It's only a game: Scramble. A word game on Facebook – where you find words in a 16-letter grid — that you can play by yourself or with some 200,000 other aficionados around the world.
But when Scramble goes dark on Sept. 30 – creator company Zynga is pulling the plug – it will take with it a tightknit community of devoted Scramblers. And some are not going gently, but kicking and screaming.
Avid Scrambler Manoj Saranathan, for example, a 39-year-old physicist doing research in magnetic resonance imaging at Stanford University who has been tapping unscrambled words onto a screen for more than three years. He recently drafted a petition beseeching Zynga and Facebook to keep his beloved game online.
"Many of us have joined Facebook expressly to play Scramble," Saranathan writes. "During our years on Scramble, most of us have formed and continue to form wonderful and warm friendships in the Scramble chat rooms to the point where it has become almost a support group for many of us."
Scramblers, he notes, "have met and married in these chat rooms, shared suffering and recovery from illnesses, discussed losses, floods and earthquakes. Strong relationships have formed and endure because of Scramble."
Amber Ivey met her husband in the Scramble "Social Lounge" room, which has a built-in delay between rounds that encourages chatting. Their wedding cake was a collection of 16 cubes, arranged like a Scramble board that included words like "love" and, yes, "Scramble." And a few weeks after they got married, other Social Lounge users organized a "virtual wedding reception" for them. They expect their first child any day.
The key to Scramble's allure, says Saranathan from his home in San Francisco, "is it is not just a chat room but also a place of intense competition and wordplay and one can modulate the two. That's what makes it unique and different."
Granted, among First World Problems, the demise of Scramble ranks somewhere between the Netflix price hike and a Volvo's "check engine" light. But a lot of smart, articulate folks profess Scramble to be a life-enhancing social experience.
Scramble, says fan Jefferson Ogata, a senior systems engineer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, "is a bit like an urban park where people come to play chess, getting to know one another, for the most part only in that milieu, then to be evicted one day so that someone can build a parking garage. What is of value is not so much the game itself but the rendezvous point. Many of the players might find another venue, but many others will lose touch, and things just won't be the same — or at least that's the apprehension."
Inquiring minds on the Scramble message boards have asked Zynga why it is zapping the app. According to the player-created Keep Scramble on Facebook! FAQ, some grumbling Scramblers have received explanations from the company alluding to "security reasons" and a desire to "focus our efforts on bringing new and innovative games to our players." The memos suggest that people try other Zynga creations, such as Farmville. Or Zynga Poker. (What would they be called — Sgamblers?)
Spokesperson Lisa Chan tells NPR that "Zynga strives to provide players with the most fun and exciting social games on mobile devices and the web. While Scramble will no longer be available for players on Facebook after September 30th, we encourage fans to continue playing the mobile version on iOS devices, as well as Zynga's other games to connect with their friends."
Andrew Noyes, a Facebook spokesperson, says he has no comment or insight on the decommissioning of Scramble "since it's a third-party app."
The affair brings to mind Scrabulous, another popular word game once offered on Facebook that was yanked in 2008. It re-emerged as Lexulous, but many users had already migrated to other word games, such as Wordscraper.
Nothing lasts forever, and the termination of an online game is a real part of virtual reality these days. But it does throw some onliners for a loop. "The very fabric of our social existence is threatened," moans Felicia Day's character, Codex, when her multi-player game is endangered in her web series, The Guild.
So what will happen to all the Scramblers once they are, well, scrambled? Will they be able to reform in a coherent, logical way like so many self-assembling robots? Or, better, like 16 jumbled letters to form words?
Clive Thompson, who writes about gaming for Wired, believes there is hope for the despairing Scrambleholic: "When a game publisher decides to get rid of a popular game," he says, "there's always a core of die-hard fans who really, really love it. There's a kind of gamer's version of the Kubler-Ross grief cycle — a mixture of disbelief and anger, then acceptance as they move on and find another game that vaguely approximates the pleasure they got from their old favorite."