paper.

Grids these days are often “diaristic,” said Paolo Pasco, 23, the winner of this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the Super Bowl of crosswords. They can reveal clusters of personal obsessions or glimpses of an idiosyncratic sense of humor. “That’s a big part of what got me into puzzles,” Mr. Pasco said. “This is an insight into the person’s brain who thought of that joke.”

It’s a noticeable shift from decades past, when crosswords were usually faceless, less a site for auteurism than a form of anonymous entertainment. But thanks to a variety of factors — rapidly improving technology to create puzzles, a much wider array of outlets eager to publish them and a push to celebrate new voices — constructors today are more inclined to express themselves in their work.

For Ada Nicolle, the constructor of those clues for WET, SLUDGE CONTENT and ELBE, which appear in a puzzle on her blog Luckystreak Xwords, discovering a love of crossword construction happened in tandem with coming out as a transgender woman. Ms. Nicolle, 22, who lives in Toronto, said she chose her first name in part because it appeared in crosswords so frequently — over 600 grids in The New York Times alone.

Now, she puts ADA in her own crossword puzzles.

Seeing a piece of information in a puzzle lends it a kind of authority, Ms. Nicolle said, which means she can use her puzzles to depict the way she wants the world to be.

“You see a bunch of news stories about these bills being passed about trying to take away your right to existence,” she added, “and if you’re solving a crossword puzzle and you see ‘gender euphoria’ in the grid as a matter-of-fact thing that people feel, it’s incredibly powerful.”

This isn’t the first time the crossword has undergone a youthquake. In the 1970s and 1980s, the crossword entered a period known as the Oreo Wars. The old guard insisted that pop-culture references and brand names should not appear in the venerable grid, and thus words like OREO had to be clued with their strict dictionary definitions. (“Oreography” is an alternate spelling for the study of mountains.)

But younger constructors and editors, like the New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, argued that banning brand names from the puzzle meant leaving out major parts of contemporary life. By opening the crossword’s gates to more types of words and styles of wordplay, these editors reasoned, the form itself would become more capacious, inventive and, well, more fun.

Many Gen Z crossword enthusiasts point to the pandemic as the start of their obsession: Bored in high school or college, they were suddenly isolated and on the internet for a lot more time than ever before.

In the summer of 2020, Mr. Pasco, then an undergraduate student at Harvard, constructed a puzzle with Adam Aaronson, who was at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign at the time, over dozens of Twitter DMs. They had met online earlier that year, after Mr. Pasco complimented Mr. Aaronson on a clever clue.

When their puzzle together ran in The Times that August, it was the first time the paper had published a collaboration by constructors born in the 2000s. According to XWord Info, a database that aggregates information about every printed New York Times crossword, of the 68 constructors who have made their Times crossword debuts as teenagers, more than two dozen have been Gen Z.

Since then, more bespoke platforms have cropped up for constructors. In 2021, Mr. Aaronson, now a 23-year-old software engineer in New York, unveiled his own app, Wordlisted, which scrapes any given list of words to find specific letter patterns. It’s free, though users can leave Mr. Aaronson a tip for his troubles. (“Tipping out $10 for each puzzle Wordlisted helped me get published so far,” wrote one person who sent Mr. Aaronson $100.)

Many of the top Gen Z constructors have at least basic coding knowledge; several mentioned generating “baby Python scripts” to help them hunt for specific letter or theme combinations.

Such expertise, though, is hardly required for entry into this tight-knit group. In forums like Crosscord, a Discord server for crossword enthusiasts, people share advice for constructing puzzles and tips for solving them.

“Once people started talking to each other online and understanding how crosswords worked they realized, of course we can do those things,” said Ricky Cruz, 26, who started the forum in 2019 and watched it take off during the pandemic. Today, it has some 4,000 members, who can dip into channels like “spoilers” (to discuss the day’s puzzles), “crossword solving,” or “crossword construction,” where people test out themes and grids. In another channel, users can plug their work or link to Twitch streams of themselves solving a puzzle in real time.

Often, “crossword all-stars” will drop in, Mr. Aaronson added, so it is not a purely Gen Z space. But it’s these forums’ youngest members who drive the online conversation. They’re often the source of niche crossword-related memes, which then frequently find their way into puzzles on Et Tu Etui, a blog whose name is borrowed from an in-joke for the kind of obscure “crosswordese” that most editors today would never permit.

Like many trends, this one loops back around to its source. As many young people discover a love of crossword puzzles — sometimes with the help of these Gen Z-founded resources — they’re finding community within pages of newsprint.

Before the pandemic, most college newspapers either didn’t have a crossword puzzle, or they licensed ones from mainstream publications. But as crosswords have exploded across the internet, students have taken their own spin on the form. Dozens of student papers, like The Daily Princetonian and The Chicago Maroon, now feature regular full-fledged puzzle sections with games editors and staff constructors.

“It’s something I didn’t feel at all before, but now, online, at our school, through other schools — I have a crossword community,” said Pavan Kannan, 20, the crossword editor at The Michigan Daily.

As more members of Gen Z seize the means of crossword production, some are feeling emboldened.

“I feel like my generation is a lot smarter than people give us credit for,” said Ms. Nicolle, whose book “A-to-Gen Z Crosswords: 72 Puzzles That Hit Different,” is slated for release next month. “There should be hard crossword puzzles for people like me, that are funny and the references are current and they’re nostalgic toward the 2000s and early 2010s. You sometimes solve a puzzle and you think — I didn’t know this could be put in a puzzle.”

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