Wordfeud hysteria has swept across Sweden, and shows no sign of abating.
Hillevi Wahl, a columnist with Metro newspaper recently called Wordfeud her “new addiction”, and apparently she’s not alone.
In the span a few months, the number of Swedes tapping away on their smartphone screens, engrossed in this Scrabble-like game, has mushroomed to more than 360,000.
And more than twice as many have downloaded the game, making Wordfeud among the most popular free downloaded programmes in Sweden.
So what lies behind Swedes’ sudden romance with Wordfeud?
“I don’t think the popularity has to do with the specific Swedish context – it’s a worldwide phenomenon,” Simon Lindgren, a sociology professor at Umeå University, tells The Local.
“The board game Scrabble does have a place in popular culture. Many are familiar with it, and may also have nostalgic memories of having played it in different phases and situations in life before.”
Worldwide, there are 8 million Wordfeud users.
However, a recent study carried out by research company Novus Group International estimated that a full six percent of the Swedish population are Wordfeud players.
Gustav Örneholm, 17, and Linnea Lund, 18, are two of them. They play the game daily, and so do most of their friends.
“It’s fun to learn new words you didn’t even know existed – just by trying different letter combinations out,” Örneholm says.
“Your writing gets better too. With all the slang being used in short texting and chatting, it’s easy to lose your spelling skills,” adds Lund.
Sweden’s Wordfeud frenzy reached a fever pitch recently after complaints arose about the dictionary used in the Swedish version of the game (the game can also be played in English, Danish, Dutch, French, Norwegian, and Spanish).
Newspapers were flooded with reports that the prestigious Swedish Academy (Svenska Akademien), responsible for awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature, had rebuffed efforts by the Wordfeud’s developers to obtain the Academy’s official Swedish dictionary, the Svenska Akademiens ordlista (SAOL).
“We had a few complaints. A lot of people were upset about the allowance of conjugations, and some common words didn’t exist in the previous dictionary. I understand the Swedish Academy’s dictionary is the ‘word bible’ in Sweden”, Wordfeud’s Norwegian creator Håkon Bertheussen told Swedish computer magazine PC för alla in October.
The head of the Academy, Peter Englund, downplayed talk of any conflict and soon confirmed that the Academy would indeed allow Wordfeud to include SAOL in its next update.
Örneholm has noticed the changes, and he likes having the new Swedish dictionary, finding it very helpful for expanding his vocabulary.
“Playing against someone who’s got the same starting conditions is an exciting challenge. The person with the greatest vocabulary wins, and you want to show the other one that you’re better in your native language. Sometimes you surprise yourself as well, when you see how many words you know,” he says.
And if you get sick of playing your mother tongue, you could always swap to another language.
“Swedish people learn how to speak English early and we also study a third language in school. I think we all want to improve those skills as well as our Swedish. Since you can play Wordfeud in several languages, you practice all of them at the same time,” Örneholm says.
According to sociologist Lindgren, the link between the mobile game (Wordfeud) and the board game (Scrabble) is an example of how new and old media interact in contemporary society.
The game is neither simply re-used nor completely replaced, but rather developed to suit the small screens and multi-tasking lifestyle of users smartphones and tablet devices.
“I don’t think that word games as such are central, but rather the fact that it’s a fairly straight forward game. It’s based on a simple game architecture and a short game time, which makes it easy enough to play on the run,” he says.
Lund also praises Wordfeud’s flexible format.
“It’s neither time consuming nor stressful. You can play any time of the day; maybe during a short break, on the bus or just before going to bed. Make a move and go on to do something else for a while,” she says.
“It’s nice to be able to consider your next move for a bit as well. If the other person can’t be bothered waiting for you, he or she could just start up a new game while waiting. You can have up to 30 games going at the same time,” he says.
Wordfeud also mixes new and old media in another way, according to Lindgren.
“Gaming is mixed with built-in social networking features. It allows you to talk to old and newly acquired friends, and discuss anything – not just the game itself.”
The ability to contact other Wordfeud players at random has also made the game a new way to meet members of the opposite sex, according to some.
Speaking recently on Sveriges Radio’s P3, host Morgan Larsson explained how he thinks male players use Wordfeud as a way to meet women.
“When it’s late on a Friday or Saturday night and I don’t have anyone to play with I invite a random person to play. I have a made-up name, but you can see I’m a guy when you log in,” he said.
“If it’s a guy I’m going to play against, he quits the game nine out of ten times. My theory is that these guys are there to pick up women.”
Following the broadcast, the radio programme’s website was filled with comments from listeners who have also noticed that Wordfeud has become the latest tool employed by relationship-seeking Swedes.
“I’ve noticed that people ask if I’m a guy or a girl. If you answer guy, they quit the game,” writes commenter Erik.
Commenter Fröken E opines that she receives comments about “how inviting my breasts look” from players that are 10 to 20 years older.
“It feels rather degrading as a girl when random guys are only interested in your looks and don’t care about the game.”
Regardless of whether its being used as an updated version of a pick-up line, a way to build language skills, or simply the latest form of high-tech procrastination, Wordfeud looks set to remain a fixture on Swedes’ smartphones for some time to come.