Playing fast and loose with letters



GAME TIME—The Neigher family enjoys a light moment together playing their online game titled Letterloose. Front row, from left are: Benjamin, Ethel, Steve, Alex and Rick. Back row: Eric, Clay and Geoff. Courtesy photo

GAME TIME—The Neigher family enjoys a light moment together playing their online game titled Letterloose. Front row, from left are: Benjamin, Ethel, Steve, Alex and Rick. Back row: Eric, Clay and Geoff. Courtesy photo

Sharp wit and a knack for wordplay are must-have skills in the Neigher family. Brothers Geoff, Rick and Steve have spent their lives playing with the English language and trying to get each other to laugh at how words and their meanings can be twisted.

They’ve played word games all their lives, and they even invented a game that is now available for the public to play online.

Letterloose is an internet game in which players add, subtract or change the single letter of a book, movie or song title to come up with a new name that is a funny twist on the original.

“It was probably at (my brother) Steve’s initiative; he came up with a twist on a movie he had seen,” Geoff Neigher, 72, said. “Instead of calling it ‘Body and Soul’ (a 1981 movie) he changed one letter and made it ‘Body and Soup,’ then he came up with the definition, ‘combo plate at a cannibal diner.’ That kind of stuff started it out, and it just evolved from there.”

Geoff, who lives in Los Angeles, said the game began with conversational joking and soon spread to emails and other documentation that resulted in lists of humorously altered names and titles. Originally from Massachusetts, the siblings now live throughout the county. Middle brother Steve, 69, is a professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Rick Neigher, a 64-year-old resident of Oak Park, said his sons and nephews, who shared the family’s love of wordplay, got busy and created a publicly available online version of Letterloose. Users from around the world can log in and play the game or simply observe the activity.

“My sons graduated from Oak Park high school and gravitated toward computer science and software engineering. It’s been unbelievable for my brothers and I to conceptualize (the game) and put it in their hands,” Rick Neigher said. “We’d look at the website one day, and then the next day it’s got all this new stuff going on. It’s great. It’s been a very collaborative thing within our family.”

Rick Neigher said that, to design the website (Letterloose.com), the family would schedule weekly conference calls between the brothers and their sons, which he said could sometimes get heated. The Neigher brothers would have ideas that weren’t always feasible, as their sons would have to explain to them.

The website launched seven months ago, and since then the game has spread around the world. Rick Neigher said he’s seen users from Thailand logging in to play Letterloose.

“We have two streams of people: the ones who are actually playing and creating content, and then we have people that are coming just to read,” Rick Neigher said. “My son employed Google Analytics on the site, and we see the graph (showing number of users) grows every week.”

Geoff Neigher said the family’s love of wordplay came from their father, a cartoonist and “incredibly creative and inventive guy,” who died in 2016. But Neigher said they started thinking seriously about the game for the sake of their mother, Ethel, who is 101 and still lives in Massachusetts.

“She started playing Words With Friends when she was maybe 95, and we saw these ads all the time about keeping the brain young and alive, so we thought this would be really fun for her,” Neigher said. “She gets a tremendous kick out of it.”

Ethel Neigher is the unofficial spokesperson of Letterloose. The only advertisement for the website is a video of her pitching the game to viewers.

While they’re still fine-tuning the website, Geoff Neigher said, they would like to create spin-offs of the game that could be played competitively or in a family setting, which is exactly what led to its creation in the first place.

“We have a lot of humor and laughter in our family, especially my siblings and all our kids,” Rick Neigher said. “We love to make each other laugh by coming up with fun, clever things, and that’s what’s fueled this. We’re having so much fun with it.”

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