In Which I am Conned by a Bot
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Monthly musings of the naughtily nice kind
If you enjoy good old-fashioned Scrabble you might be tempted by the online version, Words with Friends. The possibility of playing with professors from Ontario and watermelon vendors from Trinidad is exciting. And, as the game boards are automatically formatted to exclude non-words, there would be no arguments over whether ‘Joneses’ is permitted. (Good news – it is, especially in Wales.)
First I had to conjure up an alias, because nobody ever plays under their real name. So if you find your opponent is Abraham Lincoln, don’t get excited, it’s not the real Abraham Lincoln. I’ve called myself a lot of things in my time, most of them unprintable, but this time I called myself Bomberg’s Giant Toad as Mrs Tiggywinkle was already bagged.
The great thing about online Scrabble is that there’s also a cast of characters jostling to play with you. Some are obviously real people, sporting photographs of them with their dogs, and during the game they might chat with you – if they’re men, they’ll be asking if you’re married (yawn). Some are obviously fictional, relating to some kind of seasonal theme. For example, if the theme was cooking, there’d be one called Charlene the Custard-Curdler and there’d be a cartoon of her curdling custard. So far, so good.
However, I became uneasily aware there were some players who looked like real people but actually weren’t. In all innocence, I accepted an invitation to play from a nice girl called Emma. There was a picture of her in a straw hat, as if she was at a picnic. Whenever I played a word, Emma would respond with frightening swiftness, even in the middle of the night, and she used words like Cystein, Hokiest and Gnar. Perhaps she was a terrifyingly erudite young Oxford scholar. But she never slept, not even in the daytime.
I googled her name, as I do with so many strangers who come into my orbit – modern life has completely destroyed trust, hasn’t it? I found that Emma, along with a whole gaggle of pretty girls, wasn’t a real person at all, but a ‘bot’. If you were an infant in the 1950s, a bot was something faintly rude, but now ‘bot’ is an abbreviation of ‘robot, so the fair Emma was not, in fact, attending picnics on the banks of the Cherwell or anywhere else.
Another thing that rattled me was that instead of just playing Scrabble, I was being forced into some kind of competitive game involving goals and rewards. Just by completing a game, I found myself an unwilling recipient of Exclusive Stickers or a Rosy Polka Dot Style for the letters I was using. I was urged to ‘use coins to buy power ups’ and congratulated on achieving some kind of spurious virtual reward, which was waiting for me in the kind of virtual treasure chest that would feature in Pirates of the Caribbean were it designed by the makers of My Little Pony.
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Suppressing the impulse to scream aloud a protest at all this pointless flim-flam, I am also finding it increasingly difficult to hack my way through endless adverts to the Scrabble board itself. These ads display other games, in which bots and avatars urge me to enter quaint villages and re-arrange virtual furniture, rescue children starving in a snowy street, or save a virtual dog from drowning. For crying out loud! Spare me this madness! I want to play Scrabble, that’s all!
It’s all got a bit much, actually. I am just going outside, and I may be some time.
Follow Sue on Twitter: @sue_limb