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Spelling out multiple offenses with Ubisoft's Scrabble

Every time we turn around, it seems there is another ruckus caused by the presence of a word in some game or another, but when it's in Scrabble, it raises a brow or two. After all, isn't Scrabble all about words and the vast depth of language? Apparently, not everyone thinks so. A parent in Northern Ireland received quite a shock when playing Ubisoft's Europe-only Scrabble DS recently with his seven year-old daughter. It seems they were playing in junior mode -- which strips the obviously offensive words from the official Scrabble word list -- and the word "lesbo" came up. The parent, Zachary McAdam, has called for a recall of the game based on the word's inclusion in the junior mode, because he finds it offensive.

The problem is, who decides which words are "offensive?" According to the definition in the dictionary used by Ubisoft's title, "lesbo" is a "Derogatory slang short form of lesbian. Although lesbo did not become current until 1940s: previously used by heterosexuals as derisive insults to gay women, though it seems that gay women are now using the words to describe themselves in positive terms." And that last part certainly seems to be true -- you can even find the reflected in popular culture (used by individuals and characters to self-identify in a tongue-in-cheek manner). Not even all homosexuals can agree on whether or not "lesbo" is offensive; according to qWords. org, a "a collaboratively-edited collection of queer language," "lesbo" is just "a diminutive form of lesbian." It is not labeled as usually offensive when used, as are some other words. It seems even "lesbo" can have multiple meanings and implications.
When faced with such a two-pronged definition as this, what's the "correct" meaning? The older meaning, or the more recent usage? Is any one more correct than another? Ubisoft released a statement in response to McAdam's outcry:

"The [dictionary used in the game] includes words used in the English language, but that may be considered unusual or offensive. It is for this reason that the game includes a 'junior' option which will prevent the player and computer using these 'unusual' or 'offensive' words in playing. However, 'lesbo' is not considered as offensive by the official dictionary and therefore is playable in both options."

Ubisoft apparently supported the second part of the definition, and is standing their ground thus far on the title. While we can certainly agree that "lesbo" can be used in an offensive way, so can many other words that are perfectly allowable in Scrabble -- it's simply part of the game.

What we found most offensive in the whole thing was not the presence of the word "lesbo" in even the junior edition of Scrabble, but the response of Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association spokesman PA MagLochlainn in reaction to the whole thing. "I would never use the word. The correct term is lesbian. I am not in the least bit surprised it is included because the young men who design these games are not taught by schools that these words can be used as a form of homophobic bullying."

What game or games are we talking about here ... Scrabble? That was created by architect Alfred Mosher Butts in the 1930s. He wasn't exactly young, either. Scrabble is currently owned by Hasbro. Are we going to make assumptions about every person who works there? Or are we instead assuming that every person at French developer Wizarbox who worked on this DS version of Scrabble is a young male bully with no manners? That's quite the generalization. Worse, in fact, than assuming that the word "lesbo" is always offensive, when all evidence points to a more ambiguous usage.

But in Scrabble, the meaning of words is often the very least important aspect of the game. Scrabble is about getting points, and tournament players will not hesitate at spelling out the most offensive terms -- so long as they're in the official dictionary. In most countries, that's SOWPODS, and the Chambers Official Scrabble Dictionary publishes the list of SOWPODS words. SOWPODS recognizes words from the obscure "qi" all the way to words one probably wouldn't want to use in front of Mom, especially if she has a bar of soap close at hand.

If we really want to blame someone, why not point the finger at the ratings board? 3+ is a very generous rating for Scrabble, even with a junior edition. With so many differences among what is and is not offensive to various people, across various regions, there's no way certain words couldn't have slipped through -- and both Wizarbox and Ubisoft had to make some sort of decision about where to draw the line. Clearly, they chose to go with the definitions as listed by the official Scrabble dictionary (which seems like a good choice). Should we really expect them to make value judgments beyond that? Does that not open the door to other issues?

Perhaps instead, when considering the game's PEGI rating, a list of possibly offensive words should have been compiled, and then the game could have been checked for the inclusion in the junior mode. But would something like "lesbo" even have shown up there? Again, it isn't considered offensive by everyone, so who makes the call? Who is really responsible here? The folks who monitor the official international Scrabble dictionary? Ubisoft and developer Wizarbox? The ratings board? Of course, according to MagLochlainn, it's probably just a random group of schoolyard bullies. Those are the folks behind all games, you know.

Further, while we understand a parent's concern at seeing something he might consider offensive crop up in a "safe" junior mode, isn't it his job as a parent to explain and educate when the world presents words and ideas his child may not understand? As an expectant mother, this blogger can only see it as an educational opportunity rather than a reason to stop and complain to the newspaper. After all, there are a number of seemingly innocuous words with double meanings, such as "homo" that are quite legitimate in Scrabble. The definitions of "homo" range from a member of the genus Homo or the species Homo sapiens, a prefix meaning things are alike or the same, all the way to homosexual. If that came up in Scrabble, could a parent not take the time to explain not only homonyms, but words that are and are not inappropriate? Of course, such a discussion would need to be tailored to the specific child, but there are a variety of ways to react to such a scenario, just as many words have a variety of meanings.

Particularly considering the issue as reported by the Belfast Telegraph doesn't seem to be the word's meaning, but rather its usage -- according to some -- as an offensive term, we would think that would be a wonderful starting point for a discussion ... and would probably involve words more innocent than most children hear at school.

Of course, many parents don't want to have to deal with such things, and we can understand that; no two parenting styles are the same, just as no two children are the same ... and no two dictionaries are the same, either. Dictionary.com, the resource that McAdam used when looking up "lesbo" to make sure he was not, in his words, "overreacting," takes a very different approach than the Chambers Official Scrabble Dictionary. In the case of "homo" above, the Chambers online variant lists the "same/like" meaning, whereas dictionary.com lists "homosexual" first, and just as with "lesbo," is quick to the flag the term as offensive. How does one determine which is more accurate? That's rather a gray area, but upon examination, it does seem that dictionary.com leans toward extreme caution when dealing with anything that could possibly be considered offensive. Of course, a number of perfectly legitimate words are also missing from the online resource ... which is why we don't recommend using it for a game of Scrabble!

Some people have suggested that Ubisoft should have sought out a "safe" dictionary for their junior mode, and one such variant on a Scrabble dictionary does exist: the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. The OSPD was cleaned up after complaints that it, too, contained "offensive words." But should it have been used here? Considering the Tournament Word List -- the alternative to SOWPODS -- is only used in four countries for Scrabble tournaments (the U.S., Thailand, Canada, and Israel), it would not have been appropriate at all for a European Scrabble video game. Of course, matters are further complicated when one learns that the official rules for most American tournaments use a variant on OSPD ... and the variant includes the offensive words that were omitted from the print dictionary.

All in all, when it comes to Scrabbling for points, most players will agree that meaning is entirely secondary. Since that is the very backbone of the long-lived game, should it not carry over to the video game version?

[Via Next-Gen]

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