Wednesday, April 07, 2010


As the 21st century began, human evolution was at a turning point. Natural selection, the process by which the strongest, the smartest, the fastest, reproduced in greater numbers than the rest, a process which had once favored the noblest traits of man, now began to favor different traits. Most science fiction of the day predicted a future that was more civilized and more intelligent. But as time went on, things seemed to be heading in the opposite direction. A dumbing down. How did this happen? Evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence. With no natural predators to thin the herd, it began to simply reward those who reproduced the most, and left the intelligent to become an endangered species.  -from Idiocracy

In a world where Faith Based Initiatives are allowed to run the government, functional illiterates are permitted to graduate high school, and kids get beaten up for being “smart,” is this yet another sign of things foretold by Idiocracy?

The British press has recently reported that a new edition of Scrabble called “Scrabble Trickster” will now allow the use of proper nouns, spelling of words backwards, and possibly placing words anywhere on the grid without being connected to existing words. As it stands, this is only a UK phenomenon, with Hasbro (Scrabble's owner in North America) assuring North Americans that there are no plans to change Scrabble. This is a relief, as removing the challenge from Scrabble will largely defeat any sort of intellectual value the game has.

Being a casual Scrabble player (mostly online), I’ve gone against players with varying skill levels and managed to learn a bunch of new words in the process. But, as much as I wouldn’t drop any money on a game like Trickster, I can see why there would be a market for that. While technology has made lives easier, it’s also made people a lot “dumber.” 

Today, spell checkers will automatically correct spelling mistakes, which renders learning proper spelling and grammar useless. Calculators in schools are so wide-spread that basic math skills are deteriorating everywhere. And given the diminishing resources allocated towards public learning institutions such as libraries and schools, people go to the easiest and most accessible source of information possible, usually pop culture spoon-fed by the corporate machine. It very much appears that the playing field has been leveled to cater to the lowest common denominator.

Supposedly, the objective of the variant was to allow for more casual players and younger players to play. Given that there’s already a junior edition of Scrabble, this may not be necessary, although many non-juniors, the game is not very accessible. Indeed, those with large vocabularies will have an advantage, which gives Scrabble a reputation as being a game for the intellectual elite (although that’s probably more for Chess and Go).

But, to calm the frustrations of those playing against a particularly gifted Scrabble player, I offer this: despite the advantage of a large knowledge vocabulary, being able to rack up good scores in Scrabble is about as reliable indicator of intelligence as IQ tests (read: they aren’t). And in all fairness, there are already many words acceptible in the official Scrabble dictionary that don't seem to belong, such as "za" (colloquial abbreviation for "pizza"), the three 4-letter words that you can't say on television, and interjections such as "oi," "aye," "eh," and "yo," while the word "zen" is not allowed (but "qi" is). 

Given that Trixster is a different game altogether (the new abilities are granted by random cards, which will incur penalties such as sacrificing a tile), it's not necessarily an attempt to dismantle the Ivory Tower and bring down the intellectual elite.  As it stands, you can put down high scoring yet obscure words such as "precieux" and it'll be in the Scrabble dictionary, even if you have no idea what it means (it means "precious" by the way).  I suspect that my opponent used a word generator. 

If you want to make the game for really smart people, introduce a challenge rule in which you must first use the word in a sentence (within context, not "'Precieux' is a difficult word to define") as well as define it before going to the dictionary.

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