Friends, word-wranglers, trash-talking letter-tray fiends, lend me your virtual ears. I come to praise a new and powerful spokesman for our tribe of Words With Friends addicts: actor Alec Baldwin.
You may already have seen the news that Baldwin was booted off an American Airlines flight at LAX because, according to his tweets, he refused to stop playing Words With Friends while the plane waited an interminable age at the gate.
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I'm not trying to defend Baldwin's celebrity-fueled level of outrage -- which, according to a statement posted to American Airlines' Facebook page, included retreating to play in the toilet and slamming the door behind him. Nor do I want to get into the debate over whether federal regulations should allow us to use our electronic devices in a parked vehicle.
No, for those of us addicted to the same game, something else is happening here: a quiet nod of understanding.
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Yes, we've been there -- in some situation where that gentle trill, the unmistakable and thrilling sound of a Words With Friends move successfully completed, has singled us out and laid our addiction bare. Perhaps we've endured the eye-rolling of a spouse (those who haven't managed to get their spouses hooked yet), or muffled laughter from down the bar. You're playing what? For fun? Really?
Whatever. We're here, we're hooked on mining for 50-point words in the toughest letter trays, and -- as Baldwin was trying to tell us before his Twitter account got mysteriously deactivated -- you'd better get used to it.
Words With Friends sprung from a Texan startup called Newtoy in 2009. Thanks largely to the early success of this game, it was snapped up by online game powerhouse Zynga the following year. Initially an iPhone and iPad game, it soon spread to Android. Zynga added the ability to play your Facebook friends, then allowed you to play the game within Facebook itself as of August.
Why is it so popular? The first thing newbies need to know right off the bat: this is not Scrabble. Not only is the board significantly different, but the whole setup is much more relaxed. You can attempt as many moves as you like, and you don't lose your turn if the in-game dictionary nixes your word.
This gives it a much broader audience beyond word nerds -- or rather, it turns players into word nerds so gradually, they barely realize it's happening. All of us learn fairly quickly, for example, the usefulness of qi, za, xi and jo. Some of the best Words With Friends players I know have English as a second language.
Personally, one thing I could never stand about Scrabble was the time pressure. All the other players are staring at you, and you have to form the best words you can before they get too bored? I doubt even the best writers could avoid being paralyzed by that kind of scrutiny. Words With Friends removes the stares and the ticking clock. You have acres of time, whole days, to make your move when it suits you.
And that's the second penny that has to drop for newbies: because each individual game moves slowly, you get the most out of it if you have a lot of games on the go at any one time.
Relaxed as the setup is, some intense rivalries can develop as the days pass. My equally addicted wife tends to call it "Words With Frenemies." We seek vengeance for humiliating 100-point defeats in previous games. The chat window in many a game fills up with sputtering outrage at ridiculously high-scoring moves or a disabling plague of vowels. Many of the things said in that private forum would make Baldwin's lavatory-bound outburst sound like a milld tsk tsk.
There is, unmistakeably, something unique about this game. Zynga has tried to replicate its magic formula in Chess With Friends and Hanging With Friends. Neither have sustained the same levels of interest. Chess requires long-term strategic thinking that is hard to sustain when you haven't made a move in a week. Hangman, by contrast, is too simple and dull to last that long.
But something about the speed of Words With Friends just clicks. Not too easy, not too hard, enthralling and meditative: it's practically the definition of the Mihály Csíkszentmihályi concept of being in flow.
So know this, Alec Baldwin: we get you. We may not have slammed a lavatory door or been rude to a flight attendant, but we understand the intense desire to make one more blowout word. Now that you're in Twitter exile, self-imposed or otherwise, we wish you a lot more time to play.
This story originally published on Mashable here.
- Alec Baldwin