You may not have come across Wordle. It’s possible that if you’re not on social media and don’t know anyone with a compulsive need to prove how smart they are on a daily basis, you may have never seen the mysterious grid of colored squares. Gray, green, and yellow show how quickly someone else guessed a five-letter word.
But in two years’ time, as Netflix airs a 90-minute cultural flashback to the craze surrounding this humble internet pun, you, the discerning FT reader, will likely enjoy this piece. The rest of us can gather and warm up by the bonfires of the nation’s surplus Scrabble boards as we consider whether Wordle can endure after its flashy debut.
During a pandemic, time is a secret, so it probably made no sense that as recently as November, the browser-based interface only had 90 daily players. As of last week, it was said to hit over 2 million a day, an R rate to compete with a new variant.
For the dwindling number of uninitialized people, what good is Wordle? It is to guess a five letter word within six attempts. Each guess must be a valid word, and each attempt will reveal which letters are correct and in place, true but false, or incorrect. Every day is a brand new Wordle dawn, and once you’ve solved an answer, you’ll be prompted to share your color grid with letters removed to deter vandals) with friends and family. Your opponent. Tempted?
My first real-life Wordle conversation just took place last weekend and involved three men having a heated argument over which word should be one’s first guess to maximize efficiency. Another friend posted on Twitter that he would rather give up his password than share his “Wordle starter”. The Times quiz editor offers tips on how to improve your score; The Guardian published a column explaining the linguistic history of commonly used consonants. Every morning, the new Wordlers deliver their complete grid with a mixture of shame and pride to indifferent audiences.
As social media once again splits into two challenging factions, sharing to keep the game alive has moved underground. One day last week, I received four unwanted images in my DM. All Wordle points. I know what you’re thinking – and I’m not sure there’s much difference in motivation.
Wordle’s secret, of course, is its lack of novelty. It’s combined with the 1970s code-breaking game Mastermind. If you’ve figured out how to crack that pivot table, Wordle won’t give you much of a problem. Its inventor describes its popularity by its simplicity, masking complex thought processes: “Even though I play it every day, I still feel successful doing it. . . It makes me feel smart and people like that,” he told a reporter.
Satisfying puzzles with clever solving strategies have a strange appeal and people will go crazy for them. Remember the madness of Sudoku? They have long promoted loyalty to the point of obsession, hence their power over the daily newspaper market; According to legend, the first print rule is “never mess with crosswords”. During these more difficult times, we call them “interactive dynamics”.
But Wordle still escaped this rampant commercialism. Its origin story is probably the most romantic I’ve ever read – stylish NYC athlete Josh Wardle made a gift for his puzzle-loving partner, she told the New York Times that’s how he shows his love. Nora Ephron was looking down from the throne of infinite wisdom and saying, “Well done, man.” He doesn’t advertise, not even build an app because he doesn’t care about “attention” or data being captured. You play once a day and that’s it. You keep watching the countdown timer until tomorrow’s quiz.
What could be cuter or actually healthier? The last “pure thing” on the internet, as Wordle was dubbed, certainly attracted a variety of carnivores.
Last week, an unscrupulous or business-minded young man decided to include Wordle in an app, and indeed an App Store, with a $30 subscription for unlimited quizzes. Despite protests about his innocence being almost as credible as those from the Downing Street party unit, Apple dismissed it. In keeping with the spirit of the business, a number of free games inspired by the original have appeared. Queerdle has a pink background and more unique vocabulary. Sweat – yes, you got the gist.
The game’s code-breaking characteristics have made it as popular with mathematically minded people as it is with linguists. One day, after the adversaries ran rampant, an engineer extracted Wordle’s source code to uncover all 2,500 odd words in its database. Congratulations to the man who can win the first try, every day: you have completely misunderstood the task.