Revenge of the English majors

An RN&R staffer shares her obsession with an online word game


Let’s see, I’ve got an S, that’s good. I can put the S on the end of BUMP there, and build down … SALE … SLAG … SEAL … wait a minute. SEA … GULL. SEAGULL! It’s a seven-letter word! That’s a 35-point bonus!

“YEAH, beee-yatch!”

My dog, who had been sleeping soundly, wakes up with a violent leap and gives me dirty looks from the living room. I spring up from my chair and start dancing madly around the computer, pumping my fists in the air and hollering something along the lines of, “Who’s your daddy?” I may have even “raised the roof” a little.

I’m not proud of my behavior, but the thrill of a 60-point play is sometimes a little too much excitement to bear quietly. Especially when your opponent has been smoking you like a Christmas ham. And besides, she can’t hear me taunting her, because we’re playing on the Internet.

Yes, I have become addicted to an Internet game. It’s called Literati, offered by Yahoo! Games, and it’s the closest thing to Scrabble that I’ve been able to find online. At any given moment, you could find up to 5,500 geeks (read: English majors) like me duking it out word by word and alternately ignoring and annoying their families.

Literati is set up as much like Scrabble as it can be without infringing on copyright laws. The board is similar, with double- and triple-letter squares, as well as double- and triple-word squares, but the squares are in different places. You build words horizontally and vertically, starting from the middle square. You get seven letters at a time until the stock runs out, and any remaining letters at the end of the game are subtracted from your score.

A significant departure from Scrabble is that the letter tiles in Literati are totally random—you can have three “Q"s in one game or none at all. And the point values are different as well. The really tough letters, like “Z” and “X,” only get you five points, instead of eight or 10 points in Scrabble. You still get blank tiles, which have no point value, and you can choose which letter you’d like a blank tile to represent by typing it in on your keyboard.

Of course, the major difference between the traditional family night of Scrabble and playing Literati is that you’re playing on a computer against complete strangers, who have screen names like “Superwench2001” and “Pat_can_I_buy_a_vowel.”

These people might not be as gracious in victory and defeat as your Aunt Marge might be. These people might taunt you mercilessly when all you can come up with is the word “AS.” These people might start spelling out naughty words on your Literati board.

As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.

And then there are the peculiar quirks of computers themselves, which are known to crash and burn when you really, REALLY wish they wouldn’t. Like, just for example, when you are about to win a crucial game of Literati. And unless you’ve got one of those fancy-shmancy DSL lines, your 56K dial-up modem could be the bane of your existence. Like, just for example, when a friend calls you and breaks your Internet connection as you’re busting out the word “TRENDIER” for a serious Literati ass-whooping.

To minimize these kinds of problems, make sure your computer meets the minimum system requirements. You’ll need a Java-enabled browser, like Netscape or Microsoft Internet Explorer. America Online’s browser doesn’t work well with Yahoo! Games, and WebTV doesn’t support Java at all. Want to slack off at the office and play a game or two? Better make sure you’re not behind a firewall, or you’re S.O.L.

When all your systems are go, point your browser in the direction of and click on Literati. If you haven’t already, you’ll need to take a moment to register with Yahoo! to get an ID and a password set up, which is free.

As you open the main Literati page, you’ll see several playing options: Social, Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced and Ladder. Most people play in the Social areas, because they’re kind, well-adjusted people with a firm grasp on what’s important in life.

The rest of us play on the Ladder.

The Ladder is a rags-to-riches style competition, in which you start at the bottom rung (which is why they call it a Ladder), and as you beat players in higher rungs, you move higher and higher up the Ladder. There are currently more than 17,000 screen names registered for the Ladder, but don’t worry—you won’t have to beat 16,999 people to make it to No.1. Here’s how it works:

Let’s say I’m on rung 100, and Superwench2001 is on rung 50 (actually, she’s currently ranked No. 1, but not for long if I can help it). If I beat Superwench2001, I move up halfway between her rung and mine, so my new rung is 75. Superwench2001 moves down one rung to 51, and the person at 51 moves up to 50. I boot the person at rung 75 out of his spot, and everyone from 75 on down to 99 moves down one spot as well to make room for me.

The upshot of this system is that you can actually just sit there, not playing at all, and watch your rung plummet as people climb into the rungs above you. Overnight, your impressive standing at rung 871 can drop to 1,066 with no effort on your part. How do you halt the inevitable decline in status?

You keep playing … and playing.

I’ve been known to spend entire weekends, as much as 12 hours a day, playing Literati. I’ll take breaks for food and cigarettes, and to take my poor puppy on walks when her bladder nears the bursting point. (When my bladder nears the bursting point, I’ll generally just ignore it. I’m a sick, sick woman.)

Sometimes I’ll burn through a whole pot of coffee and a pack of Marlboro Ultra Lights by dinnertime, and by then I’m so hopped up on nicotine and caffeine and adrenaline I’m like an epileptic with Tourette Syndrome, shaking and swearing at my computer screen. Sailors have nothing on my ability to hurl obscenities when I’m getting smoked at Literati.

My friends make fun of me for this, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s no different than guys bitching and moaning while they watch sports on TV. No, actually, it IS different, because you guys are just armchair quarterbacks. At least I’m actually involved in the game I’m cussing about.

And believe me, I’m not the only one. Yahoo! has actually provided an obscenity filter, which you can set at your discretion, because of the filth flying around the Literati chat area at times. As in all Internet games, some players are just there to annoy people or hook up with possible cybersex partners.

But there are plenty of people out there like me, who are truly looking for intelligent competition. People like me, who have beaten their lovers at Scrabble so consistently that these loved ones refuse to play. People like me, who may find themselves absent-mindedly counting the letters in random words at work, in the car, at a nightclub …

People like me, perhaps, with a tinge of obsession.

Obsession … O-B-S-E-S-S-E-D … eight letters … if there were a "D" on the board, I could get a pretty good score.