Games

Wordle has taken the internet by storm – and is a reminder that play can matter for its own sake. By Jini Maxwell.

Wordle

Wordle being played on a mobile phone.
Wordle being played on a mobile phone.
Credit: Anna Watson / Alamy

In some key respects, Wordle is a difficult game to review. Usually when I approach a game for the purposes of criticism I play slowly, poring over details, taking and retaking actions until I feel satisfied I understand the contours of each design decision. But the structure of Wordle makes this impossible: a new word is released once a day, and after your single attempt, you simply have to wait for the next one. This may be an impediment for a reviewer, but it is indicative of a broader philosophy underpinning Wordle’s design.

Wordle is, in a literal sense, a labour of love: it was developed by an American software engineer, Josh Wardle, for his partner, Palak Shah, as a tribute to her love of word games. Developed free of the burden of profit-creation, Wordle remains browser-based, without ads, and free to play for its audience of, at time of writing, about two million.

The game’s main mechanic is simple: you have six guesses in which to identify a five-letter word, and each guess must be a valid word. After submitting each guess, the game returns the following feedback: correct letters in correct positions are highlighted in green, correct letters in incorrect positions are highlighted in yellow and incorrect letters remain on a flat grey background. With this information the player guesses again, and once the word has been solved or six guesses made, the game offers its players a chance to share their process as a series of emojis: grey, yellow and green blocks, which are currently dominating various social media feeds.

Wordle is to 2022 what baking sourdough was to 2020: an easy, dismissible sentiment. There is a tendency on social media to make light of the activities that have brought people together during the past two years. Like Animal Crossing or banana bread or the tragic implosion of the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen, Wordle has met an enthusiastic reception during the pandemic.

I don’t say this dismissively; with its approachable format and natural interplay with social media, Wordle offers its players a form of passive socialisation that has been painfully absent from our collective lives. While the guessing game itself is nominally played alone, Wordle is in every meaningful sense a massively multiplayer online game, with the metagames and strategies that have sprung up online around it playing as significant a role in the game as the act of guessing itself.

Extended conversations take place between strangers online about ideal starting words or the perceived fairness of the daily Wordle. Different players set challenges for themselves, choosing a target number of guesses after which the correct solution no longer feels like a win, or creating folk-games out of the simple building blocks – no pun intended – that Wordle offers. Personally, I have started to try to figure out other people’s starting words from Tweets filled with colourful blocks, reverse-engineering their guessing patterns after I’ve solved the daily word for myself.

Like all the best multiplayer games, Wordle is almost always satisfying when you feel a sense of shared failure, as much as shared success. Outcry periodically breaks out on Twitter over an unanticipated American spelling, a double letter or an antiquated daily word – but these small outrages die down in a day when the next Wordle comes out and the exasperation feels, if anything, joyful in its mutuality.

Despite the release of a litany of how-to and strategy guides detailing the most common letters and pairings, completing a game of Wordle relies more on sustained curiosity than on hard and fast strategy. Six guesses offers players space to rule out a lot of letters and the game doesn’t accept invalid words. This means that after a few attempts, even a scattershot approach to the remaining letters will often result in a victory by the sixth round. Armed with my starting word “hears”, I have failed two puzzles to date: rebus – which I have since learnt is a word puzzle of a different kind – and another a week later that I simply lost interest in at guess five. The game offers no incentive or counterargument to a player whose interest lags – no wheedling notifications or promise of better, brighter words. Wordle just is: the only reason to return to it is if the mood strikes.

What makes Wordle so interesting isn’t just its intelligent approach to social media sharing, but equally, what it doesn’t share. Despite the game’s incredible savvy for online proliferation, it refuses the logic of the digital market at every turn. The auto-generated text is limited to listing the number of guesses, the familiar pattern of coloured blocks that reveal the pattern of those guesses and a note to indicate which number Wordle these guesses relate to. It does not include your win streak, though the game does record this, and it neglects to link back to the game itself. While the game offers a countdown to the next Wordle when the player has completed their daily attempt, it has no capacity to notify previous players of a new daily puzzle, relying on its audience to return in their own time, when they choose.

In playing Wordle over the past few weeks, I feel a stirring of the early optimism of the internet. Already one of the most successful and viral games of 2022, it sits completely outside of the video-game industry as it currently exists. The rapacious expansion of the commercial video-game industry makes playful projects such as these feel almost unbelievable. Alongside the remarkable artistry and innovation of some games, it is indisputable that game mechanics have also become a popular veneer for scammers who hide predatory data harvesting, addictive design features and gambling behind a thin veneer of play.

Throughout the industry, the enthusiastic adoption of blockchain technology continues apace, particularly through the speculative proprietary tech of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Advertised as a way to “own” digital artefacts, NFTs are not only insecure: their uptake has contributed to worldwide shortages of graphics processing units (GPUs) and the servers that host them routinely consume more power than some countries.

Every day it feels as if a new NFT video-game project is unmasked as the kind of pyramid scheme designed specifically to gut the kind of person who wants to believe the internet can still be exciting – that “getting in on the ground floor” of Web3 will lead somewhere miraculous, somewhere outside of this disappointing internet of paywalls, apps and walled gardens.

But the success of Wordle suggests that freedom is a simpler proposition. Its popularity and its fundamental understanding of camaraderie online offer a view into an alternative internet – one where the world wide web actually fulfils its democratising social promise. Like a game between siblings or a crossword in a newspaper, it has no higher aspirations than just being there for the people who want it, a vector of social play for its own sake. In this critic’s view, it’s hard to imagine a higher aspiration than that. 

Wordle is available online at powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle/

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 22, 2022 as "Simple joys".

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Jini Maxwell is The Saturday Paper’s games reviewer.

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