Every Sunday at the Yovani Hotel in Kampala, a few Ugandans gather to play Scrabble. Considering English is Uganda’s official language, but not the language most commonly spoken (that would be the tribal language), that seems pretty amazing to me. But several of the players have competed in international Scrabble contests.
So far I haven’t played Scrabble with the Ugandans, although I’ve been invited. Maybe I will work up my nerve on my next trip to Africa. I just need to make sure I’m in Kampala on Sunday.
I love word games, particularly crossword puzzles. (Since I’m engineer I should probably love number games.) I’m not particularly good, but I enjoy the mental effort. Sometimes, I have to “cheat”; when stumped, I will look up an answer on the Internet (for example, someone’s middle name, author of a book I’ve never heard of). Sometimes I have to put the puzzle down for awhile, and then pick it up later.
Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of Scrabble. At work, I play at lunch. There are normally just two of us, but on occasion we get as many as four. The Scrabble game is important to me: it breaks up my day and makes me more productive in afternoon (at least that’s what I tell my boss).
The fascination with games is fairly universal. According to a recent article by Lev Grossman in Time magazine (11 March 2013):
Puzzles have always been a ubiquitous but unassuming and peripheral presence in our lives, folded meekly into the back pages of magazines and newspapers. But with the rise of the Internet and mobile devices, they’ve moved closer to center stage and become a not insignificant part of the global culture, almost as pervasive, in terms of their reach and the number of person-hours they consume, as television and movies. No one knows exactly how many Americans do puzzles, but everyone agrees that the number of crossword puzzlers runs into the tens of millions. Estimates for the number of sudoku players run up to 80 million worldwide. And that’s to say nothing of puzzlish and puzzlesque activies like Scrabble, Words with Friends, bridge, Tetris, Rubik’s Cubes (300 million sold) and Angry Birds (260 million users at last count). Now that puzzles have escaped from newspapers and migrated onto our phones and tablets, no idle moment is safe from them.
I guess I’m seriously out of date; I still do them the old-fashioned way, on paper or on a board.
My excuse for my puzzle passion (or addiction) is that it helps keep my elderly brain sharp. And AARP highly recommends them to seniors as a possible prophylatic against dementia. Will Shortz, the crossword editor for the New York Times and the word-puzzle pro from NPR, has another explanation:
We’re faced with problems every day in life, and we almost never get clarity. . . . Whereas with a human-made puzzle , you have the satisfaction of being completely in control: you start the challenge from the beginning, and you move all the way to the end. That’s a satisfaction you don’t get much in real life.
That, of course, assumes that you come close to finishing the crossword or word puzzle.
By the way Lev, if word puzzles are so universally loved, why did Time give up its short experiment with putting crossword puzzles in their magazine? AARP stands behind its recommendation and provides a crossword puzzle with its magazine.