I’m sure you’ve heard of Wordle, the new word game that has taken the Internet by storm in the last couple of months. I’m always curious about why some games become super popular while hundreds (maybe thousands) of others languish. Wordle is one of the rare games where I think the source of its popularity is obvious.
First, how do you play the game? Each day, you visit the game’s web site (first hosted by Jeff Wardle, the creator of the game and now hosted by the New York Times which bought the game from Wardle). You have six tries to guess the day’s five letter word. After each guess, the game tells you how you’ve done. If your word has a letter in the same place as the word of the day, that letter will turn green. If your word has a letter that’s in the word of the day but it’s in the wrong place, that letter will turn yellow. Here’s an example from word of the day 261:
My first guess, ADORE, had four letters in common with the actual word of the day so the game showed me four letters in either green or yellow. One letter, R, was in the same place as in the word of the day so it appears in green. The other three letters from my guess that appear in the word of the day are shown in yellow because they are in the wrong position. I used the feedback from the game to form a second guess that used those four letters, keeping the R in the same position but moving the other letters around. My second guess, BOARD, also had four letters in common with the actual word of the day but all of these letters were in the same position as the word of the day. So the game showed me these four letters in green. The only letter that I still needed to guess correctly was the first letter. So my third guess was HOARD which turns out to be the correct word of the day so the game shows me all five letters in green.
I love the logic of this game. It reminds of me of one of my favorite games of all time, Mastermind, in which your opponent sets up a pattern of colored pegs and gives you feedback similar to Wordle about whether your guesses have the right colors in the right place or not. These games are all about recognizing a pattern. We humans love to recognize patterns. Our brains have evolved to be really good at it. Our brains get a little hit of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter called dopamine when we recognize patterns. So we feel good when we find a pattern. If you think about early humans, this makes sense. Those humans who could recognize a lion amongst the trees survived to procreate while those who missed the lion got eaten by the lion. (A side note: this is also why we humans are prone to conspiracy theories and superstitions. A false negative–not seeing a lion that was there–resulted in death while false positives–seeing a lion when there isn’t one–had very little consequence. Therefore, we are prone to see patterns that don’t correspond to real things. That’s what conspiracy theories and superstitions are–patterns created in our minds that don’t correspond to anything real.) The first time I saw this idea about our pattern-loving brains attached to games was in Raph Koster’s book A Theory of Fun for Game Design. So I think part of Wordle‘s popularity is related to the obvious pattern recognition aspect of the game. It feels good to figure out the word of the day.
But I think there are some other features of Wordle that have caused it to really catch fire. Its popularity took off when Jeff Wardle, the creator of the game, added a feature that allows the player to share their results via social media without giving the word away. Here’s what that looks like for word of the day 261 (see above for my guesses that day):
There is only one Wordle word each day. This means that the game can’t take up hours of our time. And everyone playing the game gets the same word. This kind of shared experience is rare in today’s saturated media landscape. Being able to share your result with your friends without giving away the word allows us to compare ourselves and gloat or commiserate. We can talk together about how easy or challenging we found the word. As we come out of pandemic-induced isolation, these simple moments of shared experience about something quick, something fun, something unrelated to the challenges of the world helps us to connect to one another again. I think these are the features that have caused this particular pattern-recognition game to become so popular.
I’m also loving how the core game mechanic of guessing characters and getting feedback about the guess via colored squares is making its way into other games. I recently discovered Nerdle which uses this principle with mathematical equations. You guess numbers and mathematical operators to find the equation of the day.
People replied to the tweet that it was no wonder the author of the tweet hadn’t won. He knew from his first guess that F wasn’t in the word of the day and yet he put two Fs in his second guess. But then I remembered that a fun exercise writers give to themselves is to write a six-word story. Probably the most famous of these is “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” Read the guesses in the Wordle. Brilliant, right?
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.