Alec Baldwin caused quite a kerfuffle recently when he got booted off a plane for playing a game, Words With Friends, on his phone after the plane’s doors had closed. To some, this was a sign of the dire level of service in the airline industry. Others pointed to the culture of celebrity entitlement and Baldwin’s anger issues. I think we’re all looking at the wrong problem. The real culprit here is that demon-spirit, Words With Friends.
My name is Belinda Luscombe, and I too play Words With Friends when I shouldn’t. This diabolical time suck of an activity masquerading as a benficial pastime is like Scrabble, except that you play it online, on Facebook or on your smartphone. You are given letter tiles, you form them into words on a board, and you try to get the most points. When you’ve formed your word, your opponent, usually a Facebook friend, gets a little notification and it is then his or her turn to form a string of letters into words.
If it sounds beyond simple, it is. The company that makes the game, Zynga, pulls in millions of dollars a year essentially by creating games that it’s hard to believe a chimpanzee would find diverting. There’s Farmville, in which you have to tend crops by clicking your mouse once or twice every day or so. Then there’s Petville, in which you have to raise a pet by clicking your mouse every day or so. The company’s newest game is Castleville, in which you have to mine rocks and chop down trees and generally build your fiefdom by clicking your mouse every day or so. Zynga has ridden to success by persuading people that having fun is just like doing work but with no effort and nothing tangible to show for it at the end.
In a weird confluence of events, Zynga is aiming to go public this week, the very week after the Baldwin Incident, listing shares on the Nasdaq stock exchange in an initial public offering that suggests the company is worth about $9 billion. If all goes to plan, the IPO will raise $925 million, second only to Google’s $1.7 billion in 2004.
As with most vices, my Words With friends problem began innocently; I was introduced to it by an Anglican minister, whom I won’t name in case it’s not his bishop’s turn to play and he’s reading this. Having grown up doing crosswords and playing Scrabble with my mother in another country, I thought she and I could perhaps make the physical distance between us seem smaller by playing a version of our old games. Also, since she’s getting a little doddery in her old age, I thought I might have a chance of winning.
My mother, alas, was not as frail as all that. She kept insisting on new rules. She despised two-letter words like op or hm that are not allowed in regular Scrabble but are in Words With Friends. And who had ever heard the word Qi? But laying words parallel to each other and thus making four or five two-letter words in addition to the original word is so much more lucrative than laying perpendicular words. So I refused. She resigned from all our games abruptly. I importuned her, mentally noting that as a former teacher she should be in favor of increasing one’s vocabulary. No dice.
Then I came to my senses. She lives 20 hours flying time away. She’s in her 70s. Shouldn’t her final years be spent playing games the way she wants to? Didn’t she let me win at Squatter (an Australian board game about sheep farming) when I was a kid? Wasn’t the process, the keeping in touch the point, rather than the winning? So I agreed. No two-letter words. A new game, a fresh start. I am, after all, an adult. I could do it.
I couldn’t do it. I was fine for the first few rounds, ignoring all the point-rich two-letter word opportunities. Then, suddenly, I had nothing. The only way I could make any points at all was to maximize my G on a double letter score that would form two words, one of them ag. My husband told me not to do it. My 10-year-old daughter told me not to do it. But I’m no better than Alec Baldwin. I did it.
It seems clear to me, my mother and my 10-year-old daughter that Words With Friends is very bad for what psychologists call executive function and what everybody else calls self control. You make poor decisions — playing not-even-very-fun games when you could be working or talking to real people or noticing that the bus is at your stop — under its influence. So before we go judging Mr. Baldwin — or indeed the flight attendant, who may have had her own struggles with Wordsitis — walk a mile with their smartphones. Or if you value your executive function, don’t.