[Cross-published on The Huffington Post]
Though I've somehow ended up as a professional writer, I never
Scrabble as a kid. I found it too wonky, or maybe I just had too small
an attention span—when I had free time from music or words, I preferred
to let my mind rest. Figuring out the exact place to drop a word
like "fanworts" so that I could "achieve a righteous bingo," as my
school's Scrabble fanatics liked to say, didn't seem like fun to me. I
preferred smashing tennis balls. Or figuring out my taste in film.
But then, a few months ago, I began writing an article about social networks, which led, of course, to joining Facebook. I don't blame anyone else for what ensued. But yes, like most of America, I became quickly obsessed with the devilish social network, rife with time-wasting "apps," especially because I had a lot of time on the road, in isolation. Far be it for me to read more than I had to read for work: I could figure out what German philosopher I think like—well, according to whatever college sophomore created the personality quiz of the day (these were and reamin hardly trustworthy exams of one's values, but that's what's kind of fun about them--OK, not fun, but pleasantly distracting).
But with Facebook came a more virtuous diversion: Scrabulous, an interactive way to play a "scrabble"-like word game--a take on the form--with your "friends" wherein you were also given a list of all the geeky two-letter words acceptable to the dictionary and a game board that wouldn't allow you to throw down an invalid word. As well as a way to look some words up should your vocab need a little jumpstart. In fact, you could even throw down a word you didn't know as long as it worked. Say, "amu": the name I gave myself as a toddler. Apparently, "amu" is a word, according to Scrabulous dictionaries, which are close but a little looser than Scrabble dictionaries. I use "amu" all the time now. And I still haven't bothered looking it up. I've also used the word "speedo" much to my editor-friend's chagrin. And I'm not cheating. This is the scrabble-like variation for me, I decided. I can play this. I can use it to reconnect with true, far-flung friends. And I can win at it! [S]crabble--the form, not the product--is finally fun for me.
But today I learned of an extremely sad if predictable piece of news. Reuters is reporting that Mattel, the corporation that has the rights to Scrabble, the product, outside the U.S. and Canada, has asked Facebook to remove its Scrabulous application. Hasbro, Inc., the company that holds the U.S. and Canadian rights wasn't mentioned in the story. But I'm sure they won't be far behind.
the makers of Scrabulous, which can be played over the Internet or
through e-mail—i.e. you don't need to use Facebook to play it—were
aware of the inevitability of such a problem. But I don't see how it can't be
rectified much in the same way that a thousand companies make Tetris-like
clones. Does a company that owns the rights to Scrabble own the rights
to the idea of the word game?
According to Wikipedia—purveyor of all accurate information (ahem)—Scrabble is also known as: "Alfapet, Funworder, Skip-A-Cross, Spelofun and Palabras Cruzadas" throughout the world. In fact, when Alfred Mosher Butts invented the game in 1938, he created a challenge based on another: an older word-related game he had fashioned called "Lexico." It was then sold to a Connecticut lawyer, then to other game manufacturers. (Parker Brothers rejected the game!). And it's even been a daytime gameshow hosted by none other than Chuck Woolery.
My point? It's part of popular culture, a recipe that can be
reinterpreted like a pot pie. And now no one can own the idea of the
Maybe certain companies own the rights to Scrabble's name and certain
words for techniques used in that official game product. But at this
point in time, this
word game we're discussing should be considered a public-domain
challenge. Much in the way a crossword puzzle isn't owned by anyone.
[S]crabble is a form—it has become a form. It isn't just something you
can buy. And you
can't claim ownership to a form. Well, you could try, but that just
wouldn't be cool. Intellectual property here is a rather vague matter,
and I'm glad in this instance.
Expectedly, upon hearing this news, many of my friends contacted me,
including one prominent computer software executive: What are you going
to do now? she asked. She knew of my obsession. My answer? Create a
Facebook group promoting a new way to play and to fight Mattel. Scrabulous has certainly
brought me a lot of time-killing joy over the last few months. But it's
also given me a whole new and improved way to procrastinate, which is
part and parcel of the writer's trade. In the past, when I was trying
to avoid work, I'd watch a film, play a sport, or sit by my pool
listening to music. I might even sit and do nothing. And that's not the
same as meditate. I'd rarely engage my mind in anything productive. But
Scrabulous has given
me a way to procrastinate that makes me a better thinker and writer. I
can now drop
"fanwort," "luteolin," or any of my recent lucky bingos into
conversation and yes, my current writing assignments. I also think it's
sharpening my logic at a time when the Internet and even some of my
work is dismantling it.
Sure, I'm the most unlikely Scrabble devotee you're ever going to
meet. But that's exactly why the scrabble-challenge-loving community
should heed my
call. It's the form we love, and the online version of this game only
builds love for that. In fact, I now want to play the official board
with friends when I have free time. I'm more likely to purchase a
fancy, branded Scrabble set. But if Scrabulous leaves Facebook—leaving
me to answer one more ridiculous personality quiz (let's be honest:
these aren't making me happier or smarter) or to send one more
virtually hatching egg gift to a person I see every day--I may not want
continue this new love affair with word games. It's that tenuous, this
love affair. It's hanging by a virtual string.
Left to my own devices by the demise of Facebook Scrabulous, I may just retreat to the procrastination of yesteryear and rarely desire to do anything that a lazy writer didn't used to do when he was trying to avoid the next assignment. I may turn to some far-less self-improving activity. I may look for answers in the (pomegranate juice) bottle. In public conversations. Or in a Wii! So let's band together and fight. If we don't, it will be a longstanding shame. For my readers, Scrabble, and for thousands of other virtually social, procrastinating writers me.