Sophie Heawood: Down with Scrabulous and its 'op', 'voe' and 'id'

The <i>IoS</i> writer rues the day she started playing Scrabble online
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The Independent Online

My friends are all very upset at the news that they might not be allowed to play online Scrabble any more. The angry chieftains at the toy companies Hasbro and Mattel, co-owners of the Scrabble trademark, told the social networking website Facebook to take down the "Scrabulous" application this week, because it infringes their copyright. As yet, the internet imitation of Scrabble lives on, and Facebook has refused to comment. Still, my friends are already wiping their tears on their virtual dictionaries and wondering what they will do all day long when they can no longer turn letters into words inside a little box on a slightly bigger screen.

I don't get it. After months of resisting the Scrabulous craze, I eventually gave in, but I'm not sure why. I had resisted because it is so boring: playing Scrabble on the internet takes an age. You take your turn and then wait for the other person to come online and take theirs. Whole weeks, months, millennia can pass; Russian chess-masters have got nothing on this.

As for Scrabble's delusions of literary merit – there's nothing literary about being good with words individually. Literature involves being good with groups of words, in a particular order. It's like a chef only being good with separate ingredients: a familiarity with flour, sugar and eggs isn't going to help you trounce Jane Asher in championship cake-baking.

And it's not as if I'm even testing my vocabulary. In my current game, I've slogged my lexical guts out to turn an excruciating selection of letters into genius words such as "queried" and "pronged" – only to watch my cursed opponent leap 20 points into the lead by filling our board with pointless clumps including "voe", "op", and "id". I mean, "voe", "op" and "id" are not even words, surely – they're the noises scientologists make when they sleep, dreaming of Thetans. The computer says he is allowed these follies. I insist my friend is cheating.

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans," said John Lennon. Now he would surely say: "Life is what happens to you when you turn on the internet to check the cinema times and find yourself still there four hours later having discovered a website with videos of cats wearing hats." Internet time-wasting is fun when it happens by accident. But Scrabulous is far too intentional for my liking, so it's no loss to me if the toy companies have the application banned.

Yet, ironically enough, it will be a huge loss for them. Thousands of Scrabulous users say they've got so hooked online that they bought a nice old-fashioned copy of the board game to play offline. Hasbro and Mattel "must be certifiably insane. Scrabulous is the best, cheapest, hippest advertising they could possibly have," says one member of the Save Scrabulous groups appearing all over Facebook, and he's right.

One of the reasons the music industry is in such a pickle right now, with major job losses at EMI, is not that the pirate download culture destroyed them, but that they failed to accept and capitalise on download culture sooner.

If the games market is now faced with online competition too, it should watch and learn.

Of course, the toy-makers waited until January to make their complaint, having first benefited from a huge surge in Scrabble's Christmas sales. And it's all thanks to some ingenious programmers who turned Scrabble into an online craze for free. Scrabulous? The programmers should make them a new game: Scrupulous.