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Why Men Are ‘Better’ at Pointless Competitive Games Like Scrabble

The last 10 world champs of Scrabble have been men, but not because they are better than women at the actual game. According to a new study from the University of Miami that looked at gender differences in Scrabble playing, when it comes to ability alone, there aren’t any differences between men and women.

But when it came to differences in actual performance, hoo boy are there: Men want to win, gosh darn it, so win they do. Whereas women, even though there are more of them in tournaments, are more interested in playing Scrabble for something they call “fun.” The differences in winning, but not ability, are attributable to one main criterion: wanting to win.

The researchers drilled down to find out what was going on, and found more surprises. Surely, men must spend more time practicing? Nope, women do. Perhaps men score higher on grit, perseverance or passion for the game? No again, though this time the genders measured equally.

Even though both men and women spend just as much time being good at Scrabble, men specifically spend their time on the activities that will lead to more points, not just enjoyment. Men are far more likely to review past performances of their own or those of other winners and copy those moves; they also spend a lot of time memorizing anagrams. Women are more likely to spend the time playing the game and studying vocabulary.

(Fun fact about Scrabble: You don’t even have to speak English to win the game in English. Or French: A man once won French Scrabble without speaking any French by memorizing a French dictionary. This means it’s not even a game about words anymore; it’s a game about memorization. In other words, men ruin everything.)

Lead study author Jerad Moxley told The Times that these results are perplexing for three main reasons: One, the fact that more women play Scrabble should mean more women win, but they don’t. Two: Men admitted they don’t even really enjoy all that rote memorization involved in anagram drills, but they do it anyway. Three, Scrabble is not a sexy, even lucrative sport with a big payoff.

“There’s not a lot of money in Scrabble; it’s not like chess,” Moxley told The Times. “So why would you even want to be the best Scrabble player in the world? You could argue it doesn’t make sense.”

But if you have ever met a man — any man, pick a random man off the street — it actually makes perfect sense. Broad, sweeping generalization alert: Most men in our society have never met an activity they couldn’t turn into a competitive game, whether with an object, with another man, or with himself. You can’t just toss a wad of paper into the trash; it has to be a jump shot. You can’t just drink at your own pace; no sir, you will be told to drink via a team drinking competition like flip cup or beer pong. Dumb games made out of nothing are the easiest sell in the world: Hand a man a deck of cards and point kindly to a bowl placed a few feet away and you’ll see happiness in motion.

Such games don’t even require objects or any other accolade than a subjective win: Roasting each other is a competitive sport; belching and farting are up for competitive grabs, too. The male psyche has been so totally gamified that even fucking isn’t immune — after all, there’s a reason getting laid is called “scoring.”

The Guinness World Records are also full of dumb things turned into measurable competitions like how many times you can snap your finger in under a minute while looking extremely, painfully awkward:

There is an episode in the British version of The Office where after one team loses a pub trivia game, they decide to settle things the only logical way they know how: by seeing who can throw a pair of shoes over the pub.

Why do men do all these things to test their useless skills? Because there is always the chance you might win. It’s that simple. You’d be inclined to conclude that men are simply naturally more competitive than women for some reason, probably related to sperm. But it’s not actually true. Ray Fisman looked at the research on male and female competitiveness at Slate and found that, like so many other gendered stereotypes, if there even is a biological root to it, you wouldn’t know it from the cultural avalanche we bury it under. Fisman writes:

It’s a classic stereotype, and not just on Wall Street: Men aggressively compete; women collaborate and nurture. It’s also a view that’s been well-studied in recent years by experimental economists, researchers who, rather than simply observing economic activity out in the world, put subjects in labs and ask them to play economic “games” in a controlled environment. These economists have found that American men don’t disappoint, choosing to play more competitive games than female subjects (and sometimes performing better than women in competitive situations). Yet researchers have found that the stereotype isn’t universal — in at least one society, women have stronger competitive drives than men. It appears that the warriors are made, not born.

He notes a University of Pittsburgh study where economists gave men and women the opportunity to add two columns of numbers and get paid based on simply getting the numbers right, or by getting them right the fastest. Both men and women were just as good at adding the numbers in either scenario. The subjects were told as much, then given the option of competing in a final-round tournament. Even though they both knew they were good enough to compete further, men took the tournament round option at twice the rate of women. But when the study was repeated in a matriarchal society in India, the results were reversed: The women chose the final tournament’s added pressure at twice the rate of the men.

In other words, it is true that men in this society are more competitive, but we also live in a culture that attaches competition and winning to masculinity and discourages such aggressive qualities in women. As Fisman notes, girls are instructed from an early age that aggression and assertiveness are unbecoming, whereas boys are told the opposite.

In response to the Scrabble study, headlines blazed around noting that, if nothing else, it proves that women simply won’t waste their time practicing useless skills. Writing at The Guardian, Phoebe Jane-Boyd argues that men don’t have the monopoly on pointless hobbies. She notes that not only does her sister beat her brother at Scrabble, but that she has spent her life devoted to useless pursuits that are equally pointless, like watching every documentary in existence about serial killers.

That is true — and all these things are really just generalizations and stereotypes at work. Women do a lot of dumb things in their spare time, too, like collecting makeup samples or memorizing every winner of The Bachelorette or the complete lineage of English aristocracy. I like throwing tennis balls into a basket just because, and I will never back down from a sick burn competition.

All things considered, yes, knowing a lot of pointless trivia about noted serial killer John Wayne Gacy is as dumb as memorizing a French dictionary. But until we are prepared to turn that it into a game where we will prove we know everything about John Wayne Gacy while farting upside down into a Solo cup and arm-wrestling the nearest stranger, we will never “win.” The good news: We don’t want to.