When I recently looked at my Words With Friends board on Facebook, it made me think of my childhood friend Diana, whose family lived just down the street from mine. She and I spent many rainy Saturday afternoons playing the Hasbro board game Scrabble, which is similar to the relatively new virtual game Words With Friends.
I loved playing Scrabble with Diana. We were both voracious readers and almost evenly matched in vocabulary.
Anyone who hasn’t played Scrabble might not realize the (usually) good-humored arguments that erupt among the two to four players about rule definitions, “fake” words and time limits. Diana and I were no different; we would sometimes bicker, but it was never nasty.
That changed when we graduated from seventh grade. As an eighth grader, Diana’s social life blossomed. She made lots of new friends. And she invited those makeup loving, clothes-shopping, boy-obsessed girlfriends to join our Scrabble games.
I was a clod in the fine art of social cues. I didn’t realize Diana’s popularity grew when she passionately defended her new friends against my challenges or glowered when the words I built won me the most points — and often the games.
Eventually the other kids claimed I only won because I cheated. Their words hurt, but not as much as Diana’s lack of loyalty. She didn’t defend me or try to understand.
I remember running from Diana’s room, past her mom and out the front door, sobbing as I made my way home. I was in misery.
My parents told me I’d get over it. I didn’t think I ever would. Of course they were right.
They knew that childhood friendships are usually based on sharing the same school, neighborhood, ballet class, or baseball team. Choosing a childhood friend is not a nuanced decision
Words With Friends: The Modern-Day Scrabble
Of course, it’s different for adults. We generally choose friends who share our morals, worldviews, and ethics. Sure, we may live close by, work together or enjoy the same social events but values play a large role in our choices.
And they should. Through the years we carve time out of our jam-packed lives to guide each other through infatuations, illnesses, heartbreaks, job losses and all the other ups-and-downs in our adult lives.
And even though we don’t often see or even talk on the telephone to our dearest friends, we remain loyal and look for ways to stay connected.
Perhaps that’s why so many of us enjoy games on social networks.
The games allow us to stay connected, to maintain the same bond we had when we regularly saw each other.
At least that’s what I thought until recently when I visited a dear friend who lives in a different state. We were sitting on high-back wicker chairs on her back deck, watching a brilliant red sunset reflect off the nearby water of a lake when I casually mentioned a mutual friend stopped joining me to play Words With Friends.
Although my friend has known me for decades, she sat back, looked at me and clearly implied I cheat. That hurt. She knows me. We’ve been there for each other, celebrating promotions and weeping about divorce. I never gave her reason to question my honesty or loyalty.
In fairness, it is easy to chat when playing Words With Friends. Unlike Scrabble there are no time limits or challenges. And there are plenty of sites that provide easy access to winning words.
No, I didn’t run away in tears as I had with Diana. I sat back and explained what I hoped she already knew but forgot. I’m a voracious reader. I routinely play word puzzles. When I’m not reading I’m usually writing. I know a lot of words. I hope my calm response reminded of who I truly am.
We moved past that awkward exchange and had a lovely weekend grilling steaks, drinking wine and enjoying time on her boat. But the accusation caused me to think a bit more about Words With Friends.
When Words With Friends Gets Competitive
I soon noticed an undercurrent of ill will just below the surface of some games.
One friend routinely rejects my invitations to play. She may be busy, but I wonder if she is annoyed that I’m a bit ahead of her professionally? Another friend ghosted me though we routinely had multiple Words With Friends games in play. Did I ask too many questions on a certain subject? Did I hurt her feelings in some other way? Does she think I cheat?
I’ve mentioned these oddities to other friends who have told me of similar experiences. I wish I could say that I’ve found a way to play the games and not see subtext in some interactions. I haven’t.
What I conclude is that Words With Friends has devolved into a microcosm of daily life where people compete to win everything from seats on public transportation to high-paying jobs.
And failing to win — even if it’s a silly online — leaves some people questioning their own lives and perceptions.
I can’t say this to my friends, of course. What I can do is continue to play the game with them. It’s the best way I know to show them that behind our online facades we are still the loyal, honest friends who are there for each other.
This essay was written by Nancy Dunham, an award-winning freelance journalist based outside Washington, D.C.