I consider telling her I am looking at pornography. Then she hears the computerised fanfare that rings out of the laptop when you use all seven letters in Facebook Scrabble. “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe you come straight in and go off and secretly start again. This is getting out of hand.”
Hello, my name’s James and I am a Scrabble addict. I have been playing it all day everyday from last Christmas until my summer holiday when two weeks without a computer allowed me to crack the habit. I am not alone, there are over a hundred thousand Scrabble players on facebook. We play each other at any time of day or night because we are situated all over the world and timezones are helpful like that. We decide how long we will allow for each move to take, how many people can play, and what standard we play at.
The Scrabble dictionary attached to the digital board will determine which words are allowed but many of us will have rows about illegal use of Anagram Finding sites, many will make new friends, and others will go as far as to have the digital equivalent of phone sex, chat sex in the message board that sits next to the Scrabble Board. You thought it was a game to while away a wet afternoon? Welcome to 21st Century Scrabble, sit down and feel free to while away your life.
Way back in 1938 when unemployed architect Alfred Butts of Jackson Heights, New York set out to create himself a new type of family board game called Criss Cross Words he couldn’t have imagined that seventy years on people who have never even spoken, never mind seen or met each other would be playing his game against opponents all over the globe.
Whilst he might have predicted a little family rivalry when the game is pulled out this Christmas, he couldn’t have predicted that online the game would prompt heated international argument but also help build the popularity of ‘social networking’, significantly accelerating facebook’s growth. With over half a million users, Scrabble is one of facebook’s top 25 applications. And it’s not the only Scrabble style word game out there. Before Scrabble on facebook there was Scrabulous.
"The international 24 hour pull of the game is relentless, for some it over-comes loneliness for others it fuells addictive personalities."
The modern explosion in Scrabble started in India when brothers Rajat Agarwalla, 27, and Jayant Agarwalla, 22 created a application for the newly emerging Facebook in 2007 and named it Scrabulous. Something about the game appealed to a new generation who were discovering the game as if it was new. Maybe it was the simplicity of the game or the way it introduced you to new people or maybe it was just the way you could play match after match without stopping. You never run out of opposition. It quickly became the most popular game on Facebook. Such success didn’t go un-noticed, especially when the only difference between Scrabulous and board game Scrabble was a matter of letters in the name. It’s suggested that the games owners (different companies in different territories) tried to buy the application but, with Agarwalla’s taking significant advertising revenues from their pages, no deal could be done.
A legal battle ensued and Hasbro and Mattel forced facebook to remove Scrabulous. The huge corporations versus the brothers took on a Robin Hood level of romanticism and when the Indian high Court ruled that the Agarwalla’s could proceed with their word game but mustn’t use the word Scrabulous, Scrabble or make any reference to the original board game they re-appeared with Lexulous named after Alfred Butt’s original working title of Lexiko. This quickly became extremely popular but in the meantime Scrabble’s owners licensed the game to computer games manufacturers who hastily created a Scrabble application for facebook.
Naturally such a modern environment for an age old copyright disagreement fed the game’s popularity as did the time when Scrabble junkies were starved of their fix. Once both applications were up and running the game was on.
Whilst younger friends and colleagues had joined in the social networking revolution first with myspace and then facebook and twitter I had kept away from this world. In truth it made me feel old and outdated, page after page of my 27 year old workmate’s friends having a great time at nightclubs and festivals highlighted the difference in my life between my late 20’s and mid 40’s. And then my girlfriend suggested playing Scrabulous would be another good way for me to stay in touch with my son who lives with my ex-wife. She set us both up on facebook and we started playing, but it wasn't long before other friends were inviting me to play and then I moved onto strangers and pretty much full-time opponents.
On an hourly basis day after day I played people in Australia, Britain, South Africa, India, the West Indies and pretty much anywhere else where the Scrabble application could work. Eventually I spent more time talking and playing with these new Scrabble partners than I did the people I lived with. It was madness. A genuine obsession, I would go as far as to say addiction. I was late to pick my son up from school, late to sports matches I was playing in, I ignored writing work I had to do, I took the computer to bed with me and played last thing at night until my eyes hurt and then started again as soon as I woke up.
"Online Scrabble addicts see themselves as literary samurai, travelling the world imparting knowledge whilst fighting against bad vocab."
Sometimes I dreamt of scrabble, other times I started to work out the scrabble score of words and names people said to me. If you told me your name or the name of a place you’d visited I’d reply with a number, and then inform the confused person I was conversing with that that was the scrabble worth of the world they’d just said. Like it was something they really should know.
Not knowing what letters would appear next had that random appeal that watching a horse race has. The excitement at using all 7 seven letters and scoring a bingo, or taking a game to the very last tile to reach a conclusion was immense, there was always just one more game, one more opponent, maybe the same one you’d already played five times that day and you wanted to take another victory from or avenge an earlier defeat. The international 24 hour pull of the game is relentless, for some it over-comes loneliness for others it fuells addictive personalities.
Using facebook to find scrabble junkies is not hard. Type in ‘do you or your loved ones play too much Scrabble’ and the comments come flooding in. One man simply admits “my girlfiend has twenty four games on the go,” it’s insane.”
Another un-named enthusiast admits he plays to try and flirt with the other players in the chat box. He says there’s a whole other experience going on for some people, and that the Scrabble is just a cover:
“I was playing this woman who worked for a British embassy in Europe for a few weeks and she kept saying she was bored in the chat section, eventually I realised she was trying to talk about something else and I can’t tell you where that ended up. Just a further three weeks of erotic conversation with occasional games in between. Since then I’ve encountered about ten women with similar appetites. The game has become secondary and the language is filthy.”
Paradoxically in Midnight Cowboy Jon Voight, the tall handsome wannabe gigolo, is encouraged to play Scribbage, a cross between Scrabble and a dice game, to take his mind off his sexual non performance. He should have waited until the digital era and he wouldn’t have even had to go out and meet another person to play scrabble AND score.
Once you’ve locked yourself into either tournament or endurance scrabble the game becomes less about imagination and creativity as memory. The ability to conjur up words you’ve used or seen used before to get the maximum points on any one game. I have seen words I wish I had written down, one was a three letter word with no vowels and no ‘y’. “Where the hell did you get that from?” I asked the opposition and she just mysteriously replied “Just something I picked up on my travels.” That’s how online Scrabble addicts see themselves. Literary samurai travelling the world imparting knowledge whilst fighting against bad vocab.
"Some will go as far as to have the digital equivalent of phone sex, chat sex in the message board that sits next to the Scrabble Board."
One of the simplest mistakes in Scrabble is to believe it’s a game about words, to my mind it’s a game about numbers, and the letters are just entry points to the numbers. I like using animal names but they will rarely score you many points they just look nice in some sort of childlike way. Putting an E and U around an M or a G or a U around an N will always bring a smile to my face.
One of the most infuriating aspects of online Scrabble is what the dictionary does and doesn’t allow. And how people react to that. Russ, a father of two from Hull confesses “This is the only game I have ever played where I have been routinely abused by a stranger from Dublin for using a word I have made up but somehow the dictionary has allowed. I’ve had to stop games and issue complaints to the service provider at some of levels of abuse that fly around.”
Scrabulous was far more open than it’s replacement but even that is inconsistent, certain places are allowed, others aren’t. And at one point Yoda, the character from Star Wars, was acceptable before disappearing from the dictionary.
Once you’ve been hooked on on-line Scrabble it’s no fun for anyone else when you play a family game on a board and start insisting that Ko is a word but Ki isn’t.
Scrabble has of course long appeared in popular culture, in The Simpsons Bart invented the word KWIJIBO, when challenged by Homer he insisted the dictionary definition was “a fat balding North American ape with no chin”. Before then Scrabble tiles were used to define the meaning of life in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Universe. And Jon Voight was encouraged to play a type of Scrabble to ease his mind of sexual dysfunction in the Oscar winning Midnight Cowboy. There have been two big screen documentaries dedicated to the game – Word Wars and Scrabylon and afternoon television viewing peaked with Countdown. More recently at the Bestival music festival revellers took part in a giant game of Alice In Wonderland-esque Human Scrabble, holding letters on giant poles and being ordered around a board by game players.
Novelist Joseph O’Connor, brother of singer Sinead recently admitted Scrabble "is a fantastic pretext for screaming abuse at one another. Other families went into Therapy. Mine played Scrabble, I’m convinced it’s the only reason we stay together."
For me it eventually became too much. One day I looked at the 18 consecutive games I had going on at once, many of them with just two minutes at a time to play my word, and realised what that would look like if I actually had 18 people with 18 boards in the room with me. This moment of clarity gave me some perspective on how it had consumed my life. Thankfully a fortnight on the Mediterranean beckoned and I was able to have a genuine break.
The irony of all this computer generated interest is that as a new generation have come to enjoy the delights of competitive anagram solving online the board game has once again headed back to become the most popular board game in the UK. These are sales to people who have rediscovered the game or never even knew it was a physical board game in the first place. So whilst Monopoly continues to modernise with versions based on cities, TV shows and football clubs Scrabble, however you play it, remains the same. Now shake the bag and pull out a letter, nearest to A goes first.