I have at least two loves in common with Alec Baldwin: a love for the smartly kooky television comedy "30 Rock," in which he stars, and a love for the Scrabble-like smartphone game Words with Friends.He may be a wee more … passionate about the multiplayer word game than me, though, as he was just this week kicked off a plane for refusing to turn off his iPad because he was engaged in a pre-takeoff move.
Oh, Alec - way to give us Words With Friends-ers a bad rap. You’re lucky I find your erratic, egotistical "30 Rock"alter ego so hilarious. I’m far too used to laughing at the character you’ve created to be bothered too much by the behavior of the man behind him. So instead of defending or condemning you for being the latest celebrity vs. airline tantrum, I’d rather reflect on the game that prompted it.
Is Words with Friendsjust another time-sucking and alluring online activity - a vice that distracts us and agitates our social graces? Or is there some value to be found in competing with others via virtual crossword-ing?
But maybe a better starting question is: why do those who play this game … play this game?
I certainly can’t tell you why Alec began playing it - or even why my own word-wrangling friends/opponents did. I know, though, that it started as a distraction for me. I installed it on my iPhone to help amuse away life’s inconvenient blips - bus rides, long supermarket lines, sleepless and fitful nights. I knew I’d likely abuse it - that writer’s block or procrastination might lead me to find silly comfort in, say, the victory of a triple world score. I also knew that a writer is supposed to embrace life’s pauses and blips - to, as Henry James said, be "one on whom nothing is lost.”
But I mean really, isn’t playing with words a healthier way to relax than, say, popping on Facebook or heading to the fridge for a high-carb, sodium-heavy treat (especially for a language lover)? I was willing to take the risks.
So now, after a little more than a year as a Words with Friends player, I’m not surprised that it can indeed be a blight on my time. I’m well aware that I need to curb my usage in social settings - just as with any cell-phone activity - so that I can still give people my full attention. I still play at dumb, unnecessary moments every so often - but not so very often as to threaten relationships or tasks. And I plan to keep it that way.
I am surprised that the game has become an odd little burst of online connection to friends from all over the world - a kind of (laugh it you want) … fellowship, even.
That may sound as if I’m trying far too hard to ennoble or redeem a frivolous activity. I’m not. As I said, it can most definitely be a drain on time and attention. But while I recognize its potential harm, I also believe it can be a healthy way to good-naturedly engage with one another.
What I so appreciate about the game is the chance to toss down tiles with people I actually know. I play with those I hang out with during the week, or went to school with, or at the very least, connected with through mutual friends and social networks. I can see the people behind the screens.
The text message-like chat feature of the game also helps anchor play in the real, non-virtual word. We can ask questions about plans, or offer congratulations on events, or joke about more than just the moves played. These little conversations, coupled with amiable competition, make this frivolous activity an occasion for gracious living. If we truly believe our entire world belongs to God, even our routines of sociable amusement can be habits of Christian fellowship - opportunities to live out the fruit of the Spirit in the everyday.
It’s obvious that online interaction can’t ever substitute for real relationships. And we should always be wary of addicting ourselves to any activity - surrendering to it at the expense of our manners or goals. But Words with Friendshas proven to me that, in the right context, a simple game can serve as a playful extension of connections already in place.
And no matter what you think about the angry Alec vs. American Airlines incident, I say: just don’t blame the game.
(Photo courtesy of David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons.)