Unconventional Play

My aunt sent me a link to a Forbes Magazine online article about Words With Friends, Zynga‘s Scrabble rip-off. (An aside: I got sidetracked by the fact that Zynga’s business model seems based on cloning other people’s ideas for games and found that it is really difficult to protect against such clones. I’ll write about this in a future post.) The author of the Forbes article, Jeff Bercovici, quit playing Words With Friends awhile ago because the game allows players to try out combinations of letters with no penalty. That is, a player can guess at high-scoring words until s/he finds one and not suffer a penalty for doing so. The rules of the Scrabble board game prohibit this by allowing an opponent to challenge a word and if that word is not found in the dictionary, the player who played it, loses his/her turn. Bercovici would like Words With Friends to enforce the rules of the Scrabble board game and prohibit random guessing of words because it isn’t fun for him to play against someone who engages in that behavior.

One person’s flaw truly is another person’s feature. Bercovici is particularly annoyed that the authors of Words With Friends refuse to say that this is a “flaw” in the game but instead insist that it is a “feature,” something they designed into the game from the beginning. And Bercovici is apparently not the only one infuriated by this “flaw.” Penny Arcade calls it “The Brute Force Method.” John Hodgman calls it “Spamming the Engine.” I would call it “Playing the Game.”

Although we call Words With Friends a “clone” of Scrabble, it actually differs in a number of ways. The size of the board is different. The placement of special spaces such as Triple Word  and Double Letter scores is different. The way the game starts is different–in Scrabble, the score for the first word played is always double the face value of the letters while in Words With Friends, the first word score is not doubled unless one of its letters covers a Double Word space. For Bercovici, there is something special about changing the rules so that the player doesn’t have to know about the existence of a word before playing, something that goes against the spirit of the game in a way that the other rules changes do not.

In the mid-90’s, Richard Bartle published an article laying out a simple taxonomy of MUD player types. The most important point of the article in looking at play activities other than MUDs is that players have a variety of motivations for why they play particular games. In other words, not everyone is playing for the same reason or to get the same experience from the activity. For Bercovici, randomly trying letter combinations until the game accepts one violates his idea of what the game should be about. He personally would not get pleasure from playing like that and he finds it infuriating to play against others who play like that. He wants the game to stop his opponents from playing like that, to enforce his idea of what the conventions of the game should be. Unconventional players frustrate him to the point of giving up the game. Bercovici goes on to tell us a story in which he consistently beat a “better” tennis player by using “junk” shots. The other player was annoyed and frustrated because Bercovici wasn’t playing conventionally and therefore, he was difficult to beat using conventional skills and strategies. It wasn’t until Bercovici tried to develop those conventional skills and strategies himself that he understood his opponent’s frustration. Bercovici tells this story to explain why the fact that Words With Friends allows this unconventional behavior is a flaw and not a feature.

I think Bercovici should indeed stop playing any game that is causing more frustration than pleasure. But that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the game. Texas Hold ’em is a great example of how unconventional, “junk” play can improve everyone’s game. The popularity of Texas Hold ’em exploded in 2003 when then-amateur Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker. Suddenly, everyone was playing Texas Hold ’em. And just as suddenly, amateurs were beating professionals in all kinds of tournaments. Many of these amateurs violated the conventions about the “right” way to play the game. They were gambling on hands that professionals would have folded. They were making bets that made no sense given the conventional wisdom of how to play the game. Sometimes those professionals behaved very badly as they were getting beat by these unconventional amateurs because they didn’t like how the amateurs were playing. Has the influx of amateurs playing unconventionally been bad for the game? Some might say yes but I think it’s good to mix things up, to have different people playing in different ways and for different reasons.

All that said, I think Bercovici shouldn’t blame Words With Friends for not being Scrabble. Why not go play Scrabble instead? I would note that the version of Scrabble on Facebook by Electronic Arts also allows random guessing of words with no penalty. And there’s a dictionary built right into the game for the players to use.

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