Storied is on break this week, as K. B. Hoyle explores our newest social media craze.
When Wordle first caught my attention on Twitter, I was annoyed. Grids of gray, yellow, and green squares popped up on my feed, nonsense scores shared without explanation, day after day, from the same people. It was actually beyond annoying—the Wordle score sharing felt like a secret language or club and carried with it the same air of posting a screenshot of a run-route from a fitness app. It was a sort of, “look what I did.” It felt both smug and vague: “If you know what this means, you know.” I was not a fan.
And I was tempted to tweet out my annoyance, but I try to stay positive on social media, especially on Twitter. And I also tend to believe that, generally speaking, if a cultural trend is not causing actual harm, we should let people enjoy things even if we don’t understand why—and let them enjoy things without criticism. I certainly like all sorts of art and culture some people consider “low,” and I commit a lot of professional writing hours to defining and defending what is good, true, and beautiful about many of those things. So instead of indulging my annoyance, I decided to investigate: What is Wordle?
Like many people trying to figure out the newest hip trend, I looked first in the App Store, assuming everyone was playing a downloadable game. But it quickly became clear that Wordle was not an app, because as I played through a few options, there was no sense of community to what I discovered. I found options that looked more or less like what everyone else was playing (it’s a simple word game), but the Wordle was clearly something different. Why bother sharing scores of a random word game to Twitter? Guess a word and share the score—that didn’t make any sense to me. So I asked for help, and that’s when people told me what Wordle is: it’s a web-based game that doles out only one word a day.
Wordle was created this past fall by Josh Wardle as a game to play with his partner, Palak Shah. The way it works is that everyone has six chances to guess a five-letter word of the day—and everyone is playing the same daily game. Correct letters in the wrong spot are highlighted yellow. Correct letters in the right spot turn green. And incorrect letters turn gray. The word of the day tends to be common enough for average people to play, and the combination of word-knowledge and logic-based guessing makes the puzzling aspect a good exercise for the mind.
Ms. Shah describes the game as a sort of “love language” between her and Josh, except now that the game has over 300,000 daily players, it feels like a love language between an enormous community of online friends. It harkens back to a time when people got the morning paper and everyone did the same crossword puzzle—then sat back on their front porches and patios to compare answers and talk about how hard (or easy) the puzzle was that day.
Except now our front porches and patios have expanded to include people from across the country and the world. It’s a rare thing to be able to share something like this with all these strangers on the other side of my screen, strangers who are also somehow my friends. And what makes Wordle unique as a shared experience is that we are all sharing the same thing together every day—the same puzzle, the same word, the same exact game play.
Once I understood that, I truly understood: Wordle is a club and those colored boxes are a code and a language of their own. The colors mean something to the initiated, the scores are impressive (or not), the daily discussions are fun (when you know what they mean). But it’s not an exclusive club. Rather, it’s an inclusive one that invites people on the internet to do more than aimlessly chat and scroll. It invites us to gather around a shared table, pull up a chair, and say, “Do you want to play a game together?”
But not just any game—a game that is designed to be communal, non-addictive, and non-exploitative. With one board and as many players as want to play, it is simple, intentional, and welcoming to all.
What makes Wordle stand out even more among the slew of gaming options, though, is that Wardle designed it without ads, link sharing, or leveling up. You can share your results to social media, but your results don’t link back to the site where you can play. There are no ads on the site, there’s no data collection, and there’s no way to advance to a new level in the game. Wordle has to spread via direct sharing, and it isn’t trying to sell us anything. Neither does it seem to be taking anything from us—aside from three to thirty minutes of our attention a day. Attention, we should note, that most of us give to our phones anyway. I’m happy to trade a few minutes of social media scrolling for a few minutes of a word game instead. Wordle engages the brain in a simple puzzle, invites you to share your results with your friends, and then puts you into a “force-quit” until the next day when a new word becomes available. What’s the reward for winning the Wordle of the day? Satisfaction, and the fun of participating in a shared game with friends, acquaintances, and strangers who are also “at the table.” There’s light competition, if that’s your thing, but the sort that builds relationships.
The many copycat Wordle-like games that can be found in the App Store miss out on everything that makes Wordle good. It’s not about the word game itself; it’s about playing it together with our friends. And it’s about the forced temperance of the nature of the game. Yes, it’s good that there are no ads and no exploitation of our data (that we know of) on the site, but the heart of Wordle greatness is in those two things: temperance and playing together in community.
You don’t get that playing against an A.I. on an app. Or obsessively playing game after game all day long until you’re sick of it. Or until you beat each next Ultimate and Better Level. It’s in our nature as humans to want to obsess; we have to fight against the urge to overindulge. A game that resists addiction is a rare and good thing. And we know that it’s good because it’s not the copycat games that are popular; it’s Josh Wardle’s original version.
His original version, where we get to play together without the impetus or pressure to obsess for more, more, more. Because Josh Wardle said, “No. One word a day.” And it honestly feels like something so weird, wonderful, and pure that it shouldn’t exist on the internet in the Year of Our Lord 2022. But it does, and that leads me to say that Wordle is a good thing.
A good thing at least for now. As I mentioned above, I’m sure Wordle will pass—probably before I’m ready for it to. And I obviously have no idea if Josh Wardle will eventually sell out, sell people’s data, design an app for the game, sell ads, and all the rest. This is America, and temperance might be our least favorite virtue around here. Or maybe Wordle will just fade away, like all fads—especially social media ones. But right now, I’m claiming it as one good thing the internet has given us. And when we love something good, we should tell people about it. Especially when the (Wordle) table is big enough for all.