Opinionista Mandi Smallhorne 11 June 2013

Facebook Scrabble: More than just a game

Something quite extraordinary is happening just below the radar, unbeknownst to most people going about their daily lives – an outburst of grief and, in a strange way, a celebration of humanity.

As May drew to a close, hundreds of thousands of people on Facebook clicked onto a game they had come to rely on as a moment of relaxation, stimulation and distraction. To their shock, their familiar Facebook version of Scrabble, the word game, had vanished and been replaced by something lime-green and flashy. This was the ‘upgrade’ they’d been promised a week or two earlier – and like so many upgrades, the outcome was not quite what they expected.

Scrabble was played by many people who enjoyed matching themselves to others close to their own level of skill, so they could get a real game out of it. Thus a major complaint that arose immediately was that the new version (which, unlike the old, run by Gamehouse, was a product of EA) did not allow you to pick your own partner. It did not allow you to choose time limits (two minutes, five minutes, up to a day) over which moves must be made. Players battled to change the rather limited default dictionary. Moving the tiles was not as easy and convenient. And then there was the ‘Candy-crush’ look – one FB player responded with a picture of a Noddy car and this analogy:

I woke up this morning and my car looked like this… There was a note with it that said; ‘We’ve made various upgrades to your BMW, removed the roof and air conditioning, put a small clockwork motor in, you can sing as you drive, no need for that stereo and you’ll need to find a floppy blue hat with a bell on the end in order to drive it’. Regards, ea.com

But perhaps the most startling discovery of all was that overnight, all players had lost not only their stats built up, in many cases, over years, and their ongoing games, but also their opponents; people who had been playing each other for, in many cases, years, were suddenly cut off from each other. Scrabble players’ full names were never revealed, and unless you sought each other out and friended each other on FB, you would not be able to find each other again in a crisis like this. One player wailed, “Peter B.! I’ve been playing with him for nearly two years – how will I ever find a Peter B. again on Facebook?”

And it rapidly became apparent that Scrabble on Facebook had been much more than a game to many, more than a pleasant way to while away time or test your mental skills.

One man explained that he had been in the depths of a clinical depression which had cut him off from all human engagement some years ago. But he was still playing Scrabble. He exchanged a few comments with an opponent across the Atlantic in the USA, using the chat facility. One night, she asked him how he was. With a bit of nudging, he opened up to her. Today, this player is fine, thanks to his own efforts to get treatment and get better, but, he says, she “held my hand when I took those first steps”.

Many players, opening up on a number of FB pages campaigning to get their old game back, have responded with stories of their own. They make fascinating reading.

People speak of how FB Scrabble saw them through dark nights of the soul; or helped to distract them from their pain – this comes from people with auto-immune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and others. A few parents have said it helped them to cope with troubled children – children with autism and other demanding conditions.

People who are housebound due to age or disability expressed their appreciation of the lifeline to human contact Scrabble represented for them. “ I found that through the dark days I could always look forward to logging on and smiling when I saw the people I was playing against. It is like losing a member of the family,” wrote one player.

One woman wrote from Egypt, where she had lived through the Arab Spring and the hope of a better life that was disappointed afterwards. People lost their jobs en masse in the bad times that followed, and she was unable to find work, despite being highly qualified. “Scrabble was a way out…it made my mind work instead of sitting there and crying over the spilt milk! I met wonderful people from all over the world who later on became my new friends…”

The remarkable bonds forged across the globe between people in all English-speaking countries (including second-language ones like Pakistan and India) were revealed. One South African woman wrote of a Scrabble friendship she’d made with another woman in the Netherlands: “Over more than two years, we shared her grief when her father died and my struggle when my husband became seriously ill. How can I lose someone like this? But I’ve searched and searched and I can’t find her.”

A man in Britain heard from a friend, just after the earthquake in Christchurch, that she was unable to make contact with her daughter, then living in the area, and was desperately anxious. He happened to have a long-term Scrabble partner in Dunedin, who immediately assured him she would try to find the girl and give her a place to stay if need be.

“I spent six months on my back dosed up with god knows what, waiting for a date for surgery,” wrote a British man. “The FB Scrabble game kept me sane, I received so much support from so many of my opponents, many of whom sadly I have now lost touch with thanks to Mattel and the way they’ve destroyed our community.”

The response from Mattel, the license-holder of Scrabble and EA, the company which apparently developed this version, has been less than scintillating. Anodyne comments like this have done little but feed the rage and frustration of the thousands of players who have signed petitions and created angry FB pages: “Scrabble Fans, since the launch of the new Facebook Game, we have been listening to your feedback. We have made some updates to the game already and are continuing to work on improvements.” Given the level of anger – read Mattel’s Facebook page to get some idea! – this hardly seems appropriate. Many players also claim that they have been blocked after making angry comments – another epic marketing fail, surely.

If you did not play Scrabble on Facebook, you’d have no idea about this volcano of grief and anger. But I, for one, will be watching online for news of the protest to be held in Pontefract, UK, on 11 June. And with all my thousands of unlikely players-in-mourning around the world, I’ll be boycotting Scrabble and other Mattel products, waiting and hoping for ‘our’ game to return. DM


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