Sunday, October 28, 2012

Exchanging words with friends

Last December, the actor Alec Baldwin was asked to leave an American Airlines flight boarding at Los Angeles International Airport because of his desire to continue to play the game Words with Friends on his smartphone after the aircraft's doors had closed. Undoubtedly the popularity of the game, similar to the longtime family-favorite board game Scrabble, didn't suffer as a result of the dustup at LAX.

Apparently, some users find Words With Friends captivating enough to have several games going with various opponents at once. Anyone who has played the game knows that heated discussions over which words are allowed and which are not commonly erupt. Unlike the analog game of Scrabble where a player can challenge an opponent's word, on Words With Friends, the program itself decides whether a word is acceptable.

As the game has grown in popularity, so too have the sites that users can consult to see what the seven random letter tiles they end up with each round can possibly spell. Plug in your seven letters plus one open letter on the board and all possibilities are quickly revealed to a user - even though many of the words can be those for which the user hasn't a clue about their meaning. These sites do link to a definition of even the most obscure words, but players are under no obligation to learn the meaning of whatever word they are supplied.

It's not uncommon after a particularly unusual word is played by someone not known for his use of unusual words ("feazing," anyone?), that an opponent will suggest that a help site was consulted. Or, more directly, will say, "You cheated, didn't you?" By "cheated," both parties typically will know that what's meant is the accusation that a help site was used.

A question then is whether it's wrong to consult such help sites when playing the game. Is it indeed cheating?

If no clear ground rules are set that forbid or encourage the use of such sites, then I find nothing wrong with using the sites. As long as the words fit and are accepted by the online game board, no violating of the established rules has occurred.

But as with many situations, a follow-up question might be if that's the best right solution to how to play the game fair and square where questions of possible cheating are removed from the table (or, in this case, screen) entirely. It's not.

The best right thing to do when engaging a new opponent in a game of Words With Friends is to establish an agreement that using help sites is perfectly OK or if using them is off limits for this particular game. Making the rules clear from the outset wherever possible not only can make for a more even playing field, it also can result in fewer misunderstandings and accusations. All in all, the transparency of rules makes the playing all that more pleasurable.

As for whether Alec Baldwin should have been bounced from the flight? Anyone not following the instructions of a flight attendant should know they run the risk of wrath. Regardless of whether the rules are enforced consistently, once the attendant makes it clear this is going to be one of the flights where you follow the rules or else, then the right thing is to follow the rules if you don't want to get kicked off the plane. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


William Jacobson said...


Aaack!!! Are you really condoning the use of computerized assistance during Word with Friends? The use of such aids may not be specifically forbidden by the rules of WWF but they are definitely forbidden by the rules of Scrabble - the tradition on which WWF stands.

The question really turns on the understanding of the players at the outset but since most WWF players would consider this cheating, it is probably unethical in most situations.

What is the point of playing WWF if your friends are using computers? It is supposed to be a battle of word skill... I can play Scrabble against the computer already. It would seem that by picking the friends I play WWF with, that I am setting the difficulty level I am willing to play. Increase that level by using aids and your 'friends' may well drop the game. I guess if you're willing to stoop to such levels, you may not have friends to play with anyway. ;)

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

I agree that it's cheating if you use an online word finder, but I don't consider it cheating if you see whether certain combinations of letters are actual words by checking them in the dictionary that is *provided* by the FB Scrabble game. It's just a different kind of game when you play it online. If the game allows you to play a word, it's a word, IMHO. Challenges don't really make sense in the online game. WWF makes you pay extra for a dictionary, but you can test a word by playing it and seeing if the game will let you play it. Are you really saying that if online Scrabble/WWF players don't know the meaning of the words that they play, then they're cheating? Really?

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