July 1st, 2017

Not only a game

Of all the things I thought I would be doing after I retired, I never expected that playing an internet game would be one of them. We all know these things can be addictive but I jumped at the chance to play a word game with my son when he introduced me to Words with Friends, an app based version of Scrabble with some important differences. Exactly what these differences are I would learn as I played, first with my son and daughter, and later with a friend who knew a lot more about the game than I did.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I think I am pretty good at word games. Like many of my generation, I started with Scrabble when I was a kid. You all remember Scrabble, don’t you?  It came with a board, a bag of smooth wooden tiles, and wooden racks on which each player would place seven tiles drawn sight unseen from the bag.

Each tile was imprinted with a letter and a small number indicating its point value. The more common the letter, the lower its point value, so most vowels were worth one point while the coveted Zs and Qs each netted ten. There were special squares that doubled or tripled the value of individual letters or entire words and they were prime real estate for the serious player.

The object of the game was to score the most points by making words that built on your opponent’s in a crossword puzzle arrangement. The dictionary was used only to settle a dispute if you suspected either a spelling mistake or a bluff in your opponent’s use of a word that sounded good but didn’t seem to refer to anything in particular. If you challenged the move and won, then your opponent lost his turn.

We played Scrabble face-to-face, as we did most things in those days without the benefit of digital audio, video and text.

As any game player knows, you can learn a lot by looking your opponent in the eye or noticing the tension in his face as he strains to repress a smile struggling to break out in anticipation of his next killer move.

We talked to each other, commenting on the game and sharing the kind of random thoughts and jokes that accumulate over time like bits of shape and color to form a mosaic of who we were. And we did it all without describing what we were doing on the internet. We just were and that was more than enough.

With parents who weren’t much into board games and no brothers or sisters to challenge, I played Scrabble, as I did most things, with my best friend who lived a mile away. We played hard but we were kids and not very sophisticated at the game.

Putting down the word “Zoo” on a triple word space was almost a guarantee of victory. We needed no specialized vocabulary but made do with the Zs, Xs and Qs that were there in our everyday language. The years brought other Scrabble players and other games. There were card games in high school and college, and family games like Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, Life, and, one of my all-time favorites, Scotland Yard.

One player was the elusive Mr. X who moved invisibly around a map of London, while the others were the detectives who tried to capture him, following clues consisting only of the record of his transportation on buses, taxis, and the underground.

Given my history with games, I naturally expected Words with Friends to be very much like the Scrabble I knew of old. For the most part, it is except when it isn’t. The game will not let you play a combination of letters that is not a word, thus eliminating spelling errors, bluffing and challenging the dubious constructions of your opponent.

An extensive dictionary is also built into the game so you can actually learn something by looking up the meaning of words that you make through trial-and-error. A messaging feature even lets you talk to your opponent as the game unfolds, doing the best digital technology can manage to create a real interaction. No, it’s not the real thing, but when friends and family are scattered across the country, I’ll take it.

Remember, I said I was pretty good at word games. My son knows this but, undaunted, he hit me with “Qi,” which netted him a bundle of points and taught me about the vital life force in Chinese medicine thought to be regulated by acupuncture.

A challenge from a friend prompted my usual warning but, after a few games with my son, I wasn’t so sure. My friend had been playing for years and one look at the online stat sheet available for all players told me that I was the one who should have been warned. Now I was introduced to Ki, the Sumerian goddess personifying earth, to Xu, a Vietnamese coin, and to a host of other powerful words that could win a game if played the right way.

Last week, I sat with a man in the hospital, listening and speaking the words of psychotherapy with the help of an interpreter. Far from his home on the other side of the world, he explained how he stays in touch with his family and friends with Face Time and the exchange of text messages.

These connections sustain him through the challenges of his illness and difficult life circumstances that keep him in the hospital. Later that day while I was driving home, my phone pinged to announce the arrival of another word from my son, my daughter or a friend. As always it came as a response, a challenge, and a bridge across the miles just to say hello. And now it was my turn.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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