Earlier this month, Spencer Sleyon went viral for a very unexpected reason. It wasn't because of the rap singles the 22-year-old wrote, produced, and created cover art for this year. It was because of a game, or rather 300-plus games, of Words With Friends that Sleyon has played over the past year and a half with an 81-year-old woman, Rosalind Guttman.
On December 1, Sleyon tweeted four photos of his first face-to-face meeting with Guttman. He stands about a foot taller, grinning in ripped jeans, Air Jordan kicks, and a black Felt rose t-shirt. She's carrying a purple Longchamp bag and wearing a polka dot shirt, gold hoops, and a long white skirt. In the photos, the two embrace, and stand with their arms around each other in a parking lot near the beach.
The images, and Sleyon's brief description of their meeting (he didn't know Guttman's exact age at the time), have gone on to tally up over one million likes, and 240,000 retweets. Sleyon, whose look of pure joy as he hugs Guttman is infectious, visited her at the suggestion of Amy Butler, the mother of one of his friends and a senior minister at Manhattan's Riverside Church, who wanted to tell their story in a sermon. The tale of their unlikely friendship was covered by The New York Times, CBS News, and Complex. At the heart of it is the mobile game that brought them together: Words With Friends.
Words With Friends is not a new, headline-snatching phenomenon like the live game show HQ, nor is it especially groundbreaking: It's been around since 2009, and is very similar to Scrabble. But where other games have petered off and seen their user numbers fall as the gaming market has gotten crowded with competition, Words With Friends has shown remarkable staying power — and growth. In 2017 there were 57 million active games and 2.1 billion moves made each month. Over the eight and a half years it's been around, over 140 billion words have been played. The game has led to some famous pop culture moments: From Alec Baldwin, who was kicked off a plane in 2011 for refusing to stop playing, to a moment of White House glory — Obama played the game to unwind.
There's no new tricks with Words With Friends. The game is free to play, but players can buy additional coins, premium features, and power ups in the Store. It's accessible and simple, and, as relationships like Sleyon's have shown, the real key to its success isn't necessarily its expansive set of words (a Social Dictionary allows for millennial friendly terms like "werk" and "kween"), but rather its strong social element. Even though you can connect with friends via Facebook, the game's Smart Match option, which pairs you with someone new, combined with the built-in chat component, is what has led to some life-changing pairings.
This is how Sleyon connected with Guttman. Besides their 59 year age difference, the two live about a thousand miles apart (she's in Florida; he's in New York) making a chance encounter offline highly unlikely. After they were randomly matched, Sleyon says he and Guttman, who he calls Roz, began playing upwards of 10 games a day and chatting with the game's messaging tool. Small talk about the current events of 2016 led to talk about each other's life history. Guttman told Sleyon about her time in New York — he's a new resident, having recently moved to the city from Silver Spring, Maryland. "We developed a mutual understanding that we liked playing the game as well as playing each other," Sleyon told Refinery29.
Words With Friends isn't just for friends, however — it's also become something of a makeshift long distance dating app. When Caroline Sergeant, a London-based HR recruiter found Sofia Vanessa Hernandez, a Seattle Amazon employee, on OkCupid, she was attracted to her short and simple profile, which read only: "I like pizza and Scrabble." She messaged her on a whim, saying, "I see that you like Scrabble. Too bad that you're not closer."
Hernandez suggested they connect on Words With Friends, instead. The two took their conversation there, playing games and chatting on the side. After months of constant contact, an in-person meeting was arranged in Charleston. Love at first sight led to a year of long distance before Sergeant relocated to Seattle two years ago to be with Hernandez.
"If it had just been a messaging app I think the reality is we would have exchanged a couple of messages, and then it would have been like, okay, you’re in Seattle, I’m in London, and you're cute but it would have fizzled out," Sergeant told Refinery29 (a screenshot of their first game is shown at left). "Because we were playing this game, we had something that we were doing together, in spite of where we were in the world. There was the element of competition, and the conversation that goes with that got us hooked."
Although Sergeant and Hernandez are no longer thousands of miles apart and can play Scrabble at home, they still play Words With Friends together when traveling for work. Sleyon, meanwhile, says that since returning from Florida earlier this month, he and Guttman have continued playing per usual (the 81-year-old is the only person he plays against on the app).
As for the game itself, Words With Friends shows no sign of slowing down. In early November, Words With Friends 2 was released, with new features like a lightning round and a solo challenge that's powered by artificial intelligence. But a word to the wise before going it alone: If you want to get the best of what the app has to offer, avoid the WordMaster bots and find a new friend to play the game with.
As competitive as they can get, the best thing about classic games like Monopoly, Clue, and, yes, Scrabble, is that they bring people together around a single board. Words With Friends manages to successfully recreate this experience onscreen. The reason people love Sleyon and Guttman's story is because it shows that something so simple — stringing letters together — allows for a seemingly impossible friendship to develop hundreds of miles away.
It's a good reminder that you can never know how a game will end, and that unpredictability is what makes it so fun.