About two months ago, I discovered the popular Words With Friends app. Yes, this probably makes me the last person on the planet to do so, but I quickly made up for my delayed discovery by playing the game constantly in those small time gaps of my day. It became my go-to time-filler app while waiting in the supermarket line, soccer practices, doctors' offices and, yes, even while I'm waiting for the beets to roast in the oven. Beets roast slowly and my family has noticed that we've been eating them a lot lately. It's because of Words With Friends; I can't stop playing and beets buy me 45 minutes of play time.
I totally love the game and play it every night for at least an hour before bed. I've chastised East Coast players for starting games with me and then going to sleep before we finish. Rude, I told them. You should stay awake.
I love how the game challenges my brain. Just when I thought I was burning out the last of my brain cells, into my life comes this game that has sharpened my focus, tests my strategic thinking skills and, of course, challenges my vocabulary.
Best of all, through playing Words With Friends, I've been able to connect and play with a cousin who I don't see nearly enough; a high school friend who I last saw in 1968; and an old family friend in Philadelphia who has married, divorced and sent a daughter I've never met off to college since we last spent this much time together. I also play with journalists I know from my many pit stops along the career highway and several people I've written about -- a dog rescuer, a real estate agent, a fellow mom with children adopted from China. I also play with some randomly assigned players, some of whom are excellent; one beat me by 200 points.
I played so much that I justified upgrading to the advertisement-free version of the app. A worthy investment, I thought, although at $14.99, it's the most expensive app I've ever bought. But it was cheaper than the online shopping I am prone to do when I'm bored, and playing Words With Friends has kept me from boredom. In short, I love this game.
And then a few days ago I discovered a horrible truth: People cheat when they play Words With Friends. I'm not talking about spending some time with a dictionary and studying up on your Z words -- the stuff of serious Scrabble-playing. I'm talking outright dishonest cheating here, taking credit for victories you don't earn. There are multiple free websites that players use to help them make words with their letters. You type in your letters and voila! it gives you words -- dozens, sometimes hundreds of words -- that maximize the player's scoring.
Call me an innocent, call me naive; I simply had no idea. I admit that when two different players used the word dharna, I began to wonder a bit. I had to look dharna up. It's a fast in India usually conducted at the door of a debtor. It's a call for justice, and apparently it's a word that can rack up a big score when properly placed on the Words With Friends board. What it isn't however, is a word that anyone I know uses. Ever.
For the record, I don't know if any of the people I have played with cheated. I play with some very smart people, most of whom have been immersed in the game for awhile now. Just by playing for a few weeks, I've added to my vocabulary a number of words -- especially two-letter words for Qs and words that end in J (both 10 point letters). Maybe that's the case among my game mates.
But the cheat sites are obviously flourishing and I can't for the life of me understand why. Not that cheating in any form is OK, but why cheat in a game like this? There are no prizes, no winning ticket at the races to cash in. There is no prize for having the highest score and claiming your undeserved victory.
The fun of playing Words With Friends comes from the challenge. The longer I stare at the board and concentrate, the more words and score possibilities I see. I once got a 102 score off my son -- granted he's just 12 -- and strutted around for a day. How does it feel if you beat someone who doesn't know you had the help of a computer to find your words -- words you don't even know the meaning of? How does that possibly feel good? Do you high-five yourself in the mirror after? Just you and your nasty little secret?
Not only are there cheaters getting help finding impressive high-scoring words, there are strategies designed to hide their cheating. BlogMyBrain.com feeds you words that allow you to choose to play as a middle schooler, high schooler, college grad, English professor or "World Champion." I'm guessing this is because your lifelong friends won't find it believable that you know what a dharna is, so the cheat site feeds you words at your own level and your cheating can go undetected.
Like this comment by Dogmom on BlogMyBrain on May 10, 2013: "Great help.......Thank you!!!!! I go from College to high school and even middle school... Doesn't look like I'm using words that people know that I don't know...... Thanks again!!!" Her pups must be so proud.
According to BlogMyBrain.com, there are more than 3.5 million words played every hour in this game and 4.8 million games finished each day. How many of them involved cheaters?
Some user surveys say that 83 percent of players feel more connected to their friends and family because of the game -- a good thing, and certainly something that describes what happened to me. One out of 10 players have hooked up with someone through the game and 38 percent say that they would be more willing to "hook up" with someone if he or she was a strong player. So are people cheating hoping to get laid? What a great start to a relationship: I cheated to woo you and it worked.
I'm not sure what LivelyIvy is referring to exactly here, but he or she posted on May 2, 2013: "That one put me over her total score. I now have a chance. Thanks!!!!"
And of course cheating begets more cheating. From Colleen on April 30, 2013: "my opponent (who usually goes with words like "bit") just played "taverna"...a stretch for sure. You gave me "flexion" for over 100! ty tyty"
I admit that the discovery of cheat sites has left me disheartened. This is what humanity has devolved into? This is the best we can do? Playing games with friends is no longer fun enough unless we are always victorious? Ugh, I say, a word that should score me some points (U=2; G=3; H=3).
I turned to Abhinav Agrawal, the general manager of Words With Friends for Zynga, hoping he could provide some answers. Here's the company's official response:
"Zynga's mission is to connect the world through games so we try to focus on the social and the fun more than the win. Of course many players take their games seriously -- they like to keep track of their win-loss records, their longest words or their highest-scoring words and so on. Sometimes the temptation to win, to show your friends and family how good you are, just becomes too great but we consistently recommend that players play fairly."
The bottom line is that cheating proves just one thing: That you are a cheater. And since holding a dharna on your doorstep isn't an option, I'm just going to have to trust that this post puts you all on notice: Play fair or play with someone else.