Temperance and Play: Wordle’s Weird and Wonderful World
Historical is on break this week, like K. B. Hoyle explore our new social media craze.
When Wordle first caught my eye on Twitter, I was annoyed. Grids of gray, yellow, and green squares appeared on my feed, meaningless scores shared without explanation, day after day, by the same people. It was actually beyond annoying: Wordle’s score sharing felt like a secret language or club, and carried with it the same air of posting a screenshot of a running route from a fitness app. It was kind of « Look what I’ve done ». He sounded both smug and vague: « If you know what that means, You know. » I wasn’t a fan.
And I’ve been tempted to tweet my annoyance, but I try to stay positive on social media, especially Twitter. And I also tend to believe that, in general, if a cultural trend isn’t 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 enjoy all kinds of art and culture that some people consider « low » and I devote many hours of professional writing to defining and defending what is good and true and beautiful in many of these things. So instead of indulging my annoyance, I decided to investigate: What is it Wordle?
Like many people trying to figure out the latest fashion trend, I first looked into the App Store, assuming everyone was playing a downloadable game. But it quickly became clear that Wordle wasn’t an app, because while I toyed with some of the options, there was no sense of community in what I discovered. I found options that looked pretty much like what everyone else was playing (it’s a simple pun), but the Wordle it was clearly something else. Why bother sharing the scores of a casual word game on Twitter? Guess a word and share the score – it 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 only dispenses one word a day.
Wordle was created last fall by Josh Wardle as a game to play with his partner, Palak Shah. The way it works is that everyone gets six chances to guess a five-letter word of the day, and everyone plays the same game every day. Correct letters in the wrong place are highlighted in yellow. The correct letters in the right place turn green. And the wrong letters turn gray. The word of the day tends to be common enough for ordinary people to play, and the combination of word knowledge and logical guessing makes the puzzling look good exercise for the mind.
Ms. Shah describes the game as something of a « love language » between her and Josh, except now that the game has over 300,000 daily players, it feels like a love language between a huge online community of friends. She recalls a time when people would get the morning paper and everyone would do the same crossword puzzle, then sit on their porches and patios to compare answers and talk about how difficult (or easy) the puzzle was that day.
Except now our front porches and patios have expanded to include people from all over the country and the world. It’s rare that I get to share something like this with all these strangers on the other side of my screen, strangers who are also my friends in some way. And what makes Wordle unique as a shared experience is that we all share the same thing together every day: the same puzzle, the same word, the same Exactly game.
Once I understood this, I truly understood: Wordle AND a bat and those colored boxes are a code and language all their own. The colors mean something to the initiates, 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 is inclusive which invites people on the internet to do more than just chat and scroll aimlessly. He 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 designed to be mundane, unaddictive, and unexploitable. With one board and all the players wanting to play, it’s simple, intentional, and welcoming to everyone.
What makes Wordle stand out even more among the slew of game options, however, is that Wardle designed it without ads, link sharing, or leveling up. You can share your achievements on social media, but your achievements don’t link to where you can play. There are no ads on the site, there is no data collection, and there is no way to advance to a new level in the game. Wordle needs to spread through direct sharing and is not trying to sell us anything. Nor does it seem to take anything away from us, beyond three to thirty minutes of our attention a day. Warning, we should note, that most of us give our phones anyway. I’m happy to trade a few minutes of social media scrolling for a few minutes of a pun. Wordle engages your brain in a simple puzzle, prompts you to share your results with your friends, and then puts you in a « force quit » until the next day, when a new word becomes available. What is the reward for winning the wordle of the day? The satisfaction and fun of participating in a game shared with friends, acquaintances and strangers who are also « at the table ». There’s some light competition, if that’s your thing, but the kind that builds relationships.
The many Wordle-like games that can be found in the App Store miss out on everything that makes Wordle good. It’s not about the pun 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 advertisements on the site and no exploitation of our data (that we know of), but the heart of Wordle’s greatness lies in these two things: temperance and playing together in community.
You can’t play against an AI on an app. Or obsessively play game after game all day until you’re sick of it. Or until you pass each successive Ultimate and Better level. It is in our nature as human beings to want to be obsessed; we have to fight against the urge to overdo it. A game that resists addiction is a rare and good thing. And we know that’s okay because it’s not the copycat games that are popular; is the original version by Josh Wardle.
Its original version, where we can play together without the rush or pressure of obsessing about having more, more, Moreover. Because Josh Wardle said, “Nope. One word a day. » And it honestly feels like something so strange and 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 said above, I’m sure Wordle will pass, probably before I’m ready. And of course I have no idea if Josh Wardle will eventually burn out, sell people’s data, design an app for the game, sell ads and all that. This is America, and temperance might be our least favorite virtue around here. Or maybe Wordle will fade away, like all fads, especially those of social media. But right now, I’m claiming it as a good thing the internet has given us. And when we love something good, we should tell people about it. Especially when the table (Wordle) is big enough for everyone.