Word Up

The evolution of online word games before Wordle made them popular again. You haven’t lived until you’ve played Acrophobia.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: I’m sort of at that age in my adulthood where I’m not really a heavy gamer, but my love of word games knows no bounds. So when Wordle became a thing, I became a fast fan as well as that annoying guy on Twitter who shares his playthroughs each morning. (Never really a heavy a Words With Friends player, though I enjoyed Scrabble as much as the next guy.) But in a lot of ways, Wordle one of many obsessions of this type, and I think the real secret is that it’s a fairly simple game, with reasonable restrictions on how it’s played, that has a surprising number of layers that emerge over time. In honor of Wordle’s success, Today’s Tedium looks back at the imprint word games have left on the world of technology in the decades prior. May your brain be teased. — Ernie @ Tedium

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“This event reinforces the fact that our online games can be played anywhere in the world, at anytime regardless of location.”

— Weldon S. Blankston (great name), the CEO of GIC Software, discussing the company’s big gimmick. GIC, an online gaming provider best known for running the website Wordland in the late ’90s and early 2000s, decided to have people play their game WINDOWords on a yacht in the San Francisco Bay, atop the Space Needle in Seattle, and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The gimmick? To become “the world’s first-ever land, sea, and air interactive real-time gaming event,” which sounds like the creation of a PR huckster if I’ve ever heard one. Gaming press of the era were pretty sarcastic about the effort: GameSpot allowed that it was a “gaming first,” but “only because nobody thought of it before now.”

Acrophobia

An example of Acrophobia in action. The game, alas, has been offline for many years. (via Reddit)

Acrophobia: The great social word game of the ’90s was born from IRC

Sometimes, a format gets a killer app and it takes over the medium entirely. In the late 1990s, IRC looked like it had the real potential to become a mainstream way of interacting online. (It quickly faded out, in favor of what we have now.)

If there was a game that could have pushed it over the edge into a real mainstream force, it likely would have been Acrophobia, an IRC game first conceived by Thandrie Davis, a onetime technology journalist, in 1995.

A chat-driven game driven by creativity, it had a simple conceit: Given a series of random letters, people in a given chat room had to come up with clever acronyms that matched the name. Like Wordle, it had a shared goal; unlike Wordle, that goal leans on creativity, rather than strategy.

It also led to a lot of natural profanity. May God help you if you got a F in your word, because someone was about to make a dirty joke. With shades of the card games Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity, one of the defining elements of Acrophobia was that it could get blue, fast.

From a technical standpoint, Acrophobia was essentially an IRC bot: Whenever it was placed in a channel, it played through a script, managed the votes of end users, and the one that received the most votes won.

If you’ve ever played the popular Twitter game Endless Jeopardy, itself built by internet old-timer and early Flash creative force Neil Cicierega, it works almost exactly the same way—which makes sense, because, as Davis told Wired in 1997, Acrophobia was directly inspired by an IRC Jeopardy game.

At its best, Acrophobia takes on an addictive tenor, as you want to create the funniest jokes. It would actually be a great game to see a revival on Twitter, because it works well among a group of people who don’t know one another. It’s an excellent icebreaker game.

Of course, being a game that’s effectively an IRC bot creates complications. Beyond the fact that it’s user-generated content that can get a little salty, IRC was kind of a crazy place back in the heyday of Acrophobia, and then you had the challenges of people getting logged off or booted from the server, a frequent occurrence because it was a famously unstable experience.

Perhaps that’s why Berkeley Systems, the company famed for its screensavers and You Don’t Know Jack franchise of games, felt inspired to take the game over at some point. The IRC game adapted to gain a degree of polish as it became part of a digital suite of games that included Jack. Given the ease in which the game could transition into dirty jokes, moderation was a key part of Acrophobia post-acquisition. But the IRC roots of Acrophobia created approaches to moderation that were seen as somewhat innovative at the time. As the 2000 book Community Building on the Web explained:

An intriguing approach to member self-management is to empower members to control their environment by pooling their opinions. Acrophobia, for example, includes a “complain” feature that allows the people in a chat room to vote an annoying person out of the room—essentially, to function as a “host in aggregate.” This strategy is loosely related to both the Slashdot moderator system, and the eBay reputation system—they all make use of the aggregate behavior and opinions of members. It’s likely that we’ll see more of these types of bottom-up systems in the future.

Even with its edginess, Acrophobia benefited greatly from the fact that it was an easy concept to understand, making it a great game for non-gamers.

“I showed my mother the game, and after five minutes, she got it,” Davis told Wired. “I wouldn’t want to put Command and Conquer in front of my mother.”

As a result, at least for some people, it became a little more than just a game; like many early casual games, Acrophobia excelled as a way to encourage socializing at a time when the internet was full of new people.

“Acrophobia is not just challenging and fun, it’s also a very social game, which probably explains why people are always commenting on how eventually they are going to have to leave the game to take care of some little chore—like eating or sleeping,” Ottawa Citizen columnist Bill Provick wrote of Acrophobia’s success as a casual game in 1999.

Eventually, over time, Davis moved on from Acrophobia and became a frequent developer in the games industry, with a focus on online trading-card games, among other titles. (In recent years, Davis has worked on the digital trading-card game Gods Unchained, with an expected expansion planned later this year.)

But while Acrophobia the game hasn’t been active in quite a few years—a FAQ blamed a merger that swallowed Berkeley Systems into Sierra On-Line, itself a company swallowed by larger companies multiple times over—a clone of the original, called Acrofever! is still playable today. (I again make the case that someone could build an Acrophobia Twitter bot and have it go viral in a matter of hours. It could potentially get people who argue all day to take a breather and make some dirty jokes instead. Additionally, it could kill global productivity.)

1997

The year the first patent for crossword development software was first granted. The tool that this led to, called Crossword Weaver, was groundbreaking, as it helped take the guesswork out of producing crossword puzzles thanks to the addition of a computer. Peter Rehm, a developer of the software noted that producing crossword puzzles was once a sophisticated art. “Millions can play chess and millions can solve crossword puzzles, but only a few dozen gifted people worldwide can make newspaper-style crossword puzzles,” he told the Deseret News in 1998. The software, made for Windows, is still being sold today.

Five examples of historically relevant word games played on computers and video game consoles

  1. Hangman for the Atari 2600. The Atari VCS, as it was known at the time of Hangman’s release, was not a console known for its ability to display a lot of word characters at all. So yes, it was extremely primitive for its time, but this 1978 title was likely the first word game a mainstream consumer ever ran into, so it definitely belongs on this list.
  2. Word Munchers. This 1985 title, made by the same developer at the state-funded organization that made The Oregon Trail and heavily tied to the Apple II, this ’80s game came to be one of the leading lights of edutainment, along with its sister program, Number Munchers, which came out a year later. It was effectively a mixture of arcade gameplay with efforts to get kids to understand the nuances of the English language. So not an Oregon Trail-level success, but I remember it well from my fifth-grade classroom.
  3. Wordtris. Lest you think that the Tetris craze didn’t have an impact on word logic, this spelling-driven game doesn’t have a direct tie to Alexey Pajitnov’s original game, other than its publisher was the same one that originally published Tetris outside of the Soviet Union. One fascinating angle of this story: Armenia-based Armen Sarkissian, one of the developers of this game, went into politics soon after its creation (even citing this story in his political stump speeches), and served as the president of Armenia for nearly four years, voluntarily leaving his post last month. So this game was produced by a future head of state, and honestly you don’t get more historically relevant than that.
  4. Strike a Match. What if I told you that one of the key investors in online multiplayer word games, while married to Merv Griffin, helped develop the idea for Jeopardy!? Well, you’d have the life story of Julann Griffin, who found a second act worth remembering with her company Boxerjam, which produced word-based games Strike a Match and Out of Order. While starting out on AOL, the company quickly found an audience on the web. The titles highlighted the huge audience that casual games had among early online users. ”You go in, you’re in the lobby, and you’ll find your relatives there…you go into your own room and play the game together and chat together and it’s like a family reunion,” Griffin, then 71, told CBS News in 2000. The company shut down in 2014, as blogger Joshua O’Connell recalled, though a successor company, Jam and Candy, is still active (as is Julann Griffin, still kicking at age 93).
  5. Words With Friends. We basically have to include this one on here, don’t we? While a close mimic of Scrabble, it became a mainstream phenomenon of its own about a decade ago, finding an audience among anyone who liked board games, random encounters, annoying flight attendants, and having a use for the smartphone in their pocket. When smartphones became a big deal, Words With Friends was one of the first things we played.

Google Whack

This image has the same energy as this image.

Googlewhacking: The game that got harder to play as time went on

As you probably know, I am a bit of a heavy Googler. It’s sort of my nature, the thing that gives me my power.

And Google, honestly, is a pretty good source for word games. For stumped Wordle cheaters, it’s likely the first place they go if they’re struggling to fit a square peg in a round hole and need a hint.

But what if you treated Google itself like a word game? What would that look like? Well, it’d look like Googlewhacking, a concept that gamed much popularity in the early-mid 2000s.

The idea, as forged by a man named Gary Stock about 20 years ago, was this: What if you could find a two-word phrase on Google that, with no quote marks around it, would bring about a single result? Apparently, Stock had to defend his territory when revealing this idea to the world:

Several people have e-mailed me claiming to have invented the idea of searching for one result. (Oddly, however, no one has claimed they invented ‘Looking up words in a dictionary’ :-) Here’s a hint, folks: some of the decaffeinated brands have all the flavor of the real thing!

Many people—myself included—have done such searches for years. It’s a natural thing for curious people to do. I just named it “Googlewhacking” (better than the Greek approximation, ‘hapax legomenon’).

The problem with Googlewhacks, of course, is that once they’re discovered, they’re almost immediately destroyed. As a man named Peter Dickman wrote on his page about Googlewhacks: “How to destroy a googlewhack: write it down on a Google accessible page.” (Many call SEO a destructive force on the internet. You will find no better example of a smoking gun than the Googlewhack.)

For a time, Googlewhacking had its own official website, since shuttered, that gathered Googlewhacks around the internet … which of course, meant that the Googlewhacks no longer existed. But it also became a great way for some to build some media attention. Dave Gorman, a writer and comedian, was first made aware of the Googlewhack concept when he was informed that his page had a Googlewhack of its own. He then did as many people do, and dedicated a year of his life to finding more Googlewhacks.

That led to both a series of stand-up performances—one of which is located here—in which Gorman described his process of uncovering these Googlewhacks, which eventually evolved into an extended procrastination effort to avoid writing the book he was supposed to write. To cover the advance he had spent in the process, he then turned it into a comedy show, which then became the book.

As The Guardian recalled in 2013, this show was a bit of a narrative experiment at the time:

This is not just a standup show but an emotionally involving yarn with a narrative arc imposed by the looming deadline of his 32nd birthday. Maybe not a big deal now, but a decade ago the idea of a quasi-theatrical monologue like this seemed revolutionary in the comedy world. Gorman, however, didn’t embark on his 91,000-mile adventure to create a show; he did it because he wanted to avoid writing the novel he’d been paid to write. He was 31. He had a beard. He was a grown-up. But he drank too much tequila on New Year’s Eve, made a drunken bet, and was hooked.

Gorman was the perfect vessel for the Googlewhack, because he was well-suited to highlight its absurdity.

Of course, Google is still around, but Googlewhacking is significantly harder these days. Just as an example: If I were to tweet a phrase that had never been used before, said phrase would get pulled in by multiple search engines and APIs, and the automation of the process would ensure that there would suddenly be search results for that two-word phrase. You basically would have to invent a phrase and then share it on a website that doesn’t have an API or an RSS feed—a tall order in 2022, surprisingly.

(You know what doesn’t come up though? Phone numbers, especially spammy ones that call me.)

But what makes it bad for playing elaborate word games makes it good for everything else.

Despite having all the hallmarks of a fad, it’s sort of nice that Wordle has become closer to a trend as the months have worn on and people are still playing.

Wordie Bird

Wordie Bird is a good game if you want a different spin on the daily word game approach.

I think it’s also nice to see variants on the game, like the four-panel Quordle and the golf-like riff Wordie Bird (that one developed by newsletter-sector fellow traveler Nathan Baschez). These games are only a little addictive, closer to habit forming, something that couldn’t be said about a lot of earlier generations of word games.

Acrophobia, for example, was a game you could play for hours and just keep getting amusement out of. It was a dopamine hit, thanks to the mixture of creative output and other people.

Wordle encourages other people, too, but only after the fact. You play the game and then you come back later to play it again. It’s very crossword-like in that way. And while not everyone likes the game or what division it seems to sometimes encourage, it nonetheless is a little spark of joy.

The best word games, whether meant for one player or built for social interaction, are like that.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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