I was all set to write a touching entry about a poignant Francis Poulenc song I shared with one of my voice students today- but Poulenc got trumped by a little game called Pathwords. (I probably want to write about this because what I did in Pathwords today stands in rather graphic contrast to my bumble-handedness with all matters related to our new Wii, which I blogged about yesterday. )
Pathwords is a Facebook game to which my sister Randi introduced me a few months ago. (It might have been when I paid a quick visit to Decorah back in mid January.) When you hit <start> a matrix of letters suddenly appear – and you can eliminate letters by clicking on those consecutive letters which form a word of three or more letters. (You click on each letter and double click on the last one.) If it’s a correct word, those letters disappear- points go up on the board (according to how long the word is) and the remaining letters descend to fill in the gap – with brand new letters then filling in on top. You have five minutes to score as many points as you can. (It’s a little bit like a Yahoo game called Bookworm, but without the cute chomping sound effects or the fire – and in Pathwords, all of the letters are worth exactly the same. . . e.g. you don’t get extra points for using Z, Q or X .)
I still vividly remember the first time I watched my sister play Pathwords. I was going to say it was like watching Rembrandt paint, except that it was so much more bewildering than that. Maybe it was like Grandma Moses riding in a car with Mario Andretti. My sister’s right hand and that mouse were nothing but a Blur, and she sailed to 1200 points without hardly breaking a sweat. Then I took a stab at it and was lucky to score 130. . . basically one tenth of what my little sister had done. So she slipped into the chair to give me some advice on how to play the game. . . and before I knew it she had scored exactly 1000 points, even while she was explaining everything she was doing. And since we had already signed me in, those 1000 points were credited to me. . . even though it had been my valedictorian / all A’s in medical school sister who had scored them. And from that point on, every time I signed on to Facebook to play Pathwords, I would see that 1000 up on the leader board- beside my smiling face- and then would proceed to earn maybe 300 or (on a good day) 400 points. I felt like I deserved a spot beside Barry Bonds, Barry McGuire, and Sammy Sosa in the Cheaters Hall of Fame. I’m not sure why I didn’t give up and stick to Music Trivia Quiz Bowl or something else I could do well, but the truth is that I liked the game and also liked how it was presumably doing something beneficial for my brain cells. So I played on, in the hopes that I would someday manage to earn 1000 points all by myself. And the day I finally managed to do just that, I felt like I’d won three gold medals at the Olympics.
But that just made me hungrier. . . especially with talented players like Nicole Krenke and Sarah Ostrowksi and Neil Scharnick – and my sister Randi – all ahead of me in the standings. So I played on, and slowly but surely I crept up the standings before stalling in the upper 1200’s/ lower 1300’s. . . nothing to sneeze at, compared to my Grandma Moses days, but leaving me decidedly behind faculty colleague Neil Scharnick at 1360. And then about a week ago, my fingers started flying like I was playing a Beethoven piano sonata and before I knew it, I had scored 1380. Then this morning, having just read an email announcing that my long-anticipated interview with former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich had to be postponed for the second time, I sat down to play Pathwords and burned to a blazing 1410. (Apparently I need to play this game when I’m really miffed.) And this afternoon, although not feeling particularly miffed anymore, I soared to 1570 . . . topping my sister’s splendid 1500. And when I did it, I was somehow expecting angelic choirs to break into song – – – or at the very least for someone to give me a congratulatory slap on the back. But no. . . unless you’re playing pinball at Pizza Hut, these kind of victories are rather solitary by nature – although it is kind of fun how easy they make it to post such glories right on to one’s Facebook page.
Lest I lose myself in unwarranted arrogance, I am acutely aware that life at the top of the Pathwords Leader Board can be rather tumultuous, and the moment my sister decides to dethrone me I will go down in flames like Icarus. And in fact, I’m not actually at the top of the Leader Board. Ahead of me by 50 points is a former voice student of mine, Joe Torcaso – an otherwise sweet young man who scored his dazzling total on the first day he played the game. Talk about a young punk with no respect for his elders! As fun as it would be for me to scramble past young Joe someday, I envision Randi scoring 2200 and putting both of us out of our misery for good.
Anyway, despite the impression to the contrary which I’m probably giving, it’s not really about the points you score. (Well, not entirely anyway.) It’s mostly about the fun of words and of getting better and better at something which in the early going might seem like a hopeless exercise in frustration. Here’s a couple of suggestions:
- Make sure you’re playing on a good computer. Our Mac laptop is impossibly slow with Pathwords- with the letters moving as though through they’re imitating Heinz Ketchup. My desktop Mac at Carthage, on the other hand, is fast as lightning. So make sure you’re not operating at a disadvantage before you’ve even started.
- Use any and all words. Don’t be proud or choosy. I may be a college professor but there’s not a thing wrong with using words like TOON and TOT and MOP and GIN. (In the early going, I wasted too much time looking for impressive words like PRISM. If they’re there to be found, they’ll jump out at you. In the meantime, don’t be too proud to use DOG and CAT and the like.) And if TIT is there, go ahead and use it; in the grand scheme of things, there are worse sins than that.
- I tend to play poorly when I’m too relaxed – and do my best when something injects a touch of urgency into the proceedings. My big 1570 total today came when I had exactly 6 minutes before my next voice lesson and decided to slip in one quick game. Knowing that the clock was ticking gave me a bit more focus. And at the risk of sharing more information than you want to know, I’m probably good for at least 200 extra points if I have to go to the bathroom, although I suppose there are risks to that particular strategy.
- Because harder letters like ‘Z’ aren’t scored higher than more common letters, I used to not think much about them. But I’ve come to realize that it makes a lot of sense to use those letters the instant you can – just because they’re so tricky to get rid of. And towards that end, begin to commit to memory those potentially life-saving words like ZIN and ZEE and ZOA and OVA.
- One of Randi’s chief strategies is to pick a spot on the screen and focus almost entirely on it. . . working as methodically as you can to do as many words as you can right in that one spot. You save a little time by not spreading your attention across all of the letters in front of you. . . although this only works if the letters are there.
- I remember Randi saying that the day she scored 1500, she had her son Kaj perched right next to her as her own private cheerleading squad. . . clapping, cheering, war whooping, etc. When she decides to get serious and knock me off of my pedestal once and for all, I suspect she’ll hire a brass band complete with baton twirlers to fire her up. (Life at the top means pulling out all the stops.)
- Above all, remember that it’s a game. . . but that if you get a little too hooked for your own good, there’s a Facebook group called Pathwords Addicts . . . although as far as I can tell from the one visit I paid to their page, they aren’t as interested in breaking people away from the game as they are exchanging strategies and swapping war stories. If you need 12-step intervention, you’re probably on your own.
pictured above: the leader board as it appeared this afternoon. But not for much longer. (Trust me. My sister hates the color bronze!)