9.12.2007

on scrabble

seb makes an interesting suggestion, though i'm inclined to think he's just upset that i used the word 'sunns' in online scrabble. he suggests that "there's room for an invented usage scrabble variant." and, as usual, i'm inclined to disagree!

how do i reconcile my love of scrabble with my "anarchic linguistic crusade"? very simply. scrabble is a game, and games have to have rules. the best games have just enough rules so that they're hard but not impossible. they achieve a certain balance that i've never really articulated well. they create situations in which you're forced to make difficult strategic decisions: gain short term to lose long term? help myself or hurt my opponent? conserve resources but risk being unable to use them later?

scrabble achieves this through a complicated calculus of points and letter frequencies. letters that are harder to use are worth more points, which, if you replace 'letters' with 'resources', is a pretty popular conceit in games, it seems to me. scrabble just happens to use language as the environment for this balancing act.

to make language an appropriate game environment, it has to be solidified. this crystalization, of course, is artificial, even though we tend to believe that it's not. i'm certainly willing to accept the tyranny of the dictionary if it makes for a good game, just as i'm willing to accept the fact that there are only four aces in a deck of cards.

i still haven't read wittgenstein, but he did famously say that language is a game. once again, i'm inclined to disagree. language doesn't have rules--it has conventions that change constantly. it's not designed to be balanced--it's not designed at all. and it's cooperative, not competitive. there are no resources to be conserved or advantages to be gained by the actual use of language--it's a tool for achieving those advantages, if one is so inclined.

when it comes to scrabble, i'm not even that interested in the words. yes, it's easier to use your resources if you know a lot of them, but who cares what 'sunns' means? it's just five one-point tiles that got me 14 points.

6 comments:

Sebastian said...

I am shocked--shocked!--that you can be so iconoclastic in your opinions about language but so reactionary in your prescriptions about games.

Give me a few days to recover and I'll post a thorough response.

Lauren said...

Yes! and Right on!

Once, I used "ouph".

Natalia said...

hear hear! you have pwned seb =)

joe said...

Still no Wittgenstein!

Sebastian B said...

I've been moving and started a job, so I've been slow to try to overcome your pwnage. Sorry.

k said...

Uh. Wittgenstein talked a lot about how games are characterized by not being a simple category, you can't say that something is a game (or something is "play") by saying it has rules), because often games don't have rules (eg. children playing around, inventing games). It was sort of a pre-Rosch Prototype Theory. "Game" used about language most surely does not mean "unchangeable rules". Probably the main point of Wittgenstein on the language game though is that it's social, and one lone individual couldn't have a "private language" (a language invented by that person alone, without ever having some language introduced externally)

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