Scrabble: much ado about rules

Scrabble: much ado about rules

What’s in a rule? If you ask Scrabble aficionados, it seems the very future of their game. For a full day on Tuesday this week, the world of Scrabble fans almost ended when a British paper reported plans from Mattel— which markets the word game around the world, except North America—to introduce a new kind of Scrabble that permitted proper nouns.

Fans rebelled at the violation of their sacred rule, lest their game be taken over by those who can spell “Lady Gaga" but have no clue about “lascivious". Commentators became eschatologists, bemoaning the end of one era, and the start of another where the world gets more stupid. These fan(atic)s cooled down later when they realized that Mattel is bringing out a different version of Scrabble that includes proper nouns—not modifying rules for the existing version. But we can’t help but notice the furor a single rule change provoked.

People seem to care about rules even though, if we are to believe the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, rules aren’t quintessential to a game. In his Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein argued that rules don’t define a game. Most games involve competition (cricket), but all do not (solitaire). Most have rules (basketball) or a definite end (golf), but all do not—even throwing a ball against a wall is a game, after all. So none of these characteristics is common for all games.

What is similar is that people implicitly understand what a game is, without referring to explicit rules. There is, Wittgenstein said, some kind of “family resemblance" between cricket and throwing a ball against a wall. This resemblance comes from a social sense of familiarity: A child knows that both throwing a ball against a wall and cricket are games because everyone else in his building already thinks so.

This isn’t so different from how languages evolve. Meanings change and new words enter the lexicon because a group of people becomes familiar with the change—one person’s acceptance or rejection usually means nothing. Both languages and games have a social angle to them: You need to be able to relate them with another human.

Which is why it could be tragic if games such as Scrabble never end up evolving. Grandparents who like “sublime" will miss out on the chance to play with grandchildren who prefer “Sachin".

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