These are trying times. A microscopic virus has transfixed the nation in fear. Our parents and grandparents are at risk, even as the government shares mixed messages about what is safe. Institutions of all kinds must step up and preserve the American way of life against the viral threat.
One institution has failed us. Scrabble.
In 2009, Hasbro the owner of Scrabble, licensed it for mobile play to Electronic Arts. EA’s app is a staid, simple, easily played, and diverting version of the classic board game. It looks like this:
(Why yes, that is me scoring 149 points in one turn for “REVALUES.” A fairly typical play for me, actually.)
Who plays this silly game? Word nerds and old people. I don’t do Candy Crush. I don’t do Fortnite. I don’t even do Words With Friends. I do Scrabble. My opponent is the app itself in Expert mode. The Scrabble app is quite an opponent; it never makes a mistake or misses an opportunity, and its vocabulary includes words you’ve never heard of. (“Squeg?” “Dogvane?” Every day brings an opportunity to learn a new word.) Even so, I often beat it, because of superior strategy, or because by random chance I get the Z, Q, X, and J.
In the time of Coronavirus, Scrabble is a crucial resource. I need a challenging intellectual diversion that has no political agenda, one that will wait patiently as I puzzle things out. I Scrabble before going to bed, and before dinnertime as I relax from the day’s work.
The Scrabble app also essential for my mother, who needs something to occupy her mind during my father’s cancer treatments and at other stressful times of day. (She’s awesome at it, by the way — she’ll clean your clock.) When you are 85 years old and the authorities are telling you to stay shut up in your house, Scrabble is more than a diversion. It is an essential coping tool.
My mother and I are not alone. Millions of people want something other than flashing lights, flickering Instagram, and angry news headlines to divert us. Scrabble is like the voice of Alex Trebek — calm, authoritative, and intelligent, reassuring us that the world remains sane and that we can take comfort in something trivial but engaging. We need this now.
But Scrabble is going away.
Stop Scrabble GO
Those of us who play the Scrabble app received this message a few weeks ago:
So I gave the new Scrabble GO app a try.
It is an obscenity, characterized by childish interactions, lurid colors, nagging reminders to invite your friends to play, and some sort of incentive system based on (gag) jewels you can earn.
Yup. They gamified a perfectly good word game.
After some diligent digging, I determined there was a “Practice” mode that does not require an opponent. It is well hidden. You play against “Zooey,” a white girl with brown hair and an unnaturally large head. Zooey is an airhead. She is no challenge at all; she’s a complete novice. And in practice mode, if you attempt to make a word that’s not actually a word, the board lights up in red to warn you off. This renders the game puerile.
I understand that it’s about money. But Scrabble GO is doomed to fail. It’s an ironic choice of name, since it’s not even worth playing on the toilet.
Those who like sparkly games have plenty of other choices that don’t require literacy and accurate spelling.
Our lives are about to be bad. Very bad. We will be shut up in our houses, especially the oldest and sickest of us. They just cancelled much of the baseball season, which was our other staid, boring, intellectual pastime. Some of us don’t want to grab the game controller and blast holes in people with a shotgun. We don’t want to stream the entire run of Seinfeld or Star Trek (or, like me, we already did). We certainly don’t want Zooey and her sparkly pink, purple, and chartreuse travesty of our beloved word game.
The old Scrabble app will be the only thing keeping us from cabin fever, tearing each others’ limbs off, and the inevitable swell of toxic, family-threatening sarcasm. (“Those sweatpants and slippers are so flattering. It’s too bad you can’t go out and show everybody how stylish you look. And smell.”)
Someday I hope to play QUIXOTRY across two triple word scores. But now that day may never come. Instead, we will need to choose between dying, our lungs filled with fluid, and living with purple sparkles and an opponent too stupid to play XU and XI crosswise on the same bonus square.
Death is inevitable. Hasbro, reverse your course. Save humanity. You have our fate in our your hands. Don’t kill the old app. Or else we’ll all go insane.
Update (8 May 2020): In a separate post, I’ve written an analysis of what will happen to Scrabble, my experiences with Scrabble GO, and a promising alternative.