Why You Can’t Resist Wordle

Before playing the game, you’ve probably seen the grids on social media, five-by-six rows of emoji squares in grey, yellow and green. At first they seemed mysterious. Each grid contained a different color pattern. Some who shared their grids seemed proud of the results, others disappointed. But it was only possible to figure out 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 website – no ads or social media icons, just gaming – and a clunky URL. It looks like an artifact of the early Internet transposed into the modern. But the game’s simple letter grid is actually optimized to spread across digital streams. By November, the game had ninety players. So far this month, it has attracted over two million. In the era of custom algorithmic feeds, Wordle offers the novelty of something players can all experience at once. Stephen Stallings, a music supervisor in New York who started a TikTok account to document his Wordle pieces, described it as an “internet version of the water cooler conversation”.

As reported in the Time, 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 couple had immersed themselves in popular online puns created by the Time, like Spelling Bee, a daily anagram puzzle, and the daily newspaper crossword. Wordle, however, has no index or starting letter. Players guess an initial five-letter word, which fills the five boxes at the top of the grid. The boxes then change color to indicate how the letters in that guess correspond to those in the mystery word. A gray box means that the letter inside is not found in the response; yellow means it is, but in another place; and green means the correct letter is in the correct place. (The color code is reminiscent of the 1970 board game Mastermind.) Players have six successive guesses to get a correct word. Whether you guess the word or not, the next grid becomes a sort of trophy, a game record that can be compared to others. Once you have played the game of the day, you must wait for the next one to be released at midnight GMT. Unlike what seems like everything else on the internet, Wordle isn’t designed to be addictive, although playing five or ten minutes a day can feel like a compulsion. “He doesn’t want your time anymore,” Wardle told the Time. So far, at least, gaming has refused to monetize its place in the attention economy.

The grids themselves might be the key to the game’s appeal. They’re more than just abstract patterns. C. Thi Nguyen, a philosophy professor at the University of Utah and a game scholar, wrote a Twitter thread on Jan. 12 offering “a game theory philosopher from Wordle.” Games are about agency, Nguyen told me the other day over the phone – what a player can do in a game and how the player is motivated. In Wordle, you start with no benchmarks, making a first guess more or less at random. Then, as you identify the correct letters, a strategy is formed, similar to how poker players react to cards revealed in the river. On Twitter, Nguyen described it as an “agency expansion” process. Thus, a Wordle grid serves as a record of the player’s agency, tracking the conditions she faced and the decisions she made while playing the game. A player may have faced walls of gray squares and suddenly reach five greens on the very last round. Or she may have gained one more green square with each lap, crawling slowly but steadily 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 said, “I can’t grab a description of a chess game at a glance, but I can glance at a stream and see a bunch of grids from my friends and find out what happened.”

Already, people are tired of the ubiquity of grids. “Wordle might end up being the first word I ever cut,” one Twitter user said. But the desire to understand the code exhausts you. “I started seeing the emojis on Twitter and was just annoyed by it, and then it ended up demanding your attention,” Stallings, the music supervisor, told me. One day in January, after guessing the correct word Wordle in two tries, Stallings decided to create 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 gives the videos a higher than normal production quality.) He expected to have twenty or thirty subscribers within a month. He now has nearly nine thousand. In the comment sections of the videos, players discuss strategy. Stallings always begins with the word “farewell”, for its high number of vowels. It also begins by assuming that the word will follow a pattern of alternating consonants and vowels. However, these are not commandments. “I don’t think there’s a right way to play Wordle,” he said. “Play your way.”

Ultimately, what makes Wordle fun is the same thing that drives Spelling Bee, Scrabble, crosswords, and word searches. The English language is a game in its own right, with tricks and rules that we have memorized for a long time. Wordle “allows us to explore the embedded connections that exist within words,” Zach Gage, the creator of digital word games SpellTower and TypeShift, told me. “You can really take advantage of a tremendous amount of built-in cognitive structures.” According to Gage, 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 in a real-time word scramble, is an exception.) After childhood, we rarely have to think about how a change of letter can lead to a big difference in one word. meaning, or roughly how many possibilities exist in five letters. Games like Wordle bring back a bit of wonder.

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