First one to play MATTEL is a gullible ouroboros

Tuesday, 6 April 2010 — 6:53pm | Journalism, Scrabble

In a stunning reminder of why news media should refrain from acting as aggregators for corporate press releases, Mattel scored a marketing coup today when it announced that an upcoming edition of Scrabble will permit the use of proper nouns. You would think this presents itself as yet another opportunity for me to be indignant about dictionary politics, but I honestly don’t care—not about the Scrabble, anyway. This is only confirmation of what we already knew: that Mattel is every bit as capable of executive insanity as its sworn enemy Hasbro, Scrabble’s corporate steward in North America.

[Edit: While I was composing this post, Stefan Fatsis wrote a piece for Slate explaining what’s going on, and CNET had the sense to talk to John D. Williams. Mattel is promoting a spinoff product called Scrabble Trickster, with cards that allow players to bend the traditional rules—kind of like the “Cheat” card in Munchkin, but less funny and presumably without cartoons. I’ll leave my original post up anyhow.]

Here’s what happened, as far as I can reconstruct it: Mattel’s PR geniuses thought it would be clever, not to mention economical, to publish a special version of Scrabble with one line of the bundled rulebook changed, then write a press release several orders of magnitude longer than the rulebook amendment itself, circulate it to British papers with a notorious history of swallowing press releases whole (this we know from Ben Goldacre, Britain’s most vigilant media watchdog in science and medicine), and rub their hands in glee as the story goes viral.

Some of the UK club directors were interviewed while caught off guard, providing a font of choice quotes in the Daily Mail. The reaction in the North American scene, as far as I can tell from the tournament players’ mailing list, has been fairly sedate; it only takes a minute to understand that this is a packaging manoeuvre, and a few more minutes to realize that Mattel is serious. How serious? Not very, as it turns out: those who have been in contact with the relevant sources report that the use of proper nouns is only to be one of many suggested house rules to liven up the game. Given that your average living-room player waiting forever for her grandchildren to make a move already plays by loose, provisional house rules concerning what qualifies as a word, there’s no reason to fuss.

There will no impact on competitive play, for whatever we’re worth. (Although I do not have hard figures, I am fairly sure that the worldwide tally of active tournament Scrabble players is presently outnumbered by the beta testers for StarCraft II. The beta testers.) In North America, where Hasbro owns the rights and Mattel’s Scrabble products are nowhere to be found, the official tournament lexicon is steered by the player-managed NASPA Dictionary Committee. In the UK and other Mattel territories, the competitive scene is managed by WESPA, which has its own degree of autonomy in its contractual relationship with Mattel’s Collins Scrabble Words. Here’s what WESPA had to say in April 2009:

Mattel has recognized that WESPA has the right to determine the content of any new official wordlist. The Committee has explored various options for publication of the next wordlist – these include approaching Collins, other publishers and WESPA itself publishing a new wordlist. The Committee concluded that the most pragmatic option was to approach Mattel’s licensed publisher, Collins, for the next update of the official wordlist. It has been agreed with Mattel and Collins that WESPA can determine the content of the wordlist, including sourcing words from dictionaries other than Collins.

So from a Scrabble perspective, there is nothing to worry about, short of a future newcomers to the tournament scene wondering why we don’t play by the same rules as the ones suggested by Mattel. I’ve seen this happen before: years prior to the inclusion of QI in the 2006 revision of the North American word list, one newcomer to the Calgary club played QI (having heard news reports of its validity in Britain) and was astonished when I challenged it off the board.

Certainly the predatory sabre-rattling between Hasbro and Mattel over intellectual property only muddies the issue for everyone, but this is nothing new. Hasbro has indulged in this madness before: there’s an old story—I believe it appears in Stefan Fatsis’ Word Freak—about how John D. Williams, Hasbro’s former liaison to the North American tournament players, had a meeting with Hasbro executives that asked him what he thought about a special rock-star edition of Scrabble where names like Mick Jagger were playable words. And to this day, the official Scrabble dictionaries you see on North American shelves differ from the tournament lexicon in their omission of offensive words—a circumstance that led to an infamous conundrum at the 2004 National Championship, which I had the unique pleasure of witnessing firsthand.

The lesson to take away from this is that lexicons are a matter of communal assent. Nobody should be under the illusion that Mattel has any authority over how the game is played, even at the most casual level. So long as Hasbro and Mattel print the Alfred Butts layout with the bonus squares in the right place, with correct letter counts and point values in the English-speaking lands, Scrabble will remain the same as it has ever been.

The complacency of the media is of far greater concern. This is a story about printing a manual. It won’t even go as far as affecting the licensed computer games (because logistically, it can’t). There is no sane reason for this to be global headline news; it’s gross misinformation on an outrageous scale.

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3 rejoinders to “First one to play MATTEL is a gullible ouroboros”

  1. Maybe more people than we realized had a secret, personal vendetta against Scrabble, ever since they were kids and were told that they couldn’t use their name in a match.

    I’ve played Scrabble games where everyone agreed beforehand that proper nouns were acceptable. I’m sure we weren’t the only ones. However, those games were inevitably short and uninteresting; with the current generation’s seeming obsession with absurd baby names it’s not hard to justify nearly anything as a proper noun.

    You’re right, though – it’ s just a game, and certainly not something that warrants global coverage on such a scale.

    Tuesday, 6 April 2010 at 9:57pm

  2. Oh, I do think the game warrants global coverage if it generates good stories or significant events. Playing into the hands of a deliberately ambiguous PR message tailored to attract attention, not so much. The Daily Mail does it all the time with drug companies, but this time they’ve stepped over the line and into something I care about. (Misplaced priorities? Moi?)

    There is too much emphasis on “scooping” these days to establish beachheads on Google and Twitter, and not enough emphasis on patient fact-checking. I’m guilty of it myself here, jumping the gun on incomplete information before all the facts were in the open.

    Tuesday, 6 April 2010 at 10:06pm

  3. Everyone wants to be able to say they were “like totally the first one EVER to write about that new trend/meme/disaster/issuethatnoonecaresabout.”

    I love that you posted the link to the debunking article on yesterday’s National Post Scrabble story, and that the HEADLINE of today’s National Post is that same story, only worded in a way that’s even more inflammatory: “New Scrabble Rules Spell Anarchy, Purists Say.”

    I guess they didn’t see your comment.

    Wednesday, 7 April 2010 at 6:08pm

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