Opinion: Have we reached peak Wordle?
With Wordle ‘green’ trending, perhaps it’s time to stop playing? Just try and stop me, explains five-letter addict, Dan Rookwood
Tuesday 22 February 2022 By Dan Rookwood
A snippet from my annual check-up last week:
‘Any regular exercise?’
‘Yeah, occasional run. Oh, and I Wordle. Daily.’
‘Wordle? Um… that’s not cardiovascular.’
Setting aside my pitiful attempt to engage in some banter with an overworked NHS nurse, I respectfully disagree. Few things get the ol’ ticker going quite like the stress of getting down to your last attempt. And the endorphin rush when you guess the answer on your second go? Reader, it’s a state of ethereal bliss I’ve only experienced once so far and my wife thought that I was having some kind of seizure. There are few feelings so satisfying as seeing those little squares turn green one by one. And yes, you’re absolutely right: I do need to get out more.
Even if you’re not a fellow addict, you’ll at least be vaguely aware of Wordle floating around the cultural ether of late. This free daily word game is the sourdough of 2022. As someone whose brain is a pinballing fantasia of word play, the game appeals to/ enables several of my most endearing traits: language snobbery, show-offery, and hyper-competitiveness.
In an age of incredibly sophisticated and technologically advanced gaming, Wordle’s success lies in its laughably lo-fi simplicity – five letters, six attempts, one word – and in its virality. With insufferably smug players (moi?) displaying their spoiler-free results all over social media, the phenomenon is spreading quicker than Omicron. @dudewithsign hasn’t yet held this up as a crime, but it is surely only a matter of time.
Wordle was knocked up in a matter of hours last year by Reddit software engineer, Josh Wardle (see what he did there?) for his puzzle-loving partner. After testing it with friends over WhatsApp, he released it for free in October. Having worked in Silicon Valley, Wardle knows how to tap into addictive behaviours – and he deliberately avoided doing so. No push notifications, no cookies, no data capture, no ads. And with almost Calvinist discipline, he limited us to one Wordle a day. ‘It’s not trying to do anything shady with your data or your eyeballs,’ he said. ‘It’s just a game that’s fun.’ His only tweak was in December when he added the share functionality and it blew up. From 90 players on 1 November, it hit 300,000 by the end of the year.
And then The New York Times entered the chat. In January, they made Wardle an offer in the ‘low seven figures’ to buy the game – which is a considerably better word rate than they offer their journalists.
As an earlyish adopter with a misplaced sense of ownership, I felt initially aggrieved by this sell-out – like when your favourite indie band lands a number-one album and suddenly everyone is claiming them.
There has been some wailing and gnashing of teeth that the NYT has suddenly started lobbing in some more obscure Wordles. ‘Agora’ popped up a few weeks back. (Nope, me neither.) And it was after venting my spleen over IG about what I deemed to be an impossible puzzle that I was asked to write this column. (Hey, don’t worry: I threw a Hail Mary down on the last guess with ‘caulk’ to maintain my streak.)
So far, the game is still free, but it is acting as the gateway to NYT’s paywalled playthings, including its flagship crossword, Spelling Bee, Letter Boxed, Tiles, and Vertex.
Presumably they will make players sign in at some point to capture their data. And then, once the game’s worldwide diffusion has peaked – we’re well into the millions now – they may even bring it into their £25-a-year subscription. Cue more wailing and teeth gnashing.
But it’s a smart strategy. Come for the puzzle, stay, and pay for the news. Brain teasers have rocketed in popularity during the pandemic as people at home, often on their own, feel the need for a cognitive workout as well as a physical one. You may have noticed newspapers devoting more space to puzzles at the expense of stuff like news. The NYT reported recently that their games were played more than 500 million times last year. Of their 8.4 million subscribers, just over a million are here for the games only.
What a waste of time, you might be thinking. Yes, and no. There is some neurological evidence to suggest that puzzles help maintain the plasticity of mental faculty. Use it or lose it. There are also some studies that suggest puzzles boost your mood. But perhaps the most wholesome consideration is that Wordle offers a sense of communion at a time when people are craving connection. With that strict ration of only one Wordle a day and with each one having a single right answer, millions of us around the world are performing the same anagrammatic acrobatics at the same time.
I’m just considerably better at them than you are.