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Opinion: The great Scrabble freakout

Opinion by Jeff Yang

(CNN) — The Scrabble world was rocked by controversy recently when Mattel, one of the official makers of the game, introduced a new version called “Scrabble Together” in Europe, designed for the changing gaming preferences of Gen Z — as Ray Adler, vice president and global head of games at Mattel, put it to the New York Times, to be more inclusive. (In an unusual joint-custody situation, Mattel owns the rights to Scrabble everywhere other than the US, while its rival Hasbro controls the board for the stateside market.)

Notably, reflecting Gen Z’s reported aversion to conflict , the new game offers a way to reduce or remove the element of competition from play, instead challenging participants to collaborate in unlocking achievements prompted by a set of randomly drawn “Goal Cards”: For example, “Play a word containing at least two different vowels.” (Like “vowels”!)

The goal, according to Mattel, was to make Scrabble more accessible to those daunted by the exotic vocabularies and frontal-lobe flexing the game demands from those who seek to excel in it. “For anyone who’s ever thought, ‘word games aren’t for me,’ or felt a little intimidated by the Classic game, Scrabble Together Mode is an ideal option,” said Adler. Scrabble Together is perfect for parents to play with kids, for spouses seeking to avoid spelling spats during a quiet evening at home or for friends looking to just Scrabble and chill. It’s a gentle variant of the classic game that absolutely has a place in a world where simple word puzzles, like Wordle, have sparked a global mania.

Despite the headlines it’s making now, Scrabble Together is hardly the first Scrabble variant to land on coffee tables around the world. The first Scrabble spinoff, Scrabble Junior — aimed at kids ages five to 12, which featured a board with pre-completed words — arrived in 1958, a mere decade after the original game’s release. It was followed in 1982 by Upwords, a three-dimensional Scrabble variant featuring stackable tiles.

Super Scrabble, introduced in 2004, expanded the grid from 15 by 15 to 21 by 21, creating a board with almost double the acreage for players to fill. Scrabble Slam, a fast-paced card-deck variant, hit game racks in 2008, followed by the all-electronic Scrabble Flash in 2010.

Like Scrabble Together, many of these adaptations dumbed down the gameplay, limiting word length, eliminating the crossword construction element or reducing the universe of available vocabulary. None of them caused Scrabblers (Scrabblistas? Scrabbladors?) to raise a HUE (six points) or CRY (eight points). So why should Scrabble lovers be angry about this new game’s introduction?

Well, the fact is: They aren’t. The actual Scrabble world doesn’t care. They likely didn’t even look up from their letters, because they probably wouldn’t for anything short of a four-alarm fire, 7.0 magnitude earthquake or zombie invasion.

Besides, the Scrabble Together set has a two-sided board — if you buy the game, you can play either the classic, original head-to-head game or the cooperative version, depending on your mood. That makes it not a divergent offshoot intended to pull audiences away from the classic game, but an onramp to bring passionate new fans into the world of wordplay.

Like so many other artificial outrage campaigns, this present tempest-in-a-tile-bag has taken place almost exclusively in the funhouse mirror-dimension of right-wing media, which has seized on it as the latest liberal affront, denouncing it as an assault on Western civilization, despite having little interest in or awareness of the phenomenon to begin with.

Take comedian and Fox News host Greg Gutfeld, admitting on the Fox’s “The Five” babble about “Woke Scrabble” that he’d “never played the game in my life, so I’m not sure how to handle this…it seems like a really solid Fox topic, but I’ve never played it.” Naturally, unfamiliarity with the game didn’t prevent him from chiming in with an opinion: “A game without scoring, even if you suck at it, is so anti-human. Scoring is part of our DNA!”

Contrary to Gutfeld’s opinion, the instinct to cooperate socially and collaborate in mutualist fashion with total strangers is in fact coded into humanity’s genes. But he’s certainly right that Scrabble, at the tournament level, is devastatingly competitive — so much so that “The Five” is probably what Gutfield’s score would be if he ever faced off with the game’s nerd-kings, like “G.I.” Joel Sherman, the burping, farting Scrabble superstar (his nickname G.I. doesn’t reference military service, but his faulty gastrointestinal tract).

As Sherman explained to Stefan Fatsis in the seminal book “Word Freak” about the “pro” Scrabble circuit: “Off the Scrabble board, I want to help everybody [but on the board], it’s a battle … I recognize that my competitive self is not my social self.”

And that’s true even for “living room players” — the somewhat condescending term word that whizzes like Sherman use for non-tournament Scrabblerati like me. When I’m playing with rivals like my wife or my best friend — the three of us have a running group text thread called “Across and Down” to share our New York Times’ crossword speed times and throw down the gauntlet to one another in various online and offline word games — the thin veneer of civilization vanishes, and the tiles drop amid a rain of blood and teeth.

But there’s beauty in casual Scrabble as well: playing with open hands and sharing ways to “beat the board,” solving strange layouts together, laughing at unexpected patterns or phrases, delighting in the sheer joy of interlocking words. That’s the dimension of the game that Scrabble Together seeks to unlock. And why not embrace it? As Adler told the Times, “We’re not changing original Scrabble. This is just an additive to it that if you don’t like it, you know, don’t play it.” More tiles for the rest of us!

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