Friday, February 29, 2008

Wasting time in a worthy cause

Quite a few people have recommended the FreeRice website to me over the past couple of months, and I finally got around to giving it a whirl last weekend.

It's a simple vocabulary-building game, a multiple-choice spot-the-definition deal.... but the positive karma gimmick that redeems it from being just another Internet timewaster like Penguin Baseball is that for every question you get right the organisers donate 20 grains of rice to the UN's World Food Program.

I have my gripes about the game itself. It is ridiculously hard in many ways, and I question the legitimacy of much of the vocabulary chosen (a lot of the words are quite simply not English, nor even foreign words that are commonly used in English; they are just foreign words!). The definitions provided are sometimes sneakily confusing; more often they are irritatingly vague or slightly inaccurate; on two or three occasions I think I've stumbled across one that's just flat-out wrong.

However, it's all in a good cause, right? And, actually, much of the 'unfairness' of the game tends to work in my favour. An awful lot of the 'bastard words' designed to break your winning run and determine your 'vocabulary level' score are Latin (not Latin-derived technical vocabulary, although there's an awful lot of that, too; no, just Latin!), so my degree in Classics is finally proving of some use. There's a fair amount of Greek, too. And French (you haven't got me yet, irritating-word-game bastards!). And Shakespearian English (I read the complete works in my teens - funny how it all comes back!). And Australian Aboriginal terms (I can cope with that too: I've read quite a bit about Australia, and brought back a gimmicky micro-dictionary of Aboriginal languages from a visit there in the '90s). In fact, if the word appears to be in an African or Asian language, it usually is; and there's usually only 1 such choice among the 4 offered definitions, so those tend to be a bit of a 'gimme'. And if one of the 4 suggestions is a unit of currency, that's usually the correct one (just a hint for you).

Moreover, the database appears to be fairly limited: if you play for 30 minutes or more, you're quite likely to see several of the words that stumped you first time round come up again. This might diminish the appeal of the game for frequent repeat-playing..... although I suppose some mad obsessives amongst you might be inspired to suppose that you could in time 'learn' the entire vocabulary database it uses and rack up a 'perfect' score (I'm not sure what that would be - 100??). I seem to remember that my reliable commenter The British Cowboy once adopted something like this approach to coin-operated trivia quiz machines when they first appeared in the UK, and was for a while making a tidy sum of pocket money from them.

However, despite all of these advantages, I am finding myself significantly less successful at the game than I would have wished. I've no idea how fine its discrimination is at the lower levels, but at my ceiling it seems to switch very rapidly from 'very difficult' to 'ridiculously random'. (I mean, I can often recognise that I've seen a word occasionally but don't really know its meaning; or I can infer what kind of word it is and roughly what it might mean from its morphology; or, when I discover the correct definition, I can accept that this is a word with a significant amount of usage, albeit within a very narrow field. That kind of thing happens sometimes when I crash out 'deservedly' on scores of around 49 or 50. However, most of the words that defeat me on FreeRice are words that NOBODY would ever use in a million years. That is rather vexing. It might also tend to suggest that perhaps the maximum possible score is only about 60.)

I can get into the high 40s quite easily, but it usually takes a few shrewd or lucky guesses to get above 50. My best to date is 58. I think I'm prepared to retire on that.

Let battle commence, people. I can see some of you becoming hopelessly addicted to this. Please approach the game with caution. And don't feel that you have to try to best me - I got extremely lucky with that 'high score' run.

My old drinking buddy, The Bookseller, will, I fear, play round the clock until he's beaten me. At least it's all in a good cause.....


Tulsa said...

Oh, this is a good one! I was tuned into this game as a guilt-free method of procrastination a while back and agree with you on most of your points. Also, I always thought you would do particularly well with this one considering your multi-lingual word-mastery. (note rare adherence to hyphen usage... must by the calm NYC atmosphere teasing me back into standard English grammar usage.)

I think 58 is quite the impressive score.

moonrat said...


i totally hate you.

fg said...

Penguin baseball still rocks.

"And don't feel that you have to try to best me - I got extremely lucky with that 'high score' run."

Its good to see you bate the crowd.

Froog said...

Yes, I'm mean, aren't I?

Oh, the dastardly lengths I have to go to in order to provoke a comment out of Moonie these days!

The British Cowboy said...

Another very worthy (or indeed multiple worthy) cause(s) to visit each day.

The British Cowboy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Livy said...

According to the FAQ page, the maximum score is 55 :) however it does say that "5 new levels were added in Jan08 and more will follow", so maybe they've not updated their FAQ maximum yet. My maximum so far is 49, but I rest easy with that score because it says "it is rare for people to get much above level 48"

Froog said...

Thanks, Livy. Trust a techie to look up the FAQ page! I hadn't noticed there was one.

I was not fibbing. (At least, I don't think I was.) I am pretty sure I twice briefly surged above 55 - once to 56 and once to 58. I think the maximum score must be 60 now.

How did you do??