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Down on the Farm -- Boggle and Smear

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A residential treatment center opened up recently near Seattle for people addicted to computer games. The first patient entered treatment after playing the online game "World of Warcraft" for up to 16 hours per day.

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Kids seem the most vulnerable to gaming addiction. Anti-social kids in particular seem to revel in the safety of distant friendships formed with fellow players around the world.

Some parents don't really notice their kid's gaming addiction until he's still living in the basement at age 23, staring at the screen all day and all night. By then, it is a little late.

However, adults can fall into compulsive gaming as well. With the assistance of a computer, you don't actually have to fan out a deck of cards in front of you to play Solitaire.

My habit? I play online Boggle more than I should. Real-life Boggle consists of shaking down 25 letter cubes into a 5 by 5 grid and then trying to find words spelled out by the random arrangement of the letters.

The longer the word, the more points you get. In real-life Boggle, part of the fun is reading off your words after the timer rings and hearing the other people groan at how they possibly could have missed the word you got.

When I discovered online Boggle, it got rid of the pesky cubes, which a person can easily lose in the cushions, as well as the trouble of finding people with whom to play, to say nothing of the hassle of getting together with them in the same room.

Everything is on the screen. Not only that, but you play with people all across the English-speaking world. You find out how stupid you really are.

During the break of 30 seconds between each the three minute games, the score is tallied automatically. The dozens of words you missed are displayed. Your rank amongst the players is shown.

Of the thousands of games of Boggle I have played in the past three years, I have yet to win a single one. I finished third once in the middle of the night when I couldn't sleep and only 44 players were on.

If I ever do win a game of Boggle, I know how to save the image of the victory on the screen for posterity so I can taunt my immediate relatives at Thanksgiving.

So, should I check into the treatment center in the state of Washington? If a bunch of close relatives haul me off, I suppose I'll have to. Otherwise, no.

They can't haul me away unless they also haul away the men at the cafe who play Smear all the time.

Smear is a card game developed on the Iron Range. It is played in Northern Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and southwestern Ontario.

When I was in school, the tough males in the four back seats of the school bus played Smear every day. To this day, I can hear the triumphant cry of the winner from the back "High, low, double jack, game!" while I was up front reading a book.

I later learned Smear as an act of rebellion -- Baptist kids aren't supposed to play cards -- but never was any good at it unless I cheated. I am better at Boggle.

Come to think of it, there is a big difference between online Boggle and Smear. You play online Boggle alone at home, staring at a screen.

Smear, however, requires that you go to the cafe and develop some basic social skills like knowing when to swear and when to belch.

Smear etiquette remains a mystery to me. I'll never learn when to say, "Take 'er home, Ralph" or when to bid four big ones.

I am too old for such radical treatment, but maybe Smear's the cure: Instead of sending our 22-year-old war game addicts to Seattle, make them go down to the cafe and learn Smear.

As they study Smear, they'll master some primitive social skills. They'll have to overcome their fear of the town's gruff old men. They'll learn the subtle secrets of cafe culture.

It will be the next best thing to having a job.

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