A love letter to Wordle
Natalie Allton | Thursday, February 17, 2022
It’s hard to be on social media — or on campus — right now and not know what Wordle is. The word-based puzzle game has boomed into popularity over the past few weeks, leading to its recent acquisition by the New York Times as part of the publication’s “Games” site. Wordle’s buyout has been approached with hesitation by fans who wonder if the Times will monetize the famously free game. As someone who’s been playing Wordle for months, I feel the same anxiety — but what is it about Wordle that makes people love it so much?
The game has a humble but captivating origin story. Wordle was created by software engineer Josh Wardle — yes, the name of the game is a pun, and yes, I feel an indescribable amount of delight about it. His partner, Palak Shah, had gotten into playing the Times’ daily crossword and spelling bee games during the pandemic, and he wanted to create a new word game just for her. After months of playing with just family and friends, Wardle decided in October 2021 to release the game to the public. Just a few months later, it’s become a striking cultural phenomenon.
The concept of Wordle is simple: Players have six attempts to guess a five-letter word, which changes every day. Incorrectly guessed letters are greyed out, correct letters in incorrect positions become yellow and correct letters in their correct positions go green.
That’s the entirety of the game design. It’s brilliant in that way. Like all great puzzle designs, its difficulty lies not in the game’s mechanics, but in the imagination and creativity of the player (and whether or not the word of the day has any unholy double letters). It isn’t even hard to code. Copycat games have popped up all over the internet, challenging players to play two puzzles at the same time or guess only words related to Taylor Swift. I even have a friend who coded a version that curses at you when you get a letter wrong.
Unlike similar puzzle games, Wordle doesn’t care to advertise or promote. The game is free to play in browser and never sends any notifications to remind players to try their hand at the daily word. There are no ads or data collection on the site itself, and there is no way to pay to unlock more puzzles than the one per day. It’s designed specifically to take up just a few minutes of your time, a brief distraction without cashing in on the dopamine of guessing the word in just a few tries. It’s a relieving break from the current culture of online puzzles, and it has built a vibrant and fervent community without really doing anything except for being a good game.
Because of the lack of advertising, Wordle spread wholly through word of mouth (and word of tweet). Every day for the past couple of weeks, the strike of midnight brings excited cries of “New Wordle dropped!” from college friend groups. The game has a built-in feature to tweet your score that day, complete with colored boxes that illustrate your guessing attempts without spoiling the day’s word. And if someone does spoil the word, then woe, a pox be upon them. However, the pox would be a relief to whatever the rest of Twitter has in store.
This is a love letter to Wordle, because Wordle itself is a love letter — to puzzle design, to community and to love itself. I can’t remember the last time people bonded over something so accessible and so simple. Monetization of the game would go against its very credo, its implicit rejection of the pushy pay-to-play puzzles that currently dominate the market.
Wordle is a game about words, but beyond that, it connects people. Isn’t that what love really is?