Image courtesy of Getty/The Washington Post

How 'Words With Friends' Became a Game About the Language of Everyday Life

The successor-apparent to 'Scrabble' does more than just transport the board game classic to your phone. It embraces the words of today.

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Oct 24 2017, 5:15pm

Image courtesy of Getty/The Washington Post

I tap my screen and the letters scramble apart then reform, producing a zippy, fizzy popping noise, like bubbles cresting a fish tank. O-A-S-S-B-U-G stares back at me. I tap again, this time yielding G-U-A-S-S-B-O. Long, silent seconds pass and suddenly I see words: BOGUS, GAUSS, BUGS, BAUS, SUBA, ASSBUG.

Some of these are clearly not words, and I know this, but I'm not thinking about words or meanings. I'm thinking about points and placement and managing letters. "S" is very valuable, but I have two, so I can lose one; "U" is a burden I'd like to lay down. I decide to play SUBA, dragging the S, U,B, and A from the bottom of my screen and tacking the S onto "thumb," which has already been played. SUBA splays across a double word bonus. That was intentional. I gain 31 points. A chime sounds and I await the next turn, tapping the newest letters into formation.

I'm playing Words With Friends, Scrabble's modern heir and likely successor. It has obvious differences from its predecessor, from the board arrangement, to the frequencies, value, and total number of letter tiles. And more materially, I don't have to dig into my closet then clear my kitchen table to play it. I access it from my smartphone and play multiple games at once. An in-game menu tracks the remaining tiles, keeps score, and provides a dictionary, and any word I play will instantly be evaluated for validity.

These differences from Scrabble resonate every time I play Words With Friends, but the most fundamental distinction between the games is within the gameplay itself. Not just strategic arrangements or compilations of letters, words in Words With Friends are valued as whole, discrete units: words. It can sometimes feel like a devolution, but this turn back toward words-as-words transforms both the nature of the game and the words themselves, and is a direct product of how Zynga, the publisher of Words With Friends, manages its word list.

Zynga's conception of words is a wholesale divergence from Scrabble's word list and its impact ripples from the words, down to the gameplay, and onto players. Words With Friends isn't just a Scrabble clone; it's a living, raging mutiny.

Code Words

Most word games are about completing words. Completed words save lives in Hangman, deplete tiles in Anagrams, prevent elimination in spelling bees, and accumulate cash in Wheel of Fortune. Letters (and their potential linkages) are the core elements in these games, but ultimately the words determine a player's success or failure.

Scrabble's innovation was to use the completion of words as its starting point. Beyond their completion, in Scrabble the words themselves are not particularly important: Built on chance, risk, strategy, and calculation, Scrabble rewards the placement of letters first and foremost. The placed letters must and do form words, of course, but words are an epiphenomenon of strategy: word configuration outweighs word completion. Because of this, Scrabble's word list, the sum total of playable words, is more akin to a cipher than a lexicon. And to excel at the game, most players learn to separate words from their definitions.

Stefan Fatsis, an expert Scrabble player and author of Word Freak, a thrilling account of Scrabble's tournament scene, history, and various strategies, makes no mention of definitions when I speak with him. "The way we study Scrabble is we study by probability order. So you want to know all the seven-letter words that contain particular commonly occurring letters, meaning the probability that these seven or eight letter words will be pulled from a bag of a hundred tiles. You want to learn the ones that are most likely to be drawn."

Words With Friends can be played in the same, disaffected way, and I actually prefer to play it that way (as noted above), but the game design discourages it, namely through its word list, which has a fascinating history.

In 1997, Scrabble player Alan Beale found himself displeased with the official Scrabble resources. The Official Word List (OWL) and the Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary (OSPD) omitted known words, excluded words with more than 8 letters, and generally lacked the thoroughness their assured titles projected (many words lacked their plural forms or had weird, arcane pluralizations). Beale responded by creating the Enhanced North American Benchmark Lexicon (ENABLE), an open source document intended to be an authoritative alternative to OSPD and OWL. ENABLE listed words in all their glorious conjugations and aimed for totality, uninhibited by letter limits or omissions. It was enabling.


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ENABLE was made to be subversive. OWL and OSPD are published by Merriam Webster, Inc. through a licensing deal with Hasbro, the holder of Scrabble's North American trademark, but OWL isn't just a list of words and OSPD isn't just a dictionary. As indicated by the fact that they are licensed to a third party, Hasbro treats them as proprietary objects, which has thus entailed modifications to their contents. The household versions of OWL and OSPD, for instance, have lacked ethnic slurs and certain "vulgar" words (tournament versions including these words are published separately) since 1996 and Hasbro has irregularly pursued lawsuits against publishers of unauthorized word lists. So to play Scrabble with OSPD and OWL as resources is essentially to play the game on Hasbro's terms.

For Beale, and later his partner Mendel Cooper, this haggling oversight over words was a corruption of the game, and ENABLE's purpose was to purge that taint. They weren't the first Scrabble players to fact-check or modify the word list. Electronic versions of OWL had been in informal circulation at least a year before ENABLE's first release in 1997 and newsletters published by players had been correcting errors since 1982. Additionally, contemporary updates to OWL and OSPD regularly include input from players. But when Beale and Cooper beefed up ENABLE from its original 100,000 words to 173,000 words in 2000, they saw themselves as wrenching words from corporate rule.

"[ENABLE] represents not merely a superior alternative to the OSPD/TWL," Cooper wrote in a bombastic read-me attached to ENABLE's second release, "it threatens to supplant and replace it, to squeeze the very life out of it in a process of Darwinian selection," he continued.

Defining a Dictionary

ENABLE has evolved differently from Cooper and Beale's predictions, but it thrives in ways that neither they nor Hasbro might have expected. Adapted in 2008 by Newtoy, the original publisher and creator of Words With Friends, ENABLE is now lorded over by Zynga, who bought Newtoy in 2010.

Zynga has steadily added to the word list and actively solicits player submissions, receiving nearly 5000 a day. Gurpreet Singh, Zynga's director of product for Words With Friends, informs me that the list grows by about 5 words per month on average and is permissive by design. "We try to be very inclusive in the way that we like to think about the words that we're adding," he says.

The Words With Friends development team meets monthly to review words and sources its words from player submissions via an in-game feature and online via social media, as well as dictionaries that the team closely monitors and new coinages from the world at large ("covfefe" was added earlier this year). The words are then culled according to basic criteria (no proper nouns, suffixes, prefixes, slurs, or abbreviations) and evaluated based on their general usage and whether they can enrich the game.

"Our criteria for evaluating words is, does it enhance the existing words with friends experience that players expect? Our goal is always to maintain quality or enhance quality for the gameplay and to understand what players expect from the game," says Singh. "We have a very regular dialog with our players. We talk to them about what they like in the game, what do they not like in the game, and what they wish we would do."

Words that make the cut are then added to the game through the back-end, and are available for play within a week, sometimes but not always with definitions, pronunciations, and etymologies from Dictionary.com, who Zynga has contracted to provide this support.

The development team also consults with a group that Singh describes as "VIP players, who have basically been playing the game since it launched 8 years ago." Based across the US, Zynga uses this group "as a sounding board to make sure we're in line with their expectations," says Singh. He adds that this particular group is consulted in general for new features, not just for new words, but it's clear that players in general factor into how Zynga thinks about words. When approving new words, in addition to more lexical and scholarly considerations, Singh says that the development team makes "sure it seems right from an emotional standpoint and a tone standpoint."

When asked what would disqualify a potential word from being added to the game (or what could get a current word removed), Singh speaks in terms of player experience rather than lexical authenticity. "If someone notices a word that we don't feel is representative of our community or what we stand for, then we make those subtractions from the dictionary."

This is functionally no different from Hasbro's past culls. In fact, Zynga purged ENABLE years ago and its current version lacks many of the same "dirty" words once excised by Hasbro. But the regularity of Zynga's oversight of the words suggests a different vision. Whereas Hasbro updates OWL to keep Scrabble current, Zynga updates the Words With Friends list to keep the game meaningful to players. An acceptance ratio of 5 words added per month to 100,000 requested isn't inclusive mathematically, even if assuming that most of those suggestions are repeats or disqualified for inclusion. But the fact that they can be submitted and recognized as possible omissions, then potentially added, gives Zynga's corporate control a sense of stewardship rather than ownership.

Words, but Friendlier

Last month Zynga reportedly added 50,000 words in celebration of the game's eighth anniversary. Dubbed the "social dictionary," the update was mostly comprised of words submitted by players and had a clear player-pleasing bent. Youthful neologisms like bestie, kween, hangry, fomo, and bae led the promotion for the dictionary, and the Words With Friends Twitter account has gradually rolled out the new words alongside gifs and quirky images. Some of these new words, particularly bff and ftw, are not words at all, and ironically harken back to Scrabble's codexical DNA (knowing words composed of just consonants is key for more strategic play), but the emphasis on what these words mean to players emotionally rather than their strategic value alters how these words function within the game. When words are added in Scrabble, the emphasis is on the integrity of the dictionary.

Zynga has steadily worked to reverse that development and has created something that Scrabble lacks: a sense of limitless, riskless exploration. Even when I see the best options within my scrambled tiles, I aimlessly reconfigure them on the board out of curiosity in a way that I couldn't in Scrabble (placing tiles down discloses your possible moves to your opponent).
That fizzy pop sound I hear when I tap my screen is so much more jolly than the scratchy clamor of wood on wood when digging through Scrabble's tile bag.

And as I've begun to play Words With Friends more often than I play Scrabble, I've found myself looking up more words and focused more on improving my "unique words played" stat, which tracks how many words I've played (5604, for the record). The core mechanics of the game and my strategy remain the same and I still prefer the heightened risk of Scrabble's challenge system, which rewards and punishes inferences about playable words, but there's lower stakes in Words With Friends and the game feels more inclusive because of it. I often play with friends I rarely see in person and I slip in and out of games at my leisure.

Of course, this is nothing like the thrill of playing Scrabble with a pen, pad, and dictionary within arm's reach, digging through a worn cloth bag filled with those smoothed wooden letter tiles, my mom eyeing me while she connives her next move, the two of us flitting between trash talk and family gossip. Words With Friends is something else entirely and I'm not mad at that.

Zynga likely will not ever release the full Words With Friends word list and generally seems disinterested in the high-stakes, probability-oriented play that occurs in competitive Scrabble. This is disappointing in some sense: A steady but opaque trickle of new words precludes the kind of exhaustive preparation that competitive Scrabble demands. Also, that feeling of knowing a word is phony, challenging it, and watching your opponent attempt to conjure it from an indifferent dictionary, simply doesn't exist in Zynga's game. Words With Friends is riskless, frankly.

But it's hard not to accept this approach—a benevolent, but firm proprietary vice grip—as a fun deviation from the arcane ciphers of Scrabble. Beale and Cooper predicted that ENABLE would devour OWL in a fit of liberating, catastrophic Darwinian upheaval, but instead OWL and ENABLE coexist, serving different games, companies, and communities in different ways.

It's strange for the same words to be so divergent in function and meaning within such related properties, but that's always been the point of these games. Words are just the beginning.

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