When normcore gamers got their own crisis

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Just as the farrago known as #gamergate was surfacing in public consciousness last month, another group of gamers were undergoing their own crisis.

#Scrabblegate, then, never got a hashtag. That’s probably for the best. Calling it a -gate would have flustered its fans, who don’t really like to create public drama around their private obsession, about which we — I’m one —insist on staying in denial.

Scrabblers are just as compulsive as they next gamer; they’re just highly sheepish about their compulsion.

Network Error. There seems to be a problem connecting to Facebook.

Myself, I panicked. I refreshed and refreshed. Deleted and downloaded the app again; changed various settings. But there was no mistaking it. All the Scrabble games I had going against Facebook friends were on hold — and someone easily could mistake my absence from my games for a forfeit! These could count as losses and — that would wreck my stats!

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I received nervous and then frantic email and Facebook messages from my regular opponents. Had their iPad failed? Should we find another way to play? Should we — perish the thought —defect to Words with Friends (an app many love but that deviates just enough from standard Scrabble to seem like heresy to me)?

This really was, by rights, a -gate, calling attention to how entrenched and ubiquitous the game-app habit had become. As the company that partnered with Hasbro to make mobile Scrabble, Electronic Arts knows this gigantic silent-majority market well: Last year EA Mobile games (the Sims, Need for Speed, Bejeweled, FIFA) were downloaded fully 600 million times.

Six-hundred million downloads means that we mobile-app gamers just are gamers, whether we admit it or not. And whether we play the part or not. Normcore gamers, to be sure, are your grandmother, your accountant, the book-club ladies. They’re the ones who seem to be “texting” or “doing email” (as some moms say), but are in fact playing Scramble, Bejeweled, Scruzzle — and, of course, when it’s working, Scrabble. And they’re also the ones who freak out when their games aren’t available.

Normcore gamers are often seen as descendants of the Tetris addicts of the 1980s and ‘90s: a group of unlikely players — many of us women — thrilled to distraction by the record-breaking, popular, colorful, abstract puzzle whose name combined “tetra” and “tennis,” and which was created by a Soviet designer, Alexey Leonidovich Pajitnov, working for no royalties or glory at the Dorodnicyn Computing Centre of the Academy of Science of the USSR, in 1984. (No less.) By 2010 — Pajitnov started seeing some royalties in ‘96 — Tetris had sold more than 170 million copies, making it the most successful paid-download game of all time.

Tetris was no World of Warcraft, Call of Duty or Halo. It did not have lifelike graphics, role-playing, violence, a point-of-view or a world — unless you count the four-sided squares that come to dominate the field of vision and the waking and dreaming mind of the true Tetris fanatic.

In this way, Tetris is like Scrabble: a world of tiles. And interestingly, Scrabble — in hard copy — has done near-Tetris numbers: 150 million sets sold globally. About one third of American homes own a Scrabble set. That’s astounding. That’s chess-levels of penetration for a board game.

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Photo: Megazord/Flickr.

Scrabble, the board game, was invented by Alfred Mosher Butts, an out-of-work architect, in Jackson Heights, Queens, in 1938. Its name means “to frantically scratch.” Butts managed to capture capitalism’s upside less cannily even than did Pajitnov, his Soviet gamesman counterpart. He sold the game to James Brunot, scoring royalties on each unit. When the game was too hot for Brunot to distribute himself, he sold Scrabble to Sechow and Righter, a big-time game manufacturer, who wrote the inventor out of the deal.

Although Scrabble and the retirement community that is latter-day Facebook should have a perfectly symbiotic relationship, filled with moms and other cornballs, they do not. In fact, Facebook and Scrabble have been historically at odds. Early in its rise, Facebook offered a Scrabble-like game as a third-party app called Scrabulous. Hasbro, which then owned all rights to Scrabble, came stomping in — as the Web world of 2008 saw it — and filed, on July 24, 2008, a very non-Internetty copyright infringement lawsuit against the fledgling social network. Less than a week later, Scrabulous — which was in those days a huge draw to Facebook — was shut down for users in North America. Many Scrabulous devotees quit Facebook in protest.

While Hasbro and Mattel squabbled over Scrabble-on-Facebook, games like Lexulous and then Words with Friends varied the rules of Scrabble, and popped up on Facebook to grab the market share. They were good games. But many of us sat them out, content to play the Scrabble board game rather than detour from the familiar 20th-century interface and rulebook inherited from Alfred Mosher Butts.

That all changed in 2013, when EA, the massive and seemingly unerring games company, adroit at winning the confidence of sterling franchises (including Tetris) and based in Redwood City, WA, swooped in with a Facebook-compatible Scrabble app, true to the 3D interface, that let you choose opponents from among your friends and play in time-shifted turns on the mobile app.

I downloaded the app that May, and watched my life change.

. . .and every bit as addicted. When mobile Scrabble, using Facebook connections, was unplayable, suddenly, on October 15, I felt bereft. My mental cigarette wouldn’t light. I couldn’t reach my opponents. Facebook and Scrabble had fallen out again.

Evidently — as Rebecca Nilsen, Scrabble’s senior producer at EA, explained later — Facebook had discovered a vulnerability in the Facebook Connect protocol, and had sought to tighten Connect’s security. They’d done so without alerting the so-called “third-party apps” that let you join through Facebook, and use Facebook’s social infrastructure. (More than 50% of mobile Scrabblers use Facebook Connect.) Something in this fix severed ties with mobile Scrabble, and EA had to overhaul the Scrabble app to accommodate it.

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According to the company, on October 15, on its Facebook page: “We are investigating the issues with connecting to Facebook. While we diagnose and fix the issue you can continue to play games vs. random opponents, against the computer and pass n’ play matches.”

Random opponents! What? Who cared about those games with faceless people who were never any good, with names such as Brad D. ? And Pass ’n Play! That’s a worse-than-3D version of the game where you pass a phone or tablet back and forth so no one sees the others’ letters. With Pass ’n Play you really feel the shortcoming of 2D screens, with no depth with which to shield a rack of letters.

Scrabblers howled in pain on the Scrabble EA Facebook page. Can’t do this to me on my birthday!” wrote Philip Wojtuskiak. I’m going through withdrawal!!!!” wrote Rae Osborn. “The shakes are starting,” “Glad it’s not just me,” “Going into depressive mode”: the dopesick responses came fast and furious.

Scrabble EA played it very, very cool. Too cool. They should have thrown various things our way —some kind of “free bingo” thing? At least a way to connect to our community and be sure our win-loss record and our number-of-bingo stats were intact — but instead they posted scant bulletins saying they were fixing the problem with Facebook Connect. They subtly blamed Facebook.

Later, though, Nilsen issued a statement: “The players are our number one priority, and we’re humbled and inspired by the incredible passion of Scrabble fans on smartphones and tablets….When we discovered an issue related to an updated Facebook Connect protocol, it was all hands on deck to quickly update the app across all platforms, get them through quality assurance, and republish them to the app stores in a matter of days.”

And she’s right: On October 24, the fix was in. iOS users had to download the Scrabble app anew from the App Store, but once in place, it could be played with Facebook friends, as in days of old. The Scrabble Facebook pages should have been covered with huzzahs but it wasn’t. Instead, Kindle users and Google Play types and those without the latest iOS update were still fretting about the update. Hundreds of players rolled in on every Scrabble EA post to complain about delays in the fix “populating,” or the loss of their preview stats, or — the worst — games lost to forfeiture.

Finally, Scrabble gamers did not sound like gentlemen and ladies. They sounded like addicts deserted by their dealer. They sounded pissed off.

Connie Maree-Maude put it more simply still:Still not working so I guess u didnt fix it properly!!!”

Finally someone said about the outraged Scrabblers what I’d been thinking: “The irony of all the poor spelling in these complaints is amusing.” Then infighting began.

And with that — a bad glitch, a fight with the makers, outrage, infighting — we Scrabblers had become true gamers. We could no longer pretend we are merely analog-era wordsmiths, still in love with our 20th-century Sunday-afternoon past time, which we now incidentally play remotely on a mobile device. Instead the glitch revealed how clearly Scrabblers, like other gamers, like entire markets and professions, could be sidelined by a grinding of gears among some of the tech giants that run the economy, including Facebook and EA and Hasbro. (Hasbro not a digital company? Think again: Today it seems poised to buy Dreamworks Animation and, as Lego has, to embrace its role as much, much more than a “toymaker.”)

Becoming fully digital happens population by population. And becoming conscious of that transition, accepting the consequences of what Nicholas Negroponte twenty years ago called “being digital,” often requires a simple snafu, like the breakdown between Scrabble and Facebook Connect, which outed millions as gamers and as digital dependents, reliant for their habits and even well-being on the money-culture-code nexus known as the Internet.

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