The Scrabble(ulous) Problem

My wife, Sara, and I used to play a lot of Scrabble. When we moved into our current house, I noticed that we actually had three copies of the official Scrabble Dictionary. Sara’s quite competitive and would spend some time scouring the two-letter words, and memorizing them. (Her favorite play is dropping two letters for a zillion points, I actually think she gets an adrenaline rush from it).

One of the best parts about Scrabble, for me, has always been the discovery of new words. The “that’s not a word!” reaction, followed by the shuffling of pages. The inevitable pause and pronouncement, and definition. (I love language, and as a geek-kid, thought that William F. Buckley was as entertaining as anyone on television. Big Nabokov fan too!)

When Scrabulous appeared on Facebook, it allowed us to extend our fascination in a time-shifted manner, but… the Medium is the Message, and the Internet is not your living room. Scrabulous has a small feature that allows you to validate words before you play them. The validations are binary and empty of context. They tell you, yes that is a word, or no. If the answer is yes, there is no definition telling you what the word “vug” might mean. EA/Hasbro is repeating the pattern with their “authentic” licensed version of Scrabble that mimics the Scrabulous look-up features, albeit slow, bloated and over-designed.

Being able to look up a word before you play it, in the solidarity of your personal, unsupervised, experience is a slippery slope. A few key-strokes and a click on Google and you can find sites like More Words and Wordplay that eliminate much of the guess work. You plug in your rack letters and a few other options, and you get a list of words, ranked by points (again, no context or meaning associated with the words).

While Scabble purists would consider this cheating, there is no doubt, that not unlike speed-loaders in paint-ball, this is the next logical step of the word-lookup function provided to all players in Scrabulous.

If both players are using these tools, the dynamic of the game is changed, the context shifts from being about “meaning” to strategic positioning on the board. It’s more like multi-player Sudoku. Carry the the technology to the next logical step and you get Scrabulizer, a full board analysis tool, that not only gives you lists of points, but will also rank words by their strategic value! At this point, the base assumptions of Scrabble completely break down, there is no skill. It becomes an automated version of tic-tac-toe.

The tragedy of all this is social-learning context has been lost, because the fundamental assumption about Scrabble is you are sitting in a room, around a table, with other people and a dictionary. It has the same ritual dynamic, values and processes as Bridge, Poker, Gin, or any other trust-managed table games. The ‘evil’ Scrabulizer riffs on their own idea with puzzles, but again context is lost.

The opportunity online is to TAKE ADVANTAGE of the contextual nature of the Internet. How about a game that gives you a choice of words, Many accurate, and many made-up words. All the words presented would have very real sounding definitions. Choosing the right word would gain you points, choosing the wrong word could cost you. Add a time-base to minimize furtive Googling, and voila, the context of word-discovery is back!

Game makers need to understand that the web is it’s own Medium. Simply porting games is not a good long term strategy.


  1. W.Wetzker says

    I have a question..
    Have u scrabble in German??
    Or the game Keyword??..
    Its verry interrstet for me to learn englisch …

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