The Great Scrabble Panic of 2010S

Do not mess with the rules of Scrabble. That was the lesson of yesterday, the day many people thought the rules would soon be changing. Blasphemy by the Scrabble-makers? Snobbery by the fans? The heated reactions seemed familiar.

There are, after all, people who don't want the rules of Scrabble to be changed. There are people who don't want the rules of any games to change, whether or not they would make the games more accessible to more people.

We who pay attention to video games know these passions well. There are those who will vehemently protect the sanctity of a game, wanting it not to be changed. Sometimes they have a point. Sometimes they are snobs.

It was not easy to determine yesterday whether all of the people who said that changing the rules of Scrabble to permit Beyonce and Kotaku to be playable words were in the former category or the latter. Were they the equivalent of those who push back when someone threatens to make a Super Mario game easy (apostasy!)? Or were they the equal of those who disqualify the Wii or Farmville or some other popular gaming experience from being considered a "real" video game because it is so easy that any grandma could play it.

The Great Scrabble Panic of 2010S

To the extent that my e-mail inbox is any indication, people don't want proper nouns in Scrabble. People wrote in to say that permitting proper nouns in Scrabble would be absurd and unenforceable. One reader told me that, if the new rules were implemented in tournament play, "there will probably be trouble."

These Scrabble fans hopefully went to bed happy last night, once the early reports that a new, official version of the game would allow players to use all proper nouns were clarified. Later reporting indicated that the only Scrabble game that would permit such a thing is the July-shipping Scrabble Trickster, a British spin-off that won't be positioned as real-deal Scrabble and won't even make it to North America.

This morning, 7:30 AM eastern time, I was returning the 6:30 am e-mail of John Williams, the Long Islander who is the executive director of the National Scrabble Association and who had already made 10 moves in 10 Scrabble games before our call. He doesn't want a Scrabble rules change. He has never wanted a Scrabble rules change, he told me. "In general, I'm a purist," he told me. "I like the words."

Williams saw this proper-noun fiasco as a mixture of cheeky public relations in Europe and shoddy reporting. The rules of Scrabble haven't changed before, not outside of tournament play, he told me. And there is no reason to change them now.

But there have been flare-ups before. There have been pressures to change things, not to make the game easier but, well, to make it more palatable. Sometimes, for example, people discover that ethnic slurs, dropped from the official Scrabble dictionary that is sold to regular folks over a decade ago are still allowed in tournament play. The words don't get dropped, which bugs some people, Williams explained. Even the N-word remains, he noted: "I've had it played against me by African Americans in tournaments."

Adding proper nouns would make the game either "dumbed down" or "more accessible," Williams said, echoing discussions I saw yesterday and reminding me again of all those complaints that Wii Sports tennis was either a joke of a pretend video game or the breakthrough sports video game that exposed the shortcomings of the hundreds of more complicated sports games that preceded it.

There are already some 200,000 words allowed in Scrabble, and several thousand are added every half decade or so, Williams said. Adding proper nouns would be tough to enforce and make a mess of a game that already sends people into confusion when arguing about whether "Xi" is a real Scrabble word and, if so, why. Who is to say that "Xpliygrow" isn't the name of someone's son? And so we heard that from no less than Stephen Colbert who, on his Comedy Central show, quoted Kotaku's Brian Crecente's description of the proper-noun permission as an "idiot rule."

I can imagine that maybe this rumored rule change was akin to shortening the sacred distance between home plate and first base or allowing a Chess queen to hop her knights.

But maybe it would have been good? Maybe proper nouns would just expand the dictionary, letting people who don't know currently approved words like "udo" and "kue" use the name of the city they live in or their favorite celebrity. Maybe it would allow more people to enjoy Scrabble without hatching their own rules — not that it's so hard to do so given that the Scrabble authorities don't usually prosecute?

Were the Scrabble defenders simply protecting great rules or were they being, as some of those Farmville-loathers and Wii-haters can be, elitist? "As someone who has spent many hours memorizing key words," Williams told me, he wouldn't want "someone walking off the street, playing the name of some rapper I don't know, and offsetting a brilliant move I just made."

I was rightly chastised yesterday by a reader who had recognized that I was not an experienced enough Scrabble player to know there is only one K in the game. I can believe that the rules of Scrabble don't bend without breaking. But I wonder: Is there something inherent about gamers, not just video games, that doesn't want more people to play, that doesn't want our games to change — and can we say confidently that that reflex is always right?

If there was a real chance to allow proper nouns in Scrabble, are we sure it shouldn't be seized?