The wild world of Wordle

Posted: May 24, 2022

Why has Wordle, a five-letter word guessing game, taken the internet by storm?

Play the Talon Staff’s Minnehaha-themed Wordles below:

Beep, beep, beep! Your pleasant dream is shattered by your pesky alarm clock alerting you that it’s 7:00 a.m. You throw the bedsheets to the side and as you sit up, countless thoughts flood your mind about the day ahead. You wince as the day’s tasks barge into your brain. Thoughts such as taking your siblings to school, the ominous biology test that you were too tired to study for last night, and basketball practice all smack you in the face. Then, from the depths of your brain emerges a reassuring light: Wordle

You grab your phone and begin racking your brain for five-letter words. Adieu? Crane? Trace? What starter word should I use? You type the letters R-A-N-C-H into the top five boxes on the screen. Yellow, green and gray boxes pop up, indicating the success of your initial guess. You hesitantly punch in the G-R-A-T-E letters, hoping that your second guess is correct. Shoot

Once again, a series of colored boxes appears on the screen, showing how distant you are from the target word. You proceed to frantically guess three more words. None of them are correct. Palms sweaty and mind racing, you type in your last guess, S-T-R-A-P. Is this the end? Is my 50-day streak gone? You press enter. 

Green box after green box illuminates your phone screen as you throw your arms into the air in triumph. 51 and counting baby.

In October 2021, Wordle entered the world. The New York Times describes Wordle as a “five-letter word game that tells you whether any of your letters are in the secret word and whether they are in the correct place. You have six tries to get it right.” 

Josh Wardle, a Welsh software engineer residing in Brooklyn, NY, created the word game to play with his partner, Palak Shah. Wardle initially shared the game with his close friends and family, but the game gained traction and expanded from around 90 to over 300,000 players in a month. 

The New York Times purchased Wordle for an undisclosed amount, rumored to be in the low seven figures, in January of this year. Since then, the game has boomed in popularity. Wordle is constantly trending on Twitter, where players vent their frustration or bask in the glory of successfully solving the mystery word. 

In fact, countless variations of Wordle have been created, including Quordle (a similarly formatted game in which the player has to guess four words from nine guesses), Heardle (a music-based version in which the player attempts to guess the correct song), and Worldle (a geography spinoff where players are tasked with guessing the right country). Game creators have even made NFL (Weddle), NBA (Poeltl), Harry Potter (Hogwartle), and Star Wars (Swordle) versions of Wordle that involve guessing a certain character or element in that particular field.

This is part of what makes the game so ingenious, because, by design, Wordle is an extremely versatile, aesthetically simple game that thrives on the player’s knowledge, strategy, and competitive spirit.

“I play it every day,” said Minnehaha tech-consultant Joe Starkey, who started playing Wordle last fall before it was purchased by the New York Times.

Starkey brought Wordle to the workplace, challenging fellow librarians and tech team members alike to beat his score and share their results.

On a couple of occasions, school librarian Dora Wagner has completed the Wordle in a single guess.

“I do it first thing in the morning during consciousness,” said Wagner, who also got into playing Heardle for a short time.

Starkey also plays Explordle, which is “a two-minute long video of someplace in the world and you have to guess where it is.”

These numerous creative spin-offs have stemmed from Wordle’s simplicity and versatility. These are just some of the essential elements that have allowed Wordle to attract such a wide audience. 

Dr. Josh Garrin, a psychology professor at Southern New Hampshire University, points out that Wordle contains “just the right combination of challenges, intellect and dopamine.”

He also states that Wordle thrives because of its low cognitive load, satisfying the player’s ambition for excitement without completely draining it. Furthermore, the absence of flashy special effects and annoying pop-up ads allows the player to focus on the task at hand and pit their brain against the computer. Wordle’s simplicity not only makes for an easily accessible, beautifully uninteresting word game but challenges the cultural assumption that the best digital games are the ones with groundbreaking technological developments.

Wordle yields emotion, which is impressive for a word game. It benefits because of reward, that reward being guessing the correct word, and uses it in order to hook its players and keep them coming back day after day. For instance, if a player sweats it out and guesses the word on their last try, they most likely received a massive adrenaline rush in the process, not to mention the relief and joy of coming out on top. 

Wordle’s use of reward is similar to the programming of casino games but much more innocent and with fewer consequences. Just like casino games that are designed to draw you in and intermittently give you rewards to retain your interest, Wordle is designed to build up pressure as you keep guessing words, teasing you with yellow boxes that indicate your nearness to the jackpot word, and eventually rewarding you with the ultimate prize. SNHU’s Dr. Garrin says that Wordle’s one-game-a-day format is centered around the concept of scarcity. For instance, when the game is completed, the user is already looking forward to guessing the following day’s word. However, there is no second act, no reason to continually refresh Safari in hopes of discovering a new five-letter mystery word.

“As a result,” Dr. Garrin says, “the reward that we receive by winning feels more intermittent and random, which intensifies the dopamine hit and feeds the addiction factor.”

Not only this, but Wordle also uses streaks to lure in its players and spark competition. This idea is similar to streaks on Snapchat, but rather than being based on your actions in conjunction with another human being’s response, Wordle’s version is centered on success. For instance, if you correctly guess SHOVE on the first day you play, you have a blemishless streak of one. However, if you come back the following day and correctly guess FORGE, your streak moves to two, and so on for each consecutive day that you return and win. 

Another Snapchat-esque tool that Wordle uses to its advantage is that streaks can be broken by a single day in which the user doesn’t play the game. As a result, dedicated Wordle players obsess over their streaks because they are a direct representation of their ability and commitment, and therefore are the perfect material for trash talk with other diehard Wordler’s.

In many ways, the interconnected, technologically advanced nature of 21st-century civilization is the perfect environment for Wordle.

Kelli Dunlap, a clinical psychologist and game design professor at American University, commented on Wordle’s relationship with social media admitting, “I don’t know about your Twitter feed, but mine is just blown up with these visual images of Wordle, and so the fact that it’s so shareable is one reason that [it] has exploded, for sure.”

The prevalence of social media enabled Wordle to take flight and captivate millions across the globe. However, Wordle’s influence extends past social networking apps, satisfying basic human tendencies as well. 

In fact, Douglas Gentile, a psychology professor at Iowa State University, believes that Wordle fulfills the “ABC of human needs,” this being autonomy, belongingness, and competence. He describes the acronym by saying, “A is autonomy. We want to feel like we’re in control of our lives, B is belongingness. We want to feel like we’re connected to other people,” Gentile said. “And the C is competence. We like feeling [we’re] good at something.”

Wordle harnesses these human traits, captivating and connecting millions through daily five-letter words. It encourages friendly competition and engages the brain in a healthy way, proving that player engagement doesn’t always need to be associated with hyper-realistic, new-age technology and gaming. It’s a winning formula, and the Wordle train shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. 


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