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I was thinking about different puzzles that could be made in such a way that they use features of the Puzzling Stack Exchange site. For example, creating a new tag that could serve as the key for a coded message, hiding some sort of clue in the edit history, or even stage the question as one that would not meet the site guidelines, with a puzzle hidden within.

So here's my question: To what extent can you "use the site" in a puzzle? Are there any rules against this? Has it ever been done before?

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    $\begingroup$ I think most of what you have mentioned has already been done here. Setters go out of the box to create puzzles. If its solvable and fun, all good. $\endgroup$
    – Techidiot
    Mar 30, 2023 at 4:50

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In general, site features are acceptable for use in, and/or as the subject of, puzzles. We've had many puzzles where clues are hidden in edit histories, as well as puzzles about up/down votes and reputation, fake-duplicate and fake-deleted posts, loads of puzzles where PSE users are involved¹, and even various historical versions of the Stack Overflow 404 page. Feel free to be creative in incorporating aspects of the site into your own puzzles.

Do be cautious about referencing things that are likely to change. In an earlier site meta post, Is it OK to use specific users as part of a puzzle mechanism?, we point out that users can always change their names, avatars, and "About" information, or even delete their accounts entirely.¹ Referencing anything in your puzzle that may change over time could render the puzzle unsolvable in the future; the more likely something is to change, the more important it is that if your puzzle relies on it, that you include it in your puzzle rather than just referencing it. This is a big part of the reason why we want puzzles and their component parts to be self-contained—to prevent external references from going stale and rendering the puzzle incomplete. References to site features should be treated with similar care.

The "Hot Network Questions" list, for example, can change with every page load, so if your puzzle is based on its contents, screenshot it and include that in your puzzle somehow. The name of the site, on the other hand, is particularly unlikely to change, so relying on that is pretty safe. Other things fall somewhere along the spectrum. Do your best to future-proof your puzzle against things external to your puzzle post changing or disappearing entirely.

Having said all that, things posted to the site need to be per se acceptable on the site. Creating a new tag to be part of a puzzle, which doesn't otherwise stand on its own as a suitable tag, would not be okay—and the likely result of doing so would be the tag being deleted as unnecessary, and the consequent breakage of the puzzle which the tag was created to support. A post that appears to not meet site guidelines would run a very real risk of being closed, so approach such ideas cautiously; you want to make sure people won't be so fooled by the surface your puzzle is hiding in that they never reach the puzzle itself.


¹ It's unwise to put another user into your puzzle in a way they might object to, so it's always safest to ask them first. And be careful that your puzzle does not rely on the assumption that the user you're referencing is well known; keep in mind that not everyone who encounters your puzzle, now or in the future, will even recognize the reference as a Puzzling user unless you've sign-posted that well, and a user who is well-known today may not still be well-known, or indeed even still an existing user, five years from now!

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    $\begingroup$ All true. On the subject of other PSE users though, it's worth noting that there have been other meta posts on this topic and it's worth reading those too. Specifically bearing in mind that other users may wish to be asked first before their names are used as part of a puzzle, and that puzzles should not depend majorly on features that might change in the future, like the contents of users' bios or their avatars. $\endgroup$
    – Stiv
    Mar 31, 2023 at 8:29
  • $\begingroup$ All good points. It's worth noting that the issue of a post appearing to not meet site guidelines (when it actually does meet them) is already frequently an issue on PSE, because it's often hard to know if a puzzle is a good fit for this site until after you know what the answer is. For example, some excellent puzzles appear to have no single clear path to a solution, but actually the path is there, it's just cleverly camouflaged. $\endgroup$ Mar 31, 2023 at 18:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Stiv "or their avatars" - unless said avatar images can be made into a puzzle in a way that's self-contained. $\endgroup$ Apr 5, 2023 at 10:56
  • $\begingroup$ @plasticinsect That's led to Lifeboat badges on occasion. This Great Question, IIRC, had a negative score at some point, before the answer was posted and people started rapidly reversing their votes. $\endgroup$ Apr 5, 2023 at 10:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Randal'Thor Indeed - in fact, I had that post in mind when I wrote my comment; it's a good way to preserve the original content. Problems arise when the image isn't given in the question and is expected to be presented in the solution - that way invalidation lies... $\endgroup$
    – Stiv
    Apr 5, 2023 at 12:33

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