May 21, 2022

Why You Can’t Resist Wordle

Before you ever played the game, you probably saw the grids on social media, five-by-six rows of emoji squares in gray, yellow, and green. At first they seemed mysterious. Each grid held a different pattern of colors. Some who shared their grids seemed proud of the results, others disappointed. But it was only possible to understand what the patterns meant by playing the game that generated them: Wordle, a Web-browser game that updates with a single new word puzzle every day. Wordle has a minimalist Web site—no ads or social-media icons, just the game—and a clunky URL. It looks like an artifact of the early Internet transposed into the modern. But the game’s simple grid of letters is in fact optimized to spread across digital feeds. In November, the game had ninety players. So far this month, it has drawn more than two million. In the era of personalized algorithmic feeds, Wordle offers the novelty of something that players can all experience at the same time. Stephen Stallings, a music supervisor in New York who started a TikTok account to document his Wordle plays, described it as an “Internet version of water cooler talk.”

As reported in the Times, Wordle was created by a software engineer named Josh Wardle (get it?), late last year, partly as a gift to his partner, Palak Shah. During the first year of the pandemic, the pair had dived into popular online word games created by the Times, such as Spelling Bee, a daily anagram puzzle, and the paper’s daily crossword. Wordle, however, has no clues or starting letters. Players guess an initial five-letter word, which fills in the five boxes at the top of the grid. The boxes then turn colors to indicate how the letters in that guess correspond to the ones in the mystery word. A gray box means that the letter within isn’t found in the answer; yellow means that it is, but in another location; and green means that the right letter is in the right spot. (The color coding is reminiscent of the 1970 board game Mastermind.) Players have six successive guesses to get a word right. Whether you guess the word or not, the subsequent grid becomes a kind of trophy, a record of play that can be compared to others’. Once you’ve played the day’s game, you must wait until the next one is released, at midnight G.M.T. In contrast to seemingly everything else on the Internet, Wordle is not designed to be addictive, even if playing for five or ten minutes daily can feel like a compulsion. “It doesn’t want any more of your time,” Wardle told the Times. So far, at least, the game has declined to monetize its place in the attention economy.

The grids themselves might be key to the game’s appeal. They are more than abstract patterns. C. Thi Nguyen, a philosophy professor at the University of Utah and a scholar of games, wrote a Twitter thread, on January 12th, offering “a philosopher of games’ theory of Wordle.” Games are all about agency, Nguyen told me the other day by phone—what a player can do in a game and how the player is motivated. In Wordle, you start off with no guideposts, making a first guess more or less at random. Then, as you identify correct letters, a strategy forms, the same way poker players respond to cards revealed in the river. On Twitter, Nguyen described this as a process of “agency expansion.” Thus a Wordle grid serves as a record of the player’s agency, tracking the conditions she faced and the decisions she made as she played the game. A player might have faced walls of gray squares and then suddenly reached five greens on the very last turn. Or she may have earned one more green square with each turn, making a slow, but steady, crawl to the finish line. Each grid forms a grand narrative, an epic of victory or defeat in miniature. Nguyen wrote that the game is “a triumph of social graphic design.” He told me, “I can’t take in a chess-game description at a glance, but I can glance down a feed and see a bunch of my friends’ grids and know what happened.”

Already, people have grown tired of the grids’ ubiquity. “Wordle might end up being the first word I ever mute,” one Twitter user griped. But the urge to understand the code wears you down. “I started seeing the emojis on Twitter and was just annoyed by it, and then eventually it demands your attention,” Stallings, the music supervisor, told me. One day in January, after guessing the correct Wordle word in two tries, Stallings decided to make a TikTok account to post his daily game. He narrates every word choice he makes with his face on the screen, in front of a microphone. (His home music equipment lends the videos a higher-than-usual production quality.) He expected to get twenty or thirty followers in a month. He now has nearly nine thousand. In the videos’ comment sections, players discuss strategy. Stallings always starts with the word “adieu,” for its high vowel count. He also begins by assuming the word will follow a pattern of alternating consonants and vowels. These are not commandments, however. “I don’t think there’s a right way to play Wordle,” he said. “Play your own way.”

Ultimately, what makes Wordle fun is the same thing that underlies Spelling Bee, Scrabble, crossword puzzles, and word searches. The English language is its own kind of game, with tricks and rules that we have long since memorized. Wordle “allows us to explore the built-in connections that exist in words,” Zach Gage, the creator of the digital word games SpellTower and TypeShift, told me. “You really get to leverage a tremendous amount of built-in cognitive structures.” According to Gage, both word games and traditional card games—two very old sets of rules—are underexplored genres for video-game designers. (Babble Royale, a recent online game that manages to combine Scrabble and Fortnite into a real-time word melee, is an exception.) After childhood, we rarely have to think about how a single letter change can cause a vast difference in a word’s meaning, or about just how many possibilities exist within five letters. Games like Wordle bring back a little bit of the wonder.

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