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Prompted by this question (and this similar question by the same user), I'd like to ask for the community's opinion on how to deal with puzzles taken from mystery geocaches.


For those not familiar with geocaching, a typical geocache is a container hidden somewhere (usually) outdoors, with a logbook inside. The challenge is to find the cache and sign the logbook. The online description of a traditional geocache includes the GPS coordinates of where the container is hidden and possibly some other information that may help in finding the cache and/or tells visitors something interesting about the location.

However, there's also a specific subtype of geocaches known as "mystery caches" where the listed coordinates only point to somewhere within a few miles of the cache and the actual coordinates of the cache must be determined by some other means, often by solving some kind of a puzzle given in the cache description. While it's technically possible to find the cache without actually solving the puzzle yourself, e.g. by having someone else simply tell you the correct coordinates, this is generally frowned upon in the geocaching community as it deprives the cache of its intended challenge. There are some exceptions (like groups of people searching for a cache together — nobody expects everyone in the group to have solved the puzzle independently) but publicly spoiling the solution online is definitely considered unsporting.

Also, while some geocaches are publicly listed on sites like geocaching.com (and others) where their coordinates can be seen by anyone, others (known as "premium caches") are only visible to people who have registered on the site and paid a (relatively small) annual membership fee. The decision to mark a cache as premium is made by the cache owner (i.e. usually the person who hid it) and could be made for any number of reasons, but a relatively common reason for hiding caches from the public like that is to reduce the risk of vandalism. (Of course, hiding the coordinates of the cache behind a sufficiently challenging puzzle can serve the much same purpose.)


Anyway, even though we do have a tag on this site, it's not clear to me whether questions asking for help with puzzles taken from mystery caches really are appropriate here, and if so, what counts as a proper answer for such questions.

Certainly, just outright revealing the solution (or giving such an explicit hint that finding the solution becomes trivial) without the cache owner's permission would seem unsporting to me as a geocacher.

On the other hand, it's not clear to me if an answer consisting of just oblique hints should even count as an answer at all, or how the correctness of such answers should be judged. Of course, the OP could decide to accept whichever answer they felt was most helpful to them, once they've managed to solve the puzzle based on the given hints, but we can't really expect all voters to go to that level of effort. Or can we?

Or, to quote the author of the questions linked above:

Now I'm wondering if indeed this is the right place for these puzzles as now although I want to share the solution it would indeed be bad form but it's also the point of this site..


Ps. Our policy on questions from on-going contests might be somewhat relevant, if only as a comparison point. However, it does not directly apply here since, even if geocaching was considered a contest (which is debatable), it's generally not a time-limited one.

Also, just to be clear, I'm not asking about questions like this one, which seems to be an original puzzle that just happens to produce a set of coordinates as a result. (I have no idea if there's an actual cache hidden there, but if there is, it doesn't seem to be on geocaching.com — there are no mystery caches listed anywhere near that point.)

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As the author of the two questions above I'd like to chime in.

The first thing I'd like to make clear is that I'm not here looking for the answer to every puzzle I post. I've been looking for help not votes.

I've found 40 Mystery Caches in total and have come to here for help with 3 of them.

My Conclusion

After reviewing everything that's happens regarding this subject I don't think Geocaching puzzles are a good fit for this site.

Firstly the "Premium members only" caches clearly don't belong here as they aren't publicly accessible (this was an oversight on my part).

Additionally:

These is no clear, 'correct' way to deal with getting solutions. As mentioned in the OP I was put in a bind after getting the solution. Posting the full solution would not be in good form for Geocaching (especially for a premium members only caches). Posting just a hint or leaving it unanswered would be unsatisfying for this site, plus there is no guarantee that it would remain unanswered.

There are places that better fit this puzzle niche. I have found a closed Facebook group that is specifically for this kind of puzzle. They don't give answers, only hints.

Regarding the Geocaching Tag

This is raises big question mark for me.

Basically seeing as though these puzzles have caused a bit of a issue then I can only wonder why is this tag here? I saw this tag and assumed that it meant this was the right place to bring a Geocaching puzzle. If this ends up not being the case then I'd argue the tag is misleading.

Regarding genre fatigue

This point I'm not so clear on. I understand the basic principle of genre fatigue however as the puzzles have all been very different and are likely to remain so I personally wouldn't thought this was so much an issue.

Regarding Feedback

This is where I've been left confused by the feedback I've been getting, which is best summarised by the following quote from this question:

"Technically it's fine, but.... ehhhhhh"

As a newcomer to this site I found that largely unhelpful but I appreciate that this is probably because of the ambiguity regarding these types of puzzles.

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  • $\begingroup$ There's two ways to pose a mystery cache puzzle here. "Can you give me some pointers on how to find the answer myself, without actually posting the answer?" would be fine—not every post needs to seek a full answer to the puzzle it references. The other way would, of course, be to look for the answer itself—either because the asker knows it but wants to share the puzzle as a challenge, or because they don't know it and would very much like to. The propriety of the latter type, when the source is "Premium", is certainly dubious; but outside of that, either type of posting would be fine here. $\endgroup$ – Rubio Sep 13 '17 at 9:24
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    $\begingroup$ I'll note that these puzzles, being someone else's content, would always require a proper attribution of their source. A "Premium" or restricted mystery cache would be readily identifiable as such by following the attribution to its source. Whether or not posting restricted content is appropriate here (or anywhere) even with attribution gets into a grey area, but one that is altogether separate from the question of whether mystery geocaches are off topic here. I believe that as a rule, mystery geocache puzzles fit fine here. I'd opine that as a rule, restricted content does not. $\endgroup$ – Rubio Sep 13 '17 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ I'm inclined to agree with you about mystery caches fitting in here as a question. But I think the grey area is how to answer them appropriately as the actual answer (the coords) would be inappropriate but I'd imagine so would no answer at all. $\endgroup$ – jampez77 Sep 13 '17 at 9:37
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    $\begingroup$ Someone has to come here seeking the answer to a mystery cache puzzle to find it; beyond that, they have to peek under the spoiler tags. If someone gets exact geo coords, it's because they intended to; those coords didn't jump out of their monitor unexpectedly and whack them over the head. I think what you're wrestling with is, does Puzzling.SE have a duty to geocachers to ensure that nobody posts an exact solution to their mystery cache puzzles here because doing so inappropriately contravenes their intent. That's a much larger subject whose scope probably needs to go beyond just geocaches. $\endgroup$ – Rubio Sep 13 '17 at 9:46
  • $\begingroup$ yes that is a much larger subject but I feel like that's where this post came from. $\endgroup$ – jampez77 Sep 13 '17 at 9:54
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps. But while the OP mentioned those concerns, they weren't the core of the question, so I didn't answer them. I'll go ahead and note that "Don't spoil the content!" would probably put whole swathes of Q&A on (say) Sci-fi & Fantasy, or Movies & TV, or Arqade, in a bad place. I don't know that we can, let alone should, put ourselves in a place of deciding how much answer is too much answer. There's good points raised here in comments that I feel I should reorganize and expand my answer to address, so I'll try to do that soon. Thanks for your commentary, good things to think on! $\endgroup$ – Rubio Sep 13 '17 at 10:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Rubio: I don't think Google respects our spoiler tags. As I noted in my comments to your answer, Googling for clues or trivia is indeed a common and often expected part of solving geocaching puzzles, and if you're unlucky enough, it is in fact possible for a spoiled solution to "jump out" through Google's snippets. $\endgroup$ – Ilmari Karonen Sep 13 '17 at 11:11
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    $\begingroup$ I can vouch for this actually. I've accidentally stumbled upon answers to mystery puzzles a few times. Not from a SE site mind. $\endgroup$ – jampez77 Sep 13 '17 at 11:17
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We actually had much the same conversation in The Sphinx's Lair when the most recent puzzle was posted. I'll copy my thoughts from there to here, with light editing:

As a matter of "policy", these puzzles are fine. They're not passing someone else's stuff off as their own, and are clearly indicating where they came from, and they're not just dumping dozens of mass-produced puzzles on us. Each geocaching puzzle I've seen on our site has been unique in its makeup, despite coming from the same place and (presumably) all having geo coords as solutions.

The poster is asking for help with a challenge they've actually encountered, and they make a (rudimentary) attempt to tell us what they've tried/considered already, all of which is appropriate for really any question on any SE site.

Having said all of that .... genre fatigue is a thing. Too many of the same thing gets old, and people start expressing that with downvotes. That's why trends of similar puzzles being posted all together tend to be a self-correcting problem.
A user's downvote is their own to do with as they see fit. Ideally it's used to indicate their opinion of the meritworthiness of individual puzzles taken individually. Factually speaking, that doesn't always happen.... and, at least to some extent, that's okay, as long as it doesn't cross the line into outright abusive voting.

@feelinferrety noted one aspect you did as well:

Complicating factor: If you click through the source link, it's a puzzle that's been marked for "Premium" members only. What of the intent of the puzzle poster that it remain not open to the public?

My answer to this was:

We don't often get into issues regarding copyright, which that complicating factor largely hinges on (the right of the content creator to control its distribution). Such rights can only be asserted by the content creator, and only via the proper channels; mods may do something where it's a clear-cut case, but we're under no obligation to, and in many cases our best bet is to not intervene.
In this case I don't think it's enough of an issue to be a problem we should address.

I'll add to this that if someone is concerned about the answer being posted here, note that for a Geocacher to even find that answer, they'd have to come here searching for help on that cache themselves. So whether or not it's "bad form" to do is somewhat mitigated by the fact that someone else finding the answer here would arguably be equally "bad form".


What follows is not something we discussed in chat, but your question here touches on an idea which I think deserves more consideration. You noted that geocaching puzzles don't really fall under the same umbrella as ongoing contests or competitions. I agree.

Generally speaking, I could see three reasons why someone might post Geocaching puzzles here:

  • To farm rep.   It's a ready supply of puzzles of varying styles, which someone might be tempted to use to give them a steady stream of content to post. I would hope that isn't the motivation, as that would be not OK — it's an abuse of our community. But we generally want to assume good faith with respect to our users' posts, and in any case, something like this (as noted earlier) tends to become a self-correcting problem fairly quickly.
  • To get the answer to the puzzle, Just Because.   Someone who enjoys Geocaching as a hobby (or even someone who just likes puzzles) might look at caches nowhere near their location, not because they intend to solve the hints to actually find the cache, but because they enjoy the puzzling aspect itself. Perhaps having found (most of) the caches near them, or perhaps in the course of checking Geocaching.com for updates on a cache of their own, they may look at other caches and see if they can armchair-locate the actual coords. Coming across one (or two or three or ...) that they can't solve, they might very well turn to a site on the Internet where other puzzle lovers hang out, in search of assistance on the puzzles they couldn't figure out—just like we see people do with puzzles of other types that they've encountered and gotten stuck on. My earlier comments were written mainly with this case in mind.
  • To help locate a cache they're actually looking for.   This is as close to "help me win this contest" that it gets. But most of the fun of actual Geocaching is in finding the cache yourself! I know there are plenty of people who, for example, if given a "Win The Game" button in a game of skill, would happily push the button; this mindset is one I cannot really grasp. The fun is (supposed to be) in the sense of accomplishment, not just in being able to say "I won". If a poster seeks help before making any honest progress on their own, maybe they shouldn't be Geocaching.
    But, having said that, I can see the scenario where someone has gone as far as they could go in trying to solve the clues for a cache they really want to find, and turning here for help. If they post the details—including proper attribution, what they've solved so far, and what they've tried in their attempts to solve what they're still missing—then I don't see a compelling reason to reject it.

In the latter two cases, such posts are on topic, the poster isn't trying to unscrupulously leverage someone else's content to their own advantage, and — and this is key — I would fully expect such posts to be fairly few and far between. A constant stream of these puzzles, even dressed up to look like one of these two acceptable cases, is quickly going to invite suspicion that the poster is not acting in good faith and is likely to meet with disapproval in the form of downvotes.

Them's my 2¢.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the thoughtful response. As a specific reply to one of your points, though, I'd like to note that "for a Geocacher to even find that answer, they'd have to come here searching for help" is not quite correct -- it's enough to Google for something related to the puzzle and have the answer show up in the results. Given that geocaching puzzles often involve searching for trivia, or for the meaning of cryptic hints, that's not an unlikely scenario at all. $\endgroup$ – Ilmari Karonen Sep 13 '17 at 10:49
  • $\begingroup$ For example, Googling for the hint "fence not ladder" (with quotes) from the mystery cache mentioned earlier currently brings up 5 hits for me. Of those, the first two both(!) point to the question here, and the last one to an SE mirror. (I expect this meta question will shortly join them, now that I've posted this comment.) The Google snippets actually show a set of coordinates, although fortunately they're only the incorrect "bogus" ones. $\endgroup$ – Ilmari Karonen Sep 13 '17 at 10:58
  • $\begingroup$ (As a minor spoiler, Googling it is, in fact, exactly what one is supposed to do with that hint, although it arguably works better without quotes. I've confirmed that via personal communication with the cache owner, and the cache description page itself even lists Google as a "related web page".) $\endgroup$ – Ilmari Karonen Sep 13 '17 at 11:03
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I have been active in the geocaching community. In my area, geocachers arrange an annual meetup where they get together and try to solve many of the challenging mystery cache puzzles in the area.
When the event is being planned, advance notice is given so that any cache owners who don't want their mystery cache discussed can say so. If an owner objects, the cache is removed from the list of puzzles to be considered.

I think we could adopt a similar policy here. If the owner of a mystery cache puzzle that has been posted on Puzzling requests for it to be removed, we could certainly comply. But I think most owners want their caches to be found, and would not object to a small portion of geocachers getting the solution via Puzzling.SE.

That being said, I own a couple of mystery caches myself, and I'm not sure how I would feel if I saw one of them appear on this site. I have never objected to them being solved at the annual meetup mentioned above, but that is a small group of people, and the solutions are never posted publicly. To have the solution publicly available to everyone is different, and seems to dilute the "puzzliness" of the mystery cache, since people don't actually have to solve it in order to find the cache.

tl;dr: I'm on the fence about whether this should be allowed.

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    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't object to my mystery caches (well, only one so far) being discussed at a meetup either, but I wouldn't really want them spoiled online. For that matter, as a cacher, I like working on mysteries together with friends, but if I know somebody's already solved a mystery I'm working on, I'll usually ask them not to spoil it until I've at least tried solving it on my own. It just seems to me that there's a big difference between meeting up with friends to work on a puzzle together and just flat out having the solution handed to you. The former is fun, the latter is boring. $\endgroup$ – Ilmari Karonen Sep 14 '17 at 18:44

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