Scrabble was created all the way back in 1938; Bananagrams was created very recently, in 2006.

I assume Scrabble is familiar to most people reading this blog. If it’s unfamiliar to you, then please click here (just don’t get distracted for too long!). Here’s an explanation of Bananagrams. Imagine a Scrabble game, except without a board. Players unzip a cloth ‘banana’ that holds the tiles. Then, if it’s four people playing the game, they each get 21 of the tiles, face down. Someone says ‘split,’ and everyone flips over their tiles. Each player arranges his or her own puzzle, following the basic Scrabble rules, except that you can break apart and reorganize your puzzle (which you have to be willing to do if you want to use your tiles quickly enough to win). When a player uses all of his or her tiles to form a complete puzzle, the player says ‘peel!’ and every player, including the one who said ‘peel’ takes one tile from the center of the game space. If you’re fed up with a difficult letter, then you can say ‘dump,’ place the letter back in the center pile and take three new letters. The game is over when someone says ‘peel’ and there aren’t enough letters remaining for every player to take another one. At that time, the person who said ‘peel’ is the winner, and says ‘BANANAS!’ Of course, the best and easiest way to get something out of what I’ve written below is to play the game!

Contrary to what might be expected, using your letters the quickest doesn’t offer a big advantage, because you’re not rewarded for it – you take on a kind of debt, a new tile that has to be dealt with; and the other players will also draw more letters, giving them an opportunity to make new words, sometimes more quickly than you can yourself. The only time using all your letters becomes truly advantageous is when you can call ‘peel’ multiple times in quick succession, so that your opponents can’t respond quickly enough and are left with a massive number of new tiles (debt) to deal with.

So, the paradoxical goal of Bananagrams is to complete your puzzle as fast as possible while simultaneously depleting the resources you need to make more puzzles.

Here’s my main point, argued for in the rest of the post: There is a remarkable correspondence between the structure of the somewhat comical, maniacal race to finish a game of Bananagrams and today’s capitalist marketplace. Scrabble, on the other hand, represents the capitalist marketplace of the past.

Capitalism depends upon the bets it makes on the future; it borrows from the future (in the form of capital) in order to fund what happens now. Similarly, every time Bananagrams players take tiles from the center of the game space, they are ‘betting’ that the risk of taking the tiles (depleting resources and thus hastening the end of the game) is worth the potential reward of winning the game. In a sense, the players are all given a 21-tile ‘loan’ at the beginning of the game, which they have to repay by the end, and, along the way, hope to make a ‘profit,’ i.e., ‘earn’ one new tile every time they complete a puzzle – though the profit of the one additional tile is really more like a debt, as I said above, since you have to make sure to use it wisely. Players then reinvest that profit into building more and more intricate puzzles. They even purposefully take ‘losses’ (dumping one tile in exchange for three new ones) in hopes of getting the tiles they need to complete a puzzle.

The amount of risk varies depending on when the tiles are drawn. Risk is very slight at the beginning of the game, because there are plenty of tiles to choose from and there’s plenty of time to make a puzzle – that is, to make a ‘return’ on the ‘investment’ of tiles. But risk increases closer to the end of the game, since both time and tiles are in short supply. Toward the end of the game, players start moving their tiles around frantically, trying to finish their puzzles as quickly as possible, so that they’re not caught with an incomplete puzzle and someone else calling ‘peel!’ Of course, it’s ironic that the tendency is to speed up toward the end of the game, since the quicker you finish your puzzle, the quicker the resources (time and tiles) are depleted; it’s an exponential race toward the finish. This can make Bananagrams a very exciting, fun, and even stressful, game.

I’ve charted a comparison of the two games, Scrabble and Bananagrams, in the lists below. Afterward I’m going to use the same lists again, describing how each of these features is analogous to the operation of the capitalist marketplace in two different historical times.

Some features of Scrabble (made 1938):

  1. Solid territory: can’t move pieces once they’re placed.
  2. Centralized control: everyone uses the same board, players take turns.
  3. Solid victories: once ‘double-letter score’ or ‘triple-world score’ tiles are ‘conquered,’ ‘ownership’ – and profit, i.e., the extra points – stays with the same player.
  4. Equality of resource distribution; little risk: everyone allotted the same number of tiles at beginning of game, and no risk in using them, since everyone keeps the same number the whole time – there’s no ‘loss’ or ‘gain’ of tiles, no potential for getting behind or ahead.
  5. Clear distribution of roles, time/energy, turn-taking: players must wait for other players to finish before going again.

Some features of Bananagrams (made 2006):

  1. Fluid territory: pieces frequently moved, sometimes whole puzzles rearranged.
  2. Decentralized control: each player uses own board; no set schedule for play.
  3. Fluid victories: no telling whether your call to ‘peel’ will make it harder or easier for your opponents to finish their puzzles; you could be winning by a landslide up until the last 20 seconds of the game, and then lose to someone who managed to rearrange their entire puzzle in less than a minute.
  4. Inequality of resource distribution; high risk: each player may have either too few or too many tiles, since the only guarantee is an equal starting number of tiles (a bit like America – the call is for ‘equal opportunity,’ not equal results); dumping a tile involves a risk/reward decision, as does the choice to play as quickly/efficiently as possible, since ‘peeling’ involves taking on debt and giving other players new tiles.
  5. Unclear distribution of roles, time/energy, turn-taking: players have to assume that the other players are competitive and making steady progress, or else they risk falling behind; but there’s no telling if that’s actually correct; there’s no standard ‘your turn, my turn’ structure, so everyone operates on assumptions/guesses about other players’ behavior, making the player’s own strategy in constant flux, thus increasing the burden of doubt/anxiety about the strategy, a burden which, in Scrabble, was take care of by the turn-taking rule.

Now to the main point. These same differences can be used to illustrate the historical shift from a ‘secure’ working life to one in which there is no certainty, in which employers can ‘fire at will,’ and everything is in constant transition. Let’s look at this by using economic terms to describe the capitalist market arrangement corresponding to each of the two games.

Old-school work environment (= Scrabble market arrangement):

  1. Solid territory: long-term job security.
  2. Centralized control: workers have to invest heavily in the success of the company, since they know they’re going to be working there for a very long time; thus they’re all highly dependent on one another, and dependent on the company at large; they’re full-time employees with union contracts.
  3. Solid victories: regular, set income (since not at risk of lay-off, which is a fairly recent phenomenon, only coming about in the 1980s, and contracts guarantee set wage); predictable earnings and steady investments lead to relative financial security.
  4. Equality of resource distribution; little risk: large middle class, wealth distribution more equitable, and consistent and predictable gains/losses in the stock market; anybody with a little money to invest can earn a lot.
  5. Clear distribution of roles, time/energy, turn-taking: people work 9-5 (or less, in France), with clear and stable job roles that the company establishes for them; they clock in and out without having to worry about ‘getting ahead’ over the weekend or at night, spending time off the clock checking work-related e-mails and such.

New-school work environment (= Bananagrams market arrangement):

  1. Fluid territory: very little, if any, job security; ‘free agents;’ most contracts ‘fire-at-will.’
  2. Decentralized control: workers are ‘independent’ entrepreneurs or contractors and consultants, often part-time with little investment in company success, almost always no union representation, no pension, no benefits, competing for control of as much of the pie as possible, since there is nothing governing who gets what share except the players themselves – a libertarian’s paradise.
  3. Fluid victories: unreliable earnings, as a result of easy loss of job and the wild fluctuations of other sources of income, like stocks; thus major financial insecurity; fortunes won and lost easily; even those who save and invest ‘wisely’ aren’t assured of anything.
  4. Inequality of resource distribution; high risk: nothing protecting the middle class and the working class, since decentralization of the work place and less gov’t regulation of corporations leads to the problems of #s 1-3.
  5. Unclear distribution of roles, time/energy, turn-taking: no clear distinction between work/play, since work travels home with the worker, worker maintains correspondence all hours using e-mail, smart phone, etc.; with job insecurity and decentralized control of the work place, it’s up to the workers to define their value to the company, vs. the other way around — workers have to define their own roles (there is no social ‘we’ to arrange and distribute responsibilities, since there aren’t stable organizations, just people working together on a project-basis); then they take their self-divined role (think of the New Age search for the ‘true’ self) and ‘sell’ it to groups who might need their services; everyone is essence becomes an entrepreneur/freelancer, ‘freed’ from the restrictions of a unionized, long-term job, let loose from the structure/order that kind of work provided. Thus everyone has to worry that they might not be doing enough to ensure their own success, might not be making the grade, since there is no organization to set clear requirements and to guarantee a reward for a set amount of work.

Here’s the simplest message to take away from the Bananagrams way of doing things: we pay, individually and as a society, for the purported benefits of a fluid marketplace with an immeasurable increase in anxiety.

The race to finish a game of Bananagrams (comical because of its paradoxical nature) echoes the basic nature of the capitalist marketplace, which is essentially a race to accumulate shares of the (potential/debt-based) wealth from the same virtual store. You might therefore be tempted to ask a Bananagrams player and a capitalist the same question: what is it all for?