Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Scrabble, by any other name....

My Morning Jacket--"Wordless Chorus" (mp3)

STUDENT: hey mr b i just emailed you about the test, can i take it now

STUDENT: ill just take it and you decide what you want but it cxloses soon right

ME: Take it now where did you go I marked you absent

STUDENT: i sat in the library and studied for it...just took it matching pumbled mee

STUDENT: true and false i did alright tuff test

Bear with me. I will establish the relevance of the above conversation.

Like most Americans, I have a certain amount of disdain for any social trend that I am not a part of. Seen from the outside or from the distance of years, almost any fad looks stupid. Like culottes for women. But right now, I am absolutely in the thick of the "Words With Friends" craze that is sweeping through the ranks of anyone who has an Iphone or another way to play the game.

In case you don't know, it's Scrabble under another name. The difference is that instead of a family of four sitting on the living room rug with a bowl of popcorn in front of the fire, parents beaming at the words their children come up with but still making a point of beating them soundly, you play the game online, against an opponent from another phone, someone you know or don't. But the longer you play, the more you settle on people you know because those whom you've played pass your "Words With Friends" screen name around like a cheap whore. Especially if you're an English teacher. And, all of a sudden, you've got games lined up like jets waiting to take off at La Guardia.

What better bragging rights than beating your English teacher at a game of Scrabble-ish? Right?

The game is quite fun, more fun than Scrabble. It has a different kind of pacing, in some ways more like chess, in some ways, more like cards. Like chess, "Words With Friends" allows you to take your own sweet time. You can ponder a move as long as you want. You can look at the board, contemplate, shut it down, come back to it another time. Or another day. If it does have a "timer" at all, it's something like 5 days. I've never reached that.

Like poker, it is not about having the best "cards" aka letters, it is about knowing how and when to play them. It's not about winning one game. Sometimes you just don't get the letters and the opportunities on the board to rack up the points you need, and you fold. At first, you're desperate to win every game against every opponent, but then you get philosophical about it, then you appreciate the beauty of moves, yours or theirs, and you know that if you don't win, a new game can start immediately.

Today I played P-O-R-N for 55 points, even though the total letter value for those 4 letters is only 7 points. But get that P on a "Triple Letter Score" tile and that N on a "Triple Word Score" tile and cozy those letters up against letters already on the board to make smaller sidewords and all of a sudden, they start adding up. The other day, I played J-A-N-E for 102 points, using the same strategy.

And, believe it or not, "Words With Friends" is the latest social network. I am playing with former students, colleagues, a godson, students from my class, current students I've never met, my daughters. So far. But that doesn't make it a social network, you say. That just makes it a game. The funny thing is when your phone makes that special noise telling you that one or more of your opponents have made a move, it's almost like they're calling you, almost like you have a connection. I am in touch with people that I was not in touch with.

But there's more to it than that. The conversation you see at the top of this post, which happened last night, is a first for me, the crossing of a barrier. There is a place in each game of "Words With Friends" where you can leave messages, exchange taunts, whatever. But last night, as you can see, that message board became a way for a student to communicate with his teacher. It's weird, I know, but, more and more, it's probably going to be the way with everything. It's smart, too, since I happen to be beating that student by about 150 points and he may be thinking that if he contacts me within the game, I'll take pity on him.

I know I'll tire of "Words With Friends," maybe even soon. It's a fad, like most things related to the Internet. Maybe by the time you get into the game, I'll look at your opening move with the jaded condescension of a chess master. But for now, it's healthy competition, it's a way for teenagers and adults to connect, and it's a lot of fun to take that phone out before I go to bed and to get all of my games up to date. But, if I forget to turn the phone off, it will make that special noise about 2:45AM or 5:37AM or when I know a student is in someone else's class. By the way, that person in the stall next to you fiddling with his or her phone is probably playing me.


goofytakemyhand said...

This is hell for Goofy, who does not own one of these new-fangled cellular phones that do stuff other than talk, but is one of the top tournament Scrabble players in Tennessee. Anyone need a Words With Friends ringer?

Hank said...

I'm currently playing 14 games and can hardly keep up. Yet, my first thought when I see somebody bust out an I phone is, "I hope he plays Words with Friends".

safil said...

Reason #421 I haven't bought my smartphone yet, even though I said I was waiting for the Verizon iPhone to come out. I don't need more productivity threats. I'm so easily distracted I'm thinking right now that Paul McCartney had a song called Distractions on his 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt.

troutking said...

Reason #421 I haven't bought my smartphone yet, even though I said I was waiting for the Verizon iPhone to come out. I don't need more productivity threats. I'm so easily distracted I'm thinking right now that Paul McCartney had a song called Distractions on his 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt.

troutking said...

I'm also so easily distracted I typed in my verification code as my identity.

Bob said...

Trout, what is this word "productivity" that you speak of?

By the way, if you played it straight up (you'd have to do it in two parts--product and then ivity), it would be worth at least 24 points, but on the board, oh, so much more than that. Good word. Thanks.

Hank said...

Thankfully, I play on my Ipod which does not connect to the internet at school. This slows games down, but actually lets me get a little work done during the day. That doesn't stop my from thinking about quality Q and Z words, but it isn't as bad as playing.

rodle said...

I do love being invited by current or former students to a game, but multiple matches is making it feel somewhat of a chore. Sort of like those days my Tivo menu reveals that I'm three weeks behind on watching "Community" or "30 Rock". WWF is also seriously cutting into my time on Angry Birds and Fragger.

Daisy said...

Love this post! Words with Friends is my newest addiction and it has reconnected me to some old friends in an odd way.

TommyD said...

You sound like Mildred with her Seashell from Fahrenheit 451. Free yourself Bob.
(how many points would you get for "Rammestein?")

Bob said...

Tommy, I swear I can quit anytime I want to.

TommyD said...

touché, but only if you're really addicted.

troutking said...

Side note: On that Paul album is a song called Put It There, which is one of the most touching father-son songs I've heard.