Apptitude: The joys of e-Scrabble

Virginia Heffernan
Scrabble competitor caught c-h-e-a-t-i-n-g
Teen player kicked out of National Championships

by Virginia Heffernan | @YahooTech

The repressed returns in digital culture, as in life. I used to love Scrabble, the board game, but swore it off–-as I once swore off computers themselves--because I kept noticing someone else (or me) getting too freaky, avid and wild-eyed about winning.

In pre-digital times, board games were kind of sickening like that: You’d dedicate a happy night to Monopoly or Risk or Scrabble only to flatten entirely the convivial atmosphere in which the game was proposed, and transform normal, chatty people into greedy winner-take-all jerks who could mistake getting North America or Park Place for a moral achievement.

But I have happily picked up the online versions of these board games, and so far nothing sickening has happened. Maybe because the games are legion, so no one’s intelligence seems to hang perilously on the outcome of a single game. You set yourself up with Scrabble on the iPhone, say, and you instantly get a bunch of games going with Facebook friends, and fast. You win some, you lose some—quite literally.

No one is watching your face to see if you’re dying of stumpedness or indignant at their bingo. No one is pretending to take the game lightly, so it’s hard to take it seriously. And you connect with people you didn’t know quietly had some Scrabble game in them, rather than people who advertise that fact up and down your family tree, and are always dragging the board out to cream everyone after Thanksgiving dinner.

Now I say repressed because there was that whole early round in the late aughts with Scrabulous and Lexulous and Wordscraper being banned or reformed in response to legacy game companies wincing in pain and disbelief that Facebook was going to connect people on a scale unknown to Hasbro and Parker Brothers. But thousands of people perceived, at the start of their social-networking experience, that Facebook was designed for wordgames with friends—and that wordgame-shaped hole would, even after Scrabulous disappeared, have to be filled again. It has been. Facebook has its own wordgame apps, and if you sign into Words or Scramble or Scrabble on an iPhone, you can play with your Facebook friends—or foes, in this case. Opponents.

So what’s to say about the glorious Scrabble app that you can’t say about the limiting standard-issue 3D game of Scrabble? Plenty. Most importantly, the app has many mechanisms meant to save you from the humiliation of the word disorders that we all suffer from (and self-hatingly mistake for stupidity). Can you not spell, or do you, like me, never Scrabble precisely according to the OED? You get another chance if you essay a word that’s not in the dictionary.

That’s leagues away in good-sportsmanship from board Scrabble, in which I was constantly trying out “Zen” and “ade” (nope: the first is capitalized and the second never stands without lemon-, it seems). I’d place my letters slowly, slowly, trying and failing not to look to my dad’s poker face for a sign that my word was valid or not. Then I’d play the word and have him smugly “challenge” it, at which point I lost my turn.

(Just this minute I was about to blow my turn in mobile Scrabble against a new and wily opponent, whom I aim to impress; I tried “brot”—not a word—and went with “brut.” About my two tries, Tom is none the wiser.)

Another inestimable advantage of the Scrabble app is that it turns Scrabble into a game not strung up in social and cultural connotations. On the Scrabble-playing side of my family, the Boston branch, high scores for decades were recorded on the inside of the box, and we disdained turntables as frivolous. Scrabble was firmly considered a gentleman’s game—a coed gentleman’s game—replete with opportunities for noblesse oblige and condescending good manners. (“Oh, swap your letters, dear, if you have so many vowels; that’s just bad luck.”) In this way, Scrabble was tacitly opposed to chess—cutthroat, dandruffy, intellectually pure, for families of physicists and violinists. A crass Monopoly board with its Atlantic City and fake lucre didn’t even exist.

On the Scrabble app, people play not to consolidate social capital, or impress their grandparents, but simply to win, and by some mystery no one seems to remember my Boston family’s place on its own 20th-century leaderboard. Thus, there are no special do-overs for flailing younger cousins, granted by the ranking player. Nor is there an imperative to make long, elegant words that “open the board up,” and to refrain from jerky high-scoring plays. Instead, on the Scrabble app, you just make the best darn score you can and no one oohs, ahhs, groans or flushes with shame and fury.

Or, at least, you can’t see them doing it.