By Ally A-L. ’23
One word, five letters, six guesses, three colors. Ring a bell? You’re probably familiar with, if not already addicted to, Wordle, the word guessing game fad rocketing around the country. Created last October, the game initially instructs players to guess a common five-letter word. After guessing, if any letter is in the correct spot, the square flashes green. If any letter is in the word, but in a different spot, it turns yellow. If it’s not there at all, the square turns grey. This continues for six guesses, or until players correctly guess the word. It’s a simple premise, but maddeningly intriguing, at least for the millions of Americans that play the game daily. It’s taken off within the Crystal community as well— around campus, it’s frequent to see students hunched over laptops, zeroed in on solving the word of the day and subsequently reporting how they did to their friends. Even more interesting? What’s now a game worth millions of dollars started as a simple gesture of love in a small apartment in Brooklyn.
New York City-based software engineer Josh Wardle always knew his partner Palak Shah loved word games. Ms. Shah frequently played The New York Times’ daily crossword puzzle, as well as Spelling Bee, a digital game offered by the newspaper that gives players eight letters in a hive, from which they can construct words. Wanting to create something new for the two of them, Mr. Wardle designed a guessing game for Ms. Shah. As a riff on his last name, he named it Wordle. After it became a hit with his partner, and later his close family and friends, Mr. Wardle decided to introduce it to the Internet. On the first day of November, ninety people played. By the end of January, over ten million did.
For all its success, Wordle itself is strikingly simple. Its website is austere— a plain black screen without any advertisements, banners, or features offering subscriptions. In an era where technology generally employs as many tactics as possible to lure in users, Wordle is notably absent of any promotions or bulletins. “The goal was to make a game that my partner would enjoy playing,” Mr. Wardle told TIME in an interview. “What’s interesting is, people ask me all the time about the monetization stuff. Like, ‘You could put ads on it, You could do premium.’ And I don’t know, maybe I’m an idiot. None of that really appeals to me.”
This seems to be the secret to Wordle’s ascendancy. The website doesn’t look for a committed relationship with its users through streams of notifications or ads, it’s simply a brief, no-frills game to exercise and engage the brain. “It’s something that encourages you to spend three minutes a day,” Mr. Wardle said. “And that’s it. Like, it doesn’t want any more of your time than that.”
Crystal students agree. “It doesn’t get boring because you can’t overplay it,” reported an anonymous student. Added sophomore Maya Wohl: “It’s fun to try and solve something and it’s a game that works your brain.” Wohl says she does the daily Wordle whenever she’s bored, as well as some of its variations. The game has been so successful that it has accumulated dozens of spin-offs: Wordle now exists in Spanish, French, Swedish, and Italian, as well as in many other forms. There’s Dordle, which allows users to attempt to solve two Wordles at once, Quordle, the same thing but with four, Absurdle, which brands itself as ‘evil’ Wordle, Globle, which challenges players to guess a mystery country, and even Taylordle, where the daily word is related to Taylor Swift. 70% of Crystal students affirmed that they play variants of Wordle in addition to the standard daily puzzle.
Another interesting facet of the game is the difficulty for users to devise any sort of solving strategy. While some players have a starting word (‘adieu’ is a favorite among the Crystal student body), a lot of the game comes down to chance. It can be helpful to guess words with lots of vowels and commonly used letters, but given as the word is different every day, there are never any guarantees when guessing strategically.
What of the future of Wordle? Mr. Wardle sold the game to The New York Times in late January for a price in the low seven-figures. The rest of the newspaper’s games require a paid subscription of $40/year to access, but Wordle will remain free for the time being. Paywalling it would unquestionably cut off millions of players, a decision that may not be in the best interest of the game’s longevity. Internet success is generally fleeting, and like Flappy Bird and Words with Friends before it, Wordle too may be doomed to rise and fall. But the game has distinguished itself from the pack— its refreshingly unadorned, mentally stimulating design has elevated itself above other transient internet trends and may be enough to ensure its vitality. “I think people kind of appreciate that there’s this thing online that’s just fun,” Mr. Wardle said. “It’s not trying to do anything shady with your data or your eyeballs. It’s just a game that’s fun.”
Play the daily Wordle here: https://www.nytimes.com/games/wordle/index.html