This week the New Yorker had an article about the resurgence of Scrabble in American and world culture. I have been silent on my relationship with the game for a while. Like many addicts, I went from pursuing an innocent pastime to nursing a disruptive habit. When my kids took to referring to my Treo 650 as my "Scrabble phone," I knew I had taken it too far. I realized that I probably looked no different than the eight year olds I have seen zombified by Game Boys, trailing silently behind their parents in department stores in an unseeing stupor. I swore off the game for several months, then tried (with partial success) to enjoy it in moderation. I stopped playing in front of my family; I squeeze in games in private moments, in the bathroom, between tasks during the day. The pattern is not unlike someone who smokes.
The article's author described Scrabble as "both mindless and cerebral, which may account for its appeal to writers…" It's quite true – it creates the illusion of mental accomplishment without undue strain. Its effects are like nicotine, simultaneously creating a relaxed feeling while increasing your heart rate.
You might think that I would be pleased that millions of other players and a respectable pantheon of celebrities (including our new president) enjoy the game and aren't ashamed to say it. It would be nice if an ability to play were socially useful, like knowing how to play golf or tennis or bridge. And yet, the resurgence is mostly happening online – stolen moments of goofing off from millions of students and office workers. I have yet to be in any social situation where Scrabble skill was more an advantage than a goofy sort of shame. Unless Barack Obama calls me up and invites me to a game on the White House lawn, I'm not likely to get any sort of recognition for this skill, except from those equally marginalized for their geeky hobbies.
Of course, that only betrays my bias. I have a hard time acknowledging anything as being valid use of time unless it has a direction and a purpose. Games are to be enjoyed; there is no other purpose. But where does my personal enjoyment fit into the grand scheme of things? Some people forgive simple pleasures if they sustain a person and enable them to continue work: words like "recharge your batteries," "clear your mind," and "rejuvenate" are all common justifications, purposes assigned to purposeless pleasures. But this only leads me back to tail-biting loops and contradictions: we work so we can play so we can work so we can play, etc. ad infinitum. A life without personal pleasure seems meaningless; all work and no play does indeed make Jack a dull boy. But a life lived with one's own personal pleasure as its goal seems equally pointless and empty of meaning. All that points back to vocation – the only way to resolve the contradiction is to remove it, so that your idea of fun and your idea of work become one and the same thing.