Wednesday, August 11, 2010


OK, blog post about a game that is not WoW.

If you watch enough television you’ll get to see  some people playing Scrabble. And what happens in those television shows is always the same: one character will put down the 7 tiles he has, revealing something which is almost phonetically pronouncable but definitely not an actual word. Another character will then question the word, and . If the show is smart, another character will then use the made-up word later in the episode.

Red Dwarf has done it.

The Simpsons Did It, but then The Simpsons ALWAYS Did It. This does have the distinction of being from the first season, where Homer had the “Walter Matthau” voice. I don’t know whalt a Matthau is either.

It even crosses over into the iPhone Scrabble-based game “Words with Friends”.

TvTropes calls this a Kwyjibo after the Simpsons example. On a related note, Eddie Izzard describes any word that’s spelled with more letters than it’s pronounced (e.g. “through”) as “cheating at Scrabble”.

So why do I care if I don’t play Scrabble? Well, I’m interested in the cultural resonance this simple joke has with us. Neither I nor anyone I know is a fervid Scrabbler, but pretty much everyone I know has Scrabbled at some point in their life. And everyone’s had this experience of someone trying to claim a word that’s clearly made up. Typically it’s not quite as egregious as the seven-letter monsters in the above examples, but it’s definitely familiar. Why is cheating at Scrabble a meme when cheating at Monopoly, chess, or Risk aren’t?

My theory is this: Scrabble is TOO HARD for mass consumption. Most of us just don’t have the vocabulary that we’d need in order to make a game fast-paced and rewarding. My theory is that there are three types of Scrabble players:

  1. People who are actually good at and enjoy the game of Scrabble.
  2. People who coast by on 2 and 3 letter words until it’s blissfully over.
  3. People who cheat.

If you just pull two people into a Scrabble game at random, odds are pretty high that at least one of them won’t really be ready for it. I know that as a type 2 Scrabble player, I’d much rather be beaten by someone’s real word skills than play against someone who’s scribbling new words into the dictionary – or playing as badly as I do. In short, only playing agains a type 1 players is fun for me, a type 2. I would imagine that for most type 1s, playing against other type 1s is the most rewarding, but I don’t know for sure.

So what’s the solution? Scrabble should be seen as more of an elitist game, not a game that everyone has lying around the house. They’d sell fewer copies of it, but it would have a much better reputation – no longer being “that game where everyone cheats”. And then when someone says “Fancy a game of Scrabble?” I can say “No, sorry, I’m not really a Scrabble person” without them looking at me as though I’d said “No, sorry, I’m functionally illiterate.”

1 comment:

  1. I'm not much of a Scrabble person, but I have been playing Words-with-friends with my brother in Colorado, my dad in Alaska, and my wife sitting across from me on the couch. It won't let you cheat in the "make-up-words" sort of way, but there is plenty of testing letter combinations to see if they make something going on. But it is a fun way to stay connected.

    As for playing the board game, my last memory of it was playing with a #1 style player that was a stickler for the rules, but somehow snuck the word Texans in there for some major triple-word pointage. It wasn't till our friends had gone home that it dawned on me. In this case its a very literate person cheating, because the rest of us were too overwhelmed trying to get those 2 and 3 letter words. I also took heat for playing a two letter word that no one knew. As it turns out, Words-with-friends allows it. Go figure.