MEDIA WATCHER Mind games where the players go faceless

2013-08-18T00:00:00Z MEDIA WATCHER Mind games where the players go facelessBy Kathryn MacNeil
August 18, 2013 12:00 am  • 

I was born lacking the "perky" gene, and as a result, I've never been a big fan of playing games. Sure, my parents are quick to point out my brief flirtation with the board game "Hey Pa, There's a Goat on the Roof!" when I was a toddler in the sixties—but then again, everyone was experimenting in the sixties.

Any athletic expertise I possessed peaked with ping-pong and foosball in high school (both of which required me to essentially stand in one place and bend at the wrist). But I always enjoyed card games such as Solitaire and Hearts—which culminated in a torrid love affair with bridge a couple of decades later.

Bridge was the perfect game for me: it didn't require sweating, rolling dice, acting out movie titles, high-fiving or clapping (in fact, those activities are pretty much impossible when you're clutching a hand of carefully sorted cards). Instead, if you are good at sitting motionless for hours on end, politely sipping on beverages while psyching out your opponents, and refilling snack bowls on an hourly basis, you're pretty much a perfect candidate for bridge. Unfortunately, in this new millennium, friends who know how to play bridge are about as common as teenagers who voluntarily compose handwritten thank-you notes, so my skills have gone dormant.

The entire videogame revolution captured my children, naturally, but never managed to grab me; instead, in a burst of rebellion, I would dutifully put up a card table every Christmas break and sit the family down to an old-fashioned game of Scrabble. To sweeten the pot, I even bought the deluxe game board that spins, and an accompanying dictionary (which we never used, because no one was ambitious enough to propose an unusual word that would prolong the game any more than necessary).

And so it went, until my sudden acquisition of a smart phone. I had heard about "apps," but wrote them off as time-sucking novelties. (To be fair, I tried Angry Birds, but the pointless violence directed at cartoon pigs was a turnoff.) However, a few months ago, bored in the orthodontist's waiting room, I came across an app for a Solitaire game on my phone. Memories of heated Double Solitaire tournaments with my college roommate's boyfriend came flooding back, and I impulsively hit "download." And just like that, with the twitch of an index finger, I was hooked.

This portable entertainment device became my secret sanity-preserver. In the past, finding myself in the Target checkout line behind a Triple Threat (a woman with price checks, coupons and a crying baby) would have been cause for frantic checkout line remorse, but now I simply considered it "an opportunity to squeeze in another game."

Emboldened by the discovery of instant portable entertainment, I finally took the advice of a much-younger colleague and downloaded "Words with Friends," an electronic Scrabble game that is played against a remote opponent at your own pace. My conversion to the dark side was complete.

I became obsessed with the game. I challenged friends to more and more matches, because everyone plays differently. My daughter was hasty and angst-free with her choices, satisfied to slap down a 3- or 4-letter word and move on. Conversely, the colleague who turned me on to the game played with surgical precision, mindfully placing exotic words in point-maximizing grids. The pace of our game was glacial, often averaging a word a day, and there was no room for carelessness.

I even dusted off our old Scrabble dictionary, busting out words such as QURSH ("a monetary unit of Saudi Arabia") and TAMARI ("an aged soy sauce"). I haven't had the opportunity to use ZYZZYVA yet ("a tropical weevil"), but I eagerly await that jackpot. I'm slowly absorbing the lists of "Words that Contain Q Not Followed by U" (MBAQANGA, QANAT), "Useful Two-Letter Words" (NE, OE, SH, XI, ZA), and my favorite: "Words with No Vowels" (CWM, CRWTH, PHPHT, XYLYL). The entertainment possibilities for a "wordie" like me are endless.

I spent a Friday night (and when I say Friday night, I don't mean "evening," I mean all night) battling an old college friend. We knew it was ridiculous to forfeit an entire night's sleep over a word game (not to mention our chagrin over the fact that we had nothing better to do on a Friday night), but we were on a mission. My ever-patient husband even learned not to be alarmed when an eerie blue phone-glow lit up my side of the bed in the middle of a sleepless night. (When you have five games going at the same time, it's important to use your time wisely.)

Every once in a while, I consider getting out the old Scrabble board and going old-school again, but I can't help but wonder if face-to-face word games in the living room can compare to the thrill of laying down PLAYA and hitting "submit" from the comfort of my own bed at 3 a.m. Can you ever really go back?

I don't know the answer to that yet, but I have heard a rumor that there's an app for electronic bridge.

Game on.


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