Journal Archives
« Haiku | Main | Three Seasons in One Day »

Double Word Score

I’ll admit to sometimes taking a game a bit too seriously. Baseball, for instance—which its detractors might view as an old-fashioned, languid pastime, but which I would defend as a compelling living parable played out over nine (or more) innings. 

A good game, after all, is more than just fun; it is at its heart a kind of moral exercise, requiring all who participate to abide by an established code of conduct. Within a set of ground rules, we test ourselves against our opponents—and, more importantly, ourselves—and learn determination, compassion, and fair play. We taste victory; we taste defeat. We find that attitude and aptitude win the day—except when fortune decides otherwise. Psychology, sociology and ethics all rolled up into one. In the end, you make the most of what you’ve got, and it’s a pretty good metaphor, all around.

All this to say that I’m rather disappointed to learn that Scrabble, that venerable game of criss-cross wordplay, will be changing its official rules to allow, for the first time ever, proper names. The first sets with the newly-relaxed rules will ship this summer.

Ostensibly, this would be a positive step—making the admittedly old-school game more appealing to a broader and younger audience. But it’s hard not to see this as the dumbing down of yet another cultural institution, albeit a trivial one.

There’s a certain purity to the game I always admired, a quiet affirmation of words for their own sake. And, as a writer, I always found it incredibly gratifying to hold that tray of wooden letters—elemental as runes or glyphs—and try to coax words out of them. I would imagine this same sort of appreciation for raw material from an architect taking the weight of bricks or stones in hand, or a chef assessing the color, texture and aroma of farm-fresh produce.

Well, then. Part of the trouble, as I see it, is that sometimes—in life, in games—you’re simply dealt a hand that’s difficult to play within the framework of the rules. (That’s why the Q and Z in Scrabble are worth the full 10 points, after all.) With the greatly expanded universe of legal words comes a great deal of wiggle room. Ho hum.

But more troubling is to imagine what the thinking behind the decision must be—that opening up the game to the celebrities and brand names that define (or, at least, that marketers think define) the culture of younger generations somehow makes it more appealing to them. It reminds me of a passage from the preface of The Green Hour, which relates how the Oxford Junior Dictionary recently dropped everyday nature terms like dandelion and violet and replaced them with technological terms such as database and voicemail—but, again... to describe the world for today's children, or to define it?

I'm not naive; the game, the dictionary—both ultimately are simply products to be marketed. But those products trade in words, even if their makers seem to have forgotten just how powerful words can be.


For more, see Game Changer: Scrabble Amends the Rules : NPR