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How to Understand Blockchains With Scrabble


This modified game of Scrabble called Scrabits is fast, chaotic, and educational.

I know absolutely nothing about blockchains, the "decentralized ledgers" supposedly revolutionizing everything from finance to real estate. Nodding along to conversations at office parties, I think I've picked up that they have something to do with digital currency, or maybe some sort of loyalty program?

Over the weekend I decided to go to a session called "Understanding Blockchains with Scrabble" at the 2018 Our Networks conference in Toronto, Ontario. The session sounded doubly informative, because I have also never played a full game of Scrabble. I once tried but didn't immediately win at it and thus decided it was The Devil's Game.

Cheerfully missing the 2018 World Cup finals on Sunday morning, seven other people joined me to learn more about blockchains at the session. Led by software engineers Sarah Friend and David Wolever, the session broke down the basics of blockchains and explained them with "Scrabits," the creators' modified version of Scrabble.

Despite being the person who knew the least in the room, I walked away feeling like I had a pretty good handle on the technology. Friend and Wolever cautioned that the game is a simplified version of how blockchains really work (Scrabits ignores, for example, the possibility of a kind of sabotage known as a 51 percent attack). But it's still helpful for learning the basics. Let's play:

The concept

A blockchain is a digital ledger of transactions that is maintained by a global community of people forming a vast network of checks and balances, and so no trusted central authority is needed to keep track of everything. Digital money such as Bitcoin is one of the most popular applications of blockchain technology, but supply chain management and even real estate are other potential applications. In Scrabits, the Scrabble board is the blockchain.

The rules of Scrabits (and blockchains) are set, Friend told me, as "a way for a group of people who don't trust each other to agree on the state of their network." Wolever chimed in: "Which is usually financial," he said.

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