The Serious Business (and Social Benefits) of Word Games

One of the precious few positives in this year of isolation and unrest has been that many of us have reconnected with domestic life in a way our great-grandparents would recognize. We’re learning how to bake bread, knit matching scarves for the entire family, and finally build those garden beds.

One other throwback pastime has made a serious comeback: word games. And it turns out, this resurgence may be helping us and our families connect and stay engaged during these trying times. Raise your hand if you dug your dusty Boggle box out of the closet, or logged more hours on Words With Friends than you care to admit in the past 12 months. In the third quarter of 2020, as a second wave of the virus began to sweep the nation, Hasbro, makers of the granddaddy of all word-based board games, Scrabble, saw a 21% jump in sales. A mobile version, Scrabble GO, came out in March. By the end of April it had 2.5 million daily users — with players spending an average of an hour and forty minutes a day!

Why have such old-fashioned games touched a nerve? There’s a link between crises and crosswords. After all, out-of-work architect Alfred Mosher Butts invented Scrabble at his home in Queens, New York, in the depths of the Great Depression. Two other proud products of the Depression (and Queens) gave me my love of word games. They were my parents, Harold and Shirley Kobliner, who knew that the power of these games cannot be measured in quarterly revenue or downloads.

Fifty years into a very happy marriage, they started collecting and cataloging every expression they heard or read — on the radio or TV, from friends, family, and the cashier at the supermarket. (No googling, no peeking at existing lists.) Thirteen years later, they emerged with their debut book, So to Speak: 11,000 Expressions That’ll Knock Your Socks Off. Since its release, it has captured the word-game zeitgeist — racing up the charts on Amazon and earning high praise from language experts. My parents packed So to Speak with more than two dozen original games that turn the whole book into a playground for wordplay. There are parlor games like an idiom-based update on The Newlywed Game and silly tests of idiom acumen like “Real or Fake.” (Quick, which of these expressions is made-up? A yellow-dog contract, a red herring, as green as a young canary.) Taken together, the trove of expressions and the word games are a formula for bringing us closer in a time that threatens to pull us apart.

Harold and Shirley knew instinctively what sociologists and neuroscientists are just beginning to understand. Word games are serious business — not because they make a lot of money, but because they improve our mental health and strengthen our relationships when we play them. A 2019 study from Baylor University found that couples playing board games together released oxytocin, a hormone that helps strengthen our social bonds, including the connection between mother and newborn.

They might even be key to keeping families together. According to sociologist Samuel Tobin, who teaches and studies games and game theory at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts, “Every family, just like every society, has to renew itself continuously, and word games can help us do that.” In part, that’s because they can help bring younger generations into the fold.

“When we get together as a family,” Dr. Tobin explained in an interview, “the same stories are recounted, but every year different people take over the narrative, younger generations come in to add their bit to the old stories.” This is all part of creating family continuity and revitalizing our relationships. In the same way, language games, from Boggle to charades, let generations mix it up. (“Covidiot is not a word!” “Yes, it is!”) That’s why one of my favorite games in the book is called “Tomato, To-mah-to, Potato, Po-tah-to.” The rules are simple: Break into two teams, ensuring that each side has a range of ages. Each team has to come up with one old-school and one contemporary expression that both mean the same thing. My dad might call my mom his sweetie pie (as he often did), while my kids call their significant others BAE. (Have fun explaining that one to Grandpa!) Or while your mother might say she wants to “dish the dirt” with Aunt Rowena, you may choose to “spill the tea” with Cousin Gabe.

And you don’t have to be a “word watcher” or a lexicographer (a professional dictionary writer) to get a lot out of these games. As Dr. Tobin says, the value of word games isn’t necessarily even about words. “The sharing is more important than the message,” he told me. “It’s the fact that we’re doing something together that matters.”

I saw this play out in my own family. After my parents reached about 8,000 expressions, they started enlisting help from the rest of us. The grandkids were even paid a dollar a pop for any fresh phrases they could come up with (until it started burning a hole in my dad’s wallet and he reduced it to a quarter). We all got in on the act, and the experience drew a family that was already close, even closer. And it did something else. While I do not have scientific evidence, I am convinced this project helped keep my aging parents engaged with the world and their minds razor-sharp, even when their bodies began to fail them later. As they discussed each new expression — how to word it precisely, whether it needed to include the preposition, where it belonged in the 67 (idiosyncratic but oh so fun) categories — I could almost see their synapses shimmering and their keen mental acuity on full display.

There’s plenty of evidence that playing with words offers special benefits to older people. A massive longitudinal study called Midlife in the United States, funded by the National Institute on Aging, has given us a window into many aspects of aging in America, from sleep habits to spirituality. Using this trove of data, researchers at Brandeis University learned that “cognitive activities” including crossword puzzles and Scrabble are associated with improvements in memory and executive function in people 50 and older.

But one of the best things about the resurgence of word games is that you can play them for free (or close to it). As Dr. Tobin said, “Somebody might spend a fortune on a hand-carved chess set, but nobody has a fancy charades box from Hermès.”