How I Became Addicted to Online Word Games

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Cultural Studies

Everyone has heard grim tales of lives blighted by online gaming, stories that sound like urban legends even when they actually happened. There is the friend of a friend who played Second Life so obsessively that his real-life business failed; the web addict in Taiwan who died after a three-day binge; or even Alec Baldwin, kicked off a plane after refusing to stop playing Words With Friends. But most of us have too much sense to let online games mess up our travel plans, much less hook us on what the Chinese call “digital heroin,” right?

Well, I used to think so.

At a weekend share house not long ago, I found that the virtual-reality virus had infected me, and I’m beginning to suspect the condition is endemic. Like a 2-year-old who tries to widen a picture in a storybook with her fingers, I have grown confused about the difference between page and screen.

This revelation came after a friend spotted a battered Boggle box on a shelf in the rental house and asked me to join her in a round. I hadn’t played the physical, letter-dice-and-egg-timer version of the game in a decade, but in my teens I had been a Boggle demon, the terror of my high-school word nerd crowd. Afraid I would demoralize my friend if I unleashed my full word-seeking powers, I resolved to lose the first game. And then she flipped the timer, and I looked down at the letters on the tray, and despaired. I saw F-E-E-N and F-E-A-N; F-E-A-Z-E, F-A-N-T and F-E-N-T; S-P-E-E-R and E-T-H-S.

Were they real words? I had no idea. I had played them countless times in Words With Friends, but couldn’t remember which ones had scored points and which had been rejected, or what any of them meant, if anything. Unlike the tabletop games Boggle and Scrabble, Words With Friends has no penalty for guessing.

In the past, I loved word games because I loved words. The vocabulary I brought to them had accreted organically, from books I read — “wizening” from D. H. Lawrence; “ayah” from Frances Hodgson Burnett; “crewelwork” from Jane Austen. But the words I absorbed in online games had lodged themselves in my neural map without definitions or context. At the weekend house, as my friend blithely jotted down D-R-A-G and P-E-A-R and S-P-E-A-R, I came to a standstill. I no longer knew what was a real word and what wasn’t.

This was particularly vexing because I had perceived this danger nearly a decade ago, and thought I had dodged it. In 2008, a television critic and fellow word lover had urged me to engage with her on a word game app called Prolific. At first, I demurred, messaging back that I had tried another app, Scrabulous, and hadn’t liked it; too much like Scrabble (a game I’ve always found frustrating because letter-luck plays too big a part).

Prolific was different, she fired back. It was just like Boggle. You logged on any time of day or night, joined a round with a friend or with strangers across the globe; then a letter grid popped up, and all of you raced to find words in the same grid in the same three-minute span. Charily I messaged her back: “I’ll give it a go.”

At the time, the weather was glacial and I was housebound, felled by a severe cold. Dizzy with DayQuil, unable to focus on work, I logged into Prolific and played my first round, foolishly confident that my lengthy word list would loft me into the winners’ circle. Then the scores came up. I had been trounced, routed, utterly crushed, by a legion of far-flung opponents — and above all by a man I’ll call Balthazar Tong, who had whomped me by hundreds of points, and beaten the others, too.

The victors had listed all the words I had found, and a Jackson Pollock-splatter of letter bursts that looked like no words I’d ever seen: aas, coit and deme; elt, haka and reh; sena, slae and soop. My ranking after that game was something like 60,000th in the world — out of 60,001, I believe. Sneezing and furious, I vowed to defeat them all. Especially Balthazar Tong.

For the next few weeks, racked by coughs but unwilling to leave my desk even for a glass of water, I played one game after another — until 11 p.m., 1 a.m., 2 a.m., then 4 — breaking only for DayQuil, then NyQuil. As hours and days slid by, my cold increased in violence, a mountain of tissues piled up in my study and my Prolific status rose.

Soon I started keeping an alphabetized list of words that worked and words that didn’t, typing them up and making printouts, reducing the font so all of the words would fit on one page, for speedy glimpsing during each lightning round. After every game, I would grab a Magic Marker and scribble in new words that had popped up, type them into my list, then print again. When my cold turned into bronchitis, I interrupted play to go to the doctor and pick up Zithromax, then rushed back to 24/7 keyboard combat.

A neighbor, hearing of my illness, stopped by with chicken soup and oranges. Observing the trash heap of tissues on my desk and floor, the sheaves of rumpled printouts beside my keyboard, scrawled with addendums in rainbow colors, she grabbed my wrists. “Liesl,” she said. “This looks like something out of ‘A Beautiful Mind.’” As she spoke, my eyes darted helplessly to the waiting onscreen grid. My ranking was now in the top 1,000. If my friend would only leave, I reasoned, I might be able to break into the top 500 by dawn. But she lingered. “You need an intervention,” she said. Nodding with feigned contrition, I wheezed out a long, dry cough and promised to put Prolific aside and take a nap. Once she left, I began again.

A few days later, I had a fever of 101, and was nearing Prolific’s Olympus. I still was losing to Mr. Tong, but now I was beating my other boogeymen: Drasko Spitz, Phuong Soh and Minerva Nelson. When I joined a game with Leander Fishkin, and he unjoined it as soon as my name appeared in the roster, I rejoiced. I then joined a game with my original Prolific pusher, the TV critic, who still saw the game as “fun.” Afterward she messaged back that she would never play with me again. My bronchitis was on the verge of turning into pneumonia, but I was powerless to stop playing.

There was only one way to break the spell, and providentially, it occurred in time to keep me out of the emergency room. The Prolific king-of-kings, Balthazar Tong, joined a round with me. Somehow, I beat him. Flights of doves, cymbals clanging, inexpressible feelings of relief. I was free. In the next half-hour, I canceled my Prolific account, threw away my word printouts and booked a flight to Miami, hoping to recover my health and reason on the beach, with a pile of novels. I never played Prolific again. I accepted that I was a Prolifoholic.

When, after a couple of years, I started playing Words With Friends, I dared it only because I didn’t even like the game. Like Scrabble, it bugs me because if you get worse letters than your rivals, you can’t win.

Over time, though, my Words With Friends habit mounted, incrementally, until it became normal for me to have six or seven games going at once at all times. (This is still the case.) I didn’t notice when legions of nonsense constructs marched through the portcullis of my psyche and overran my internal dictionary.

It was not until the emergence of the Boggle game at the share house that I realized I hadn’t kicked the online word game addiction after all. If Prolific had been my heroin, Words With Friends was my methadone. I had become a cautionary tale — a gaming addict no better than the rest.

Tens of millions of people play Words With Friends, and millions of others play the Boggle-clone apps that have arisen in the wake of Prolific, like Wordtwist, Word Crack, Wordruggle and Wordament. For most players, it’s probably harmless, innocent diversion.

Yet I can’t help worrying about the long-term effects of the epidemic of tainted wordplay that has spread across the world in the past decade. I wonder if memorizing gibberish will damage everyone’s ability to communicate; if cheating with language will erode the certainties of spelling; and if I’ll ever be able to play a clean game of Boggle again. But most of all, I wonder what has become of Balthazar Tong.