Words With Friends: Making and Breaking Connections in the New Millenium

Image from technostall.com

Image from technostall.com

As the glowing green numbers on two clocks move closer to midnight, my parents sit upright in their Queen-sized bed—knees forming a peak beneath the sheets. Their brows are furrowed, their eyes fixed on 4.33” x 2.36” iPhone 4 screens (“New Cases”). Thumbs hover above squares of shimmering electric blue. Every 60 seconds or so, a pointer finger will swipe across the screen rapidly. Sometimes, the quick and dexterous flick is followed with a triumphant snicker. Kate and Tom Gomoll play Words with Friends every night before bed. They find it hard to sleep when a familiar buzz echoes from bedside tables. Rolling over to check the screen, the text pops up: Your Move.

Navigating a “smart phone” application developed in 2008 by innovators at NewToy and designedto allow users to play a digitized Scrabble-like word game with close circles of “friends,” my parents are constantly competing with several selected players at once (Kincaid). My brilliant Nana is known for her clever use of X’s and Z’s (i.e. in the virtual tiles spelling out “telex” or “azine.”) The hippest of grandmothers, she games from her iPad. My Dad makes up letter combinations and tests whimsical words until the Words with Friends Dictionary magically accepts one (“etui” or “hadj”). Mom artfully constructs words that hit every red, blue or green “bonus” square on the board (“shindigs”). Each player has strengths and weaknesses, and my collection of family devoted to the app has learned to prey on the Achilles heels of word-building strategy. Conveniently, the application is designed to fit around our schedules—conforming to a well-defied culture of convenience. No longer must we sit around the kitchen table at the cabin to play Scrabble for hours on end. Instead, we spend our evenings and spare change moments shuffling letters with our fingertips. When the mood strikes, we’ll punch full sentences into the chat box located in the upper right hand corner of the virtual board. This way, we stay in touch without lengthy phone calls or video chats. From dorm rooms, apartments, and houses across the country, my relatives interact on the shiny surface of miniature screens. We stack pixilated tiles as we watch TV, brush our teeth, walk to class, and settle down for bedtime. The backseat of the family station wagon becomes a dead zone for traditional conversation as my brother and I tap away on thin glass. “Don’t be rude,” she says from the passenger seat. “But Mom, I’m playing you!”

My family is not alone when it comes to this quirky pastime. With more than 12.5 million monthly users, Words with Friends is a daily routine for hundreds of thousands of players and citizens (Griggs). Equipped with this authority, the game becomes more than just another “app.” Like so many board games before it, Words with Friends is an artifact of contemporary culture. Due to its space on the timeline of American game-playing, its ties to globalization, and its role in the construction of the “mediated lives” we live in the 21st century, Words with Friends becomes much more than a satisfying pre-bedtime ritual. As Thomas De Zengotita argues in his 2005 text titled Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way you Live in It,”  “[we live] lives composed of an unprecedented fusion of the real and the represented, lives shaped by a culture of performance that constitutes a quality of being, a type of person—the mediated person” (6).  Mirroring the apps we play, we become individuals defined by icons. Analyzing Words with Friends as a representative mechanism of our perpetual desire for mediation and competition, this paper will work to unpack the layered meaning behind a “simple” word game—revealing digital letters and floating yellow squares as a microcosm of the “plugged in” American life. Recognizing the overlap of virtual and physical spheres of our modern existence through the example of Words with Friends, we might question; in a “mediated” world, are we more or less connected?

(…to read the rest of this essay, written as a final project for my Media Studies 260 course, open the full pdf: Words with Friends; Connection in the New Millenium v2)


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