I was worried enough about the pandemic in the days leading up to our campus closing that I could feel my mind going to a very worrying place. For all the challenges I’ve faced after Mom’s passing, I could at least formulate some vague notion of the advice she’d give me if she were here in the flesh, even if they were challenges she never faced herself. A global pandemic that shuts so much of daily life down is something that neither she, nor even her parents, had to face, and as much as I’ve missed her these past three and a half years, it’s hard not to feel some sense of relief that she didn’t have to navigate all the craziness caused by COVID-19, both around the world and in our neighbourhoods. Still, as with so many of these challenges, I can’t help wishing that she were physically here to provide me some small comforts.
For all the wonderful graphical and musical and gameplay things I can do with the Playstation 4 that I bought last November, I’ve spent more time playing old-time games on it — Boggle, Trivial Pursuit, Uno, Monopoly, and Scrabble — than I have any of the newer games I’ve acquired. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that had a pandemic like this struck when I was young, and I’d been confined to the house for weeks on end, those are the games that Mom would have played with me to help keep me occupied. If nothing else, I have happy memories of playing these games with her, and I need all the happy memories I can get at this point.
Scrabble may hold an extra-special place for me, just because it’s the only board game we played with her parents when they were still alive. Just like watching game shows when I was very young made me want to learn math, I think Scrabble elevated my interest in learning as many words as possible. I was never that good of a player when I was younger — I still remember fixating on trying to make “QUIZ” on a triple-letter and triple-word score in every game, because trying to do things like that when you’re little can sap all your attention away from learning how to actually play the game well — and even in her later years, Mom probably could have beaten me. We got her a CD-ROM version of the game in the nineties, and up until her eyesight totally failed her, she could whip the computer’s butt with ease. Even after father died, and all the turmoil that caused her, she’d still go up to his office to keep playing the game, until she finally couldn’t read the letters on the computer screen any longer.
I used to play Yahoo!’s old Java version of Scrabble when I was in college, and I dabbled a little in Words With Friends after I got my first tablet eight years ago, but I hadn’t played the proper, official version of Scrabble for over a decade when I finally bought the PS4 version a couple of months ago. I was rusty as all get-out, but I quickly picked the game back up, and I’ve found myself able to perform a lot better than I ever have before. I’ve only ever found two other human players to play against online — Scrabble isn’t exactly the kind of game most people buy a modern video game console for — but the computer keeps me entertained, especially when it keeps showing me an A-level vocabulary but D-level positional play.
Lately, though, I’ve found it harder to enjoy playing Scrabble, simply because I’m getting frustrated at the choices made about what words are allowed and what words aren’t. I recognize that making these decisions is tough, and it’s not a job that I’d ever want (unless the annual pay was in the low-six figure range or higher), but when I see three words from a non-English language allowed on the board when the computer plays them, but I get denied a word from the same language (especially when it’s used much more commonly in American parlance than the computer opponent’s words), that can get aggravating.
Beyond that, though, the Scrabble dictionary is just filled with inconsistencies. I can understand disallowing “naughty words,” and I can understand letting them all in, but the choices that the people responsible for the Scrabble Dictionary have made are just baffling. Even though “SLUT” is allowed as a Scrabble word, “FART” is not. The computer can spell “DILDO” without a problem, but I get buzzed if I put “TURD” on the board. I can understand allowing none of these words, or all of them, but these examples annoy me so much that they’re serious taking away from my enjoyment of the game.
I’ve messed around a little with the Official Scrabble Dictionary Online — if nothing else, I get flummoxed by how easily the computer opponent, even at the easiest settings, pulls out words I’ve never heard of — but it feels impossible to prepare for what words I’m going to get buzzed on if I try to build them. It’s gotten to the point where I go into each game thinking about what ridiculous word choices I’m going to encounter, and that’s making it impossible for me to actually have a good time when I sit down to play.
Maybe I’m taking this too seriously, but as someone who works with words for a living, these choices — thinking of “fart” as a forbidden word in 2020, for crying out loud — always make me worry about what they have to say about ourselves as a whole. At a time when so much of our culture is already in full-backslide mode, it wouldn’t surprise me if I passed by a television show one of these days and heard words that weren’t getting beeped twenty years ago get censored now. It’s hardly the most troubling problem we’re going through right now, but it still makes me worry about where our broader society is headed.