Thursday, March 12, 2015


Things were getting serious.

Bob was eyeing up the last triple word score.

Jemima was about to place her blank letter to extend the word 'Quit' to 'Quite'.

That was that. She was going to win again.

Bob sighed, resigned to another pride-sapping defeat.

Jemima counted up the score.

"I think that makes 36 points, if I'm not wrong Bob?'

Jemima beamed proudly.

Bob humphed and added Jemima's score to the tally.

Was he ever going to beat that self-satisfied little Miss Annoying?

He placed four letters on the board.

"No that's no good Bob," said Jemima. "That word doesn't mean anything."

Bob was fed up.

Jemima always beat Bob.

Bob looked forlornly at the list of tallies in the Scrabble box.

Bob: 78
Sally: 256

Bob: 83
Sally: 246

Bob: 56
Sally: 238

It made for sorry reading.

He didn't bother turning over the paper.

Bob felt humiliated and stupid.

Jemima was clearly brilliantly clever.

Stop making sense.

Looked at together, the words placed on the board would have made no sense whatsoever.

There was not a single intelligible sentence to be found.

Nobody would bother reading it all anyway.

That was not the point.

These were just scores.

There was never any question of it making any sense; winning by the rules was everything.

That was something some of the family never seemed to understand.

They seemed to equate being good at Scrabble with understanding, with intelligence.

They were only partly wrong.

Being good at Scrabble was mainly about understanding a game, and having a very specific sort of intelligence.

To hell with making meaning, it was primarily about pattern recognition.

Any words would do as long as they fitted in on the board.

Bob was just about to add three letters (T,W,O) to the board when....

When Sally came to play.

Sally was bored.

"Can I play?", she asked.

"No, Sally, you are too young, and you are ruining my concentration," replied Bob grumpily.

"Buzz off."

Sally, aged four, took no notice of her brother and sister and grabbed a handful of letters off the Scrabble board.

"Hey, Sally stop you are messing up our game!"

"I want to play, I am going to make a house."

Sally was already piling up the seized letters into a leaning tower of meaning.

"Sally, put the letters back right now or I'll call Mum."

"No, I'm playing too."

"I'm making a house."


With all the petulance she could muster, Sally flung the board on the floor.

"You're stupid. It's not fair, I wanted to play TOO!"

Ivory towers.

I sometimes have the impression that Academia is a very sophisticated form of Scrabble.

The expert players take it very, very seriously indeed.

They have developed their skills considerably over the years.

They practice daily, looking up ever more obscure words in Scrabble dictionaries.

They develop strategy.

They look to measure themselves up against the best.

They play in clubs and go to conventions with their peers.

Looked at together their words don't always make much sense.

They are very unhappy if little kids grab the tiles laid on the board to build towers of their own.


  1. When I feel good about my play, I realize in a rush that I am playing the infinite game of telling the story for its own sake, almost commanded to retell it for its own sake and not because it is cool new screwdriver that can make my point better. The story finds you and uses you as "occasion for its recurrence" (Carse, Finite and Infinite Games).

    This is one of the points I tried to make in my most recent post about how we see. In this case as I try to find meaning in your story, I am driven by the meanings I have brought. I would like to go beyond my meanings and your meanings to a unified field of meaning. Maybe this is the infinite story of the missing ox in Zen literature. Words and stories takes up part way, but eventually we are at a loss for words to describe the experience and are reduced to pointing toward the moon. Words make the world legible, but not necessarily transparent or wise.

    1. Thanks Terry. I guess we are all just scrabbling around under the moon.

  2. Academia is a finite game. Learning is infinite. When the house man cries, "Faite vos jeux!" I know exactly where to put my chips.

    1. Now that is an interesting question: is learning really infinite?

    2. Infinite possibilities, finite actualities?

    3. For all practical purposes: infinite.

  3. Nice analogy Simon. I always love reading your posts, like reading a good book (or at least a good short story...). As I tinker on the edges of academia I often have mixed feelings about it too - I was always determined that if I ever was to do research, it'd be something that would be easily digestible, and usable by normal people rather than something that you needed a PhD in the topic to decipher. But...the further in you get the further from the real world you seem to get. It's good to be reminded about a bigger picture perspective from time to time.

    (I am aware your post probably refers to a certain piece of research - which I have not yet explored - so am just thinking about my own research experiences in general withe these comments!)

    1. Hi Tanya.

      Not sure what 'the' 'real' world is.

      I think we are just in our real worlds. This post doesn't refer to 'a certain piece of research' but the misunderstanding and conflict which may arise when people are playing with the same tiles but not by the same rules.

      I understand the frustration on both sides - I quite like Scrabble and I get annoyed when my six year old nicks all the tiles to build a tower.
      She gets annoyed with me and tells me that I am stupid.
      I tend to agree.

    2. "I assert that there is only one set of rules by which to play one's tiles. My way or the highway and the hell with the ones more or less travelled by," says the Finite Gamer.

      The six year old says, "The tiles are the rules so step off."

    3. I like both of these expressions: action research and research in action. Too often the research that I read is neither. It tends to be a festering noun. Of course, the concern troll in me wants to say that not all research is like that, know, concern troll gotta be fed.

    4. That is a marvellous noun: "Concern troll".

    5. We might even all be playing mahjong, y'know, just following different rules. I saw somebody get very annoyed that folk who had never played that before made up their own rules instead of following any of the established rule sets. Oh, the horror! They were having fun in the wrong way ;)

  4. Love this post! Might have my students read it! Maybe i will add it to the twitter scavenger hunt this semester in a vague way. Hmm

    1. Thanks for placing your letters here Maha. Triple comment score for you :-)

  5. Can't find a post from a few weeks? Months? ago by a game developer who railed against scrabble / words with friends for all the smug game play of conniving "words" like qi and za and xu.

    I kind of love the strategy playing defensively and taking advantage of making two words. I also fondly remember my mom teaching me (the board game) and time together. I remember when my scores started to inch closer to hers and eventually passed.

    Like Academia, you can game play it purely to get ahead or make a victory dance over some contrived combo of letters you would never use in spoken conversation. Or you can relish in the complex thinking and experimentation. It can both be trite play and powerful growth -- it's not the game it's how we are in that game.

    Or heck just make towers

    1. Alan your talk of playing with your mother echoed one of the reasons I loved playing that game.

      Yes it's not necessarily the game but how we are in the game. I love gaming games :-)

  6. Why does Bob keep playing when it's not fun? I think he doesn't have any hope of winning so I assume he likes to play victim to an oppressive system. He should play a different game.

    I love Montessori education for preschool children but I don't agree with everything it does. There is a Pink Tower. "10 pink wooden cubes ranging from 1cm3 to 10cm3, differing in 3 dimensions. The cubes increase progressively in the algebraic series of the third power. Therefore, the second cube equals 8 of the first; the third cube equals 27 of the first etc…" You can only do one thing with the Pink Tower - build it in the way prescribed. You cannot be creative with the blocks.

    Scrabble is a bit like that. Some people are not good at scrabble but can write poetry. Is the Ivory Tower like the Pink Tower? It comes in a box with instructions and is played by those who follow the rules and believe in towers. Is the Ivory Tower the real world? What about the shadowy creatures flitting about in its vicinity?

    1. What's this real world I keep hearing about?

    2. SarahH. Dunno but it is even more real.

  7. I played softball in my thirties and always got yelled at because I was too distracted by watching birds in the sky and the sunset instead of caring about winning. :) And I was in right field because it was the least important position. I think that's a win!

  8. when my son was little there were a couple of computer games he always wanted to play, and one was called Zoo Tycoon and we would patiently set up these zoos that would attract babbling people and create animal habitats so good the animals would mate and procreate and we could sell their babies for extra money to buy more features. But if i got distracted and looked the other way he'd pop dinosaur eggs into the zoo and when i looked back the dinosaurs would be eating all the customers and breaking down the fences and freeing the lions... it wasn't until we saw Jurassic Park together that I realized we'd been playing different games. By then I could see that how he learned - tossing it all up and seeing what landed where in disastrous ways - was different from how I learned (or had learned to learn). thanks as always for your delightful posts :)

    1. I feel affinity for the toss it all up and see where it lands approach :-)

  9. I love this! It is part of my job as an academic librarian to acculturate students to the norms/rules of academia. I love the one-on-one sessions that sometimes go beyond that into wielding a play of ideas. By the way, has anyone notice you assigned the high scores to Sally rather than Jemima? Win!

  10. I created a Scrabble hack with my family one night: no points, no hiding tiles, everyone can see everyone's tiles and we all help each other. The object of the game is to post the most interesting words possible which will create the most interesting story possible. With each play, the player must continue the story that's been started, incorporating their new word and as many of the words already played as possible...

  11. I was happy that when I read this, I remembered that I had read it before. My own little brain game. #menopause