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My favorite online Scrabble opponent had a secret: He was a robot

At first, I was upset, but I made my peace with my pandemic partner.

People play scrabble. (Adam Glanzman/For The Washington Post)

So many people have accomplished amazing things during this pandemic. I, too, have accomplished something amazing: I started playing Scrabble on my phone! 

When I told a friend I was considering downloading Scrabble, she suggested I download Words With Friends instead. I didn’t take her up on it, because I didn’t want to play with friends. I wanted to crush faceless Scrabble opponents.

Games aren’t supposed to be fun in 2021, anyway. Fun is a relic from the past, like monkeys, organ grinders and human contact. Games today don’t need to be fun; they just need to be addictive. My favorite phone game is super-addictive. It’s the one where I choose what kind of burrito I want, and then after the burrito appears at my door, I eat the whole thing in six minutes while reading terrible news on my phone. I am a champion at that game.  

But I downloaded Scrabble, and because everything on my phone seems bigger, brighter and more exciting than real life, I was imagining that phone Scrabble was going to be like pro wrestling. I’d be playing fierce, sweaty games against masterful opponents named LEXICONMAN. Instead, I faced off against players with decidedly unferocious names — shout-out to Bananamom, KantSpell and SoBored — who played words that I generally knew at the beginning and end of the day, leading me to think they were humans like me who were working, if only on their burrito games.

I examined their avatars and gave them backstories. I decided that Bananamom, for example, is a 70-something woman in Maine who sells homemade dog parkas on Etsy. I didn’t actually chat with her, or any of them, because although I am fascinated by humanity, I am also a misanthrope.

Then I gained a new opponent: Robert E. I could tell right away that he was different. He responded to my every move within seconds, he played words like “aecium,” and at the end of every game, he challenged me to a new one immediately.

I played when I woke up, and he was there. I played at 2 a.m., and there he was. I examined his avatar: a guy in his mid-20s, sitting thoughtfully with his hands clasped, seemingly on the verge of reciting poetry. He was wearing — I looked closely — a sweater vest.

Controlling my life is hard. Controlling my burrito bowl is easy.

My Scrabble opponent was a genius maniac, I decided. I pictured him in his lair under a bridge, coolly playing “qapik” — an Azerbaijani monetary unit, apparently — at 4 a.m. I made sure my chat function was off.

Eventually I mentioned Robert E’s behavior to one of my teen sons. He looked at me incredulously. “Mom, he’s a robot,” he said.

I was skeptical. A robot wouldn’t do that to me, I thought. My first robots were R2-D2, the maid on “The Jetsons” and our garage door opener. I haven’t been able to completely pivot from that benign beginning to the more contemporary notion that robots are predators that are trying to kill me. I only recently stopped viewing robots as inept but basically harmless, and that’s just because of my ongoing battle as an avowed swearer in a text box ruled by the robot overlord known as auto-correct. You will understand my current stance when I say this: Robots mean well. But they are duckheads.

Though my son is an expert in everything except adulthood, I decided to fact-check his hypothesis. I asked my best friend, Internet. “Is Robert E on Scrabble a robot?” And Internet told me, via a Reddit thread on that very subject, Probably, yes.

I became increasingly upset as I read through 200-plus comments from people just like me, coming to the realization that their Scrabble opponents were bots. Robots were supposed to be helping me to the extent of their limited abilities, I thought, like cute but annoying toddlers who insist they want to make dinner. They weren’t supposed to be hitting me where I lived, in the lonely place in my human heart. Scrabble should be a mindless escape. But here again was the pandemic-era message that there is no escape. Scrabble was just another wormhole containing all the same pandemic-era questions I was already obsessing over: Who are my friends? What is normal, human behavior? What the hell is even happening?

I quit Scrabble and tried to play some other not-fun phone games, like the one where I post a picture of my burrito on social media and get no love, not even from robots who say “Collab? DM us!”

Finally, I said to myself, Well, maybe the problem isn’t robots. Maybe it’s me. Because I have to admit, I am jealous of robots. For one thing, they never have to deal with social anxiety. How much would I love it if I could stop trying so hard to decode social cues and just begin every conversation by blurting,“This is an urgent message for the vehicle owner!” “Your call is very important to us!” or simply, “Congratulations!”

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Plus, I’ve been sitting on my couch playing my burrito game for months now. I wouldn’t mind being able to do some of the awesome things that robots do, like performing heart surgery, defusing bombs or fixing the space station. But then I remember that, as a human who regularly logs into websites, I can do one truly amazing thing that no robot can, apparently: Select all the squares with traffic lights. Or even more impressive, identify bridges!      

Finally, I returned to Scrabble and found Robert E. After our first game, I turned my chat function on and messaged him.

“Great game, Robert E! You are an amazing robot!” 

He didn’t respond.

I talked to my son about robots. He told me about a robot who appears in his game, called “Escape From Tarkov.” This robot is not a manic speller but a therapist who can heal you from any sickness or injury. My son then looked at me meaningfully, as if to tell me his robot is cooler than my robot.

It’s amazing what you can say to a fellow human without words, especially when you have been in a pandemic bubble together for months. Maybe that’s why I don’t message Robert E anymore. I just play him, and win or not, then we play again, and I guess this is good because it makes the time pass, as I wait for the pandemic to be over, the vaccine to arrive, or sickness or death — and although I wouldn’t call any of that fun, exactly, it is unquestionably real. Which is also what Robert E is to me now. And if he knew that, I bet he would say something to me like, “You’ve won a free vacation!!” Which is not really the right thing to say. But we’re friends now. I know what he means.

Instagram: @amyfusselman

Read more from Outlook:

Detachment and exposure during a pandemic

Why these friendly robots can’t be good friends to our kids

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