Friday, April 9, 2010

Preserving Our Board Games

If you happened to be on the Internet sometime Tuesday morning or mid-afternoon, you might have noticed brief bouts of rage concerning the proposed rules to the new edition of Scrabble. Like most Internet flare-ups, the outcry was short and fierce, burning out within approximately twenty-hours after those pesky facts came out to calm everybody down. Still, as Google Trends will indicate, there was a brief period of time where everyone was very much concerned with the classic game of wordplay.


What was the fuss all about? Apparently, there's a game called Scrabble Trickster that is scheduled for release sometime this year, allowing for multiple rule changes. A poor press campaign combined with media incompetence meant that news sites failed to recognize the difference between "classic" Scrabble and Scrabble Trickster. As a result, reports shot across the Internet proclaiming that the sky was falling - proper nouns would be allowed in Scrabble.

The mess was cleared up by the end of the day, but for a few hours early Tuesday morning, an online version of a lynch mob of Scrabble enthusiasts was forming - egged on by quotes such as the following from the BBC: "The rules of word game Scrabble are being changed for the first time in its history to allow the use of proper nouns, games company Mattel has said." Other news sites implied that the rules change was part of a campaign to simplify the games in response to the decreasing lexical ability of Americans.

The Internet - clearly a bastion of linguistic prowess - responded with outrage. Twitter feeds and Facebook statuses crackled with indignation, and even CNN.com joined in the mockery, clearing up how many points one could get for playing "Jay-Z" (23, to be exact). The fact that the rules to "classic" Scrabble were not, in fact, changing, was out by the end of the day, but it inspired far less publicity.

So, first of all, what just happened? There are conspiracy theories abound, from the "New Coke" theory that Hasbro/Mattel is still planning to eventually ditch classic Scrabble, to the "Publicity Stunt" theory that the manufacturer deliberately obscured the difference between the two games just to get people talking about Scrabble. The most likely is the "Everybody Already Owns a Scrabble Board" theory, as Hasbro struggles to make money selling a product that is already a rainy day household staple across America.

But let's say that Hasbro/Mattel has the most noble intentions, and they merely want to release a new, fun-filled edition of a board game classic? Why all the ire? Why all the hate? For a few brief hours, the Internet was in a frenzy the likes of which had not been seen since Jericho was canceled.

Scrabble is not the only board game to experience such an update. In fall of 2006, a new version of Monopoly called "Monopoly Here and Now" was released, with American landmarks in place of the traditional Atlantic City streets, and - here's the kicker - the classic game pieces such as the iron and the thimble replaced with corporate icons like "Motorola Phone" and "McDonalds French Fries".

Even more damning, those elements of the Monopoly vocabulary that have become American icons -"Luxury Tax" and "Collect $200 for passing GO" were eliminated for embarrassing equivalents: "Interest on Credit Card Debt" and "Collect $2 million dollars for passing GO".

With Monopoly Here and Now, the rules are the same, but the game is entirely different. Even beyond the parameters of the game, there are certain Monopoly traditions that need to be respected - assigning gender roles to the game tokens (most men avoid the iron like the plague), arguing over what the real rules are as to Free Parking, trying to figure out whether or not anyone ever makes money off those damn utilities. Generations of families stricken with bad weather and cabin fever have debated these rules, and millions of variant "house rules" have sprung up (read about the "auctions" dictated in the "official" rules and tell me if you have ever met a single person who plays the game this way).

Similarly with Scrabble. Let's avoid the argument about what Scrabble Trickster says about the state of the American educational system, or our pop-culture addled minds that can't distinguish between words and brands. Part of the grand tradition of Scrabble involves arguing over what constitutes a word - especially with the no proper nouns, no foreign words stipulation. Is "aloha" a foreign word now that Hawaii is an American state? Is "yo-yo" a brand name, or has it morphed into a verb? Do onomatopoetic syllables like "er" and "ow" count? I've been involved with a fight with my high school friend for over five years about the legality of the word "yurt"; similarly, I just found out that "zen" is not in the official Scrabble dictionary, though I'm uncertain about the rationale. And I'm not even going to talk about the word "irid" and the memories associated with it.

I suppose that this is one of those times where I agree with the righteous anger of the Internet hive-mind. Scrabble Trickster will probably fade into oblivion the same as Monopoly Here and Now and Chess 3-D and Star Wars Trivial Pursuit and whatever the hell else those board game moguls come up with. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't get offended at their attempts to tinker with a masterpiece.

Monopoly
and Scrabble are both imperfect games, especially when compared to completely "fair" German-style board games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride, that utilize laws of game theory to maximize a player's potential to win. But the imperfections of Scrabble and Monopoly have roots going back to the Great Depression. There's a continuity in the fact that generations of Americans have struggled with the same arcane rules. The fun in playing these games only partially come from the game itself. It also comes from belittling your sister when she's dumb enough to buy Baltic Avenue, or trying to convince your friends that "fiesta" is an English word.

In our present day culture, the populace is ever-so-fractured with the large number of choices we have in movies, television channels, web sites, video games, and so on. So let's celebrate the prevailing monoculture of board games - there's only one Scrabble, only one Monopoly, and every bored eight-year old who played these once upon a snowy day has something in common. In a world marked by cultural fragmentation, that, if nothing else, should be preserved.