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With no promotion or monetisation, Wordle has grown a player base of over two million in a little less than three months. But what is it about this humble word game that has so many people addicted?

Why everyone is addicted to Wordle

Read Transcript

The Culture is back for 2022! And to start things off, we’re putting the magnifying glass over a game that has taken the internet by storm.

With no promotion or monetisation, Wordle has grown a player base of over two million in a little less than three months. But what is it about this humble word game that has so many people addicted?

To help unpack where Wordle came from and how it operates in a social media landscape, games reporter for Screenhub and regular games critic for The Saturday Paper, Jini Maxwell, joins The Culture this week.

 

Guest: Jini Maxwell, games critic for The Saturday Paper.

 

Read Transcript

OSMAN: 

Hey there, I’m Osman Faruqi and this is The Culture, a weekly show about the latest in the world of pop culture, arts, entertainment, and spending the summer playing a cheeky little online word game.

 

We’re back for 2022! It’s gonna be a big one… I’ve seen some of the best television of my life over the past few months, the Oscars are just around the corner, Netflix is dropping a Kanye documentary, it’s all happening folks.

 

To kick things off though, we’re delving into the game that everyone has been obsessed with. And to help me talk about it, I’m very excited to welcome back to the show, for the first episode of the year, Jini Maxwell: Games Critic for *The Saturday Paper*. Jini thank you so much for being my first guest of 2022.

 

JINI: 

What an honour. Thank you so much for having me back.

 

OSMAN: 

The honour is absolutely all mine and I'm so excited about the topic we're delving into today. So my summer was absolutely dominated by this game…

Archival tape – Unidentified Reporter #1:
“Everybody is talking about this game now. You've probably seen everybody posting about something called Wordle…”

OSMAN:

…and it started with my Twitter feed starting to fill up with these coloured squares in a grid that I didn't understand what the hell was going on…

Archival tape – Unidentified Reporter #2:
“Wordle is this free online word game that everyone seems to be playing. And like you said, Chris, you've probably seen posts from your friends about it…”

OSMAN:

People were posting about it. People were furiously arguing about it, and I eventually decided to ask some friends what was happening, and they said ‘It's Wordle. What do you mean? You don't Wordle? Get on Wordle! You should Wordle.’

Archival tape – Trevor Noah:
“What’s Wordle? Whoah! Hohoho! Someone has a life! What’s Wordle, he says!”

OSMAN:

Talk to me about Wordle. What exactly is this game and how has it captured the world so quickly? 

 

JINI: 

So Wordle is, as you said, a pretty viral phenomenon at the moment. 

 

Archival tape – Jimmy Fallon:
“So you know the game Wordle?”
*audience cheers*
 

“If you don't know, it's some web site you go to - wordle.uk or something…”

JINI:

At its kind of core, it's a word guessing game where you are given six tries to guess a five letter word.

Archival tape – Jimmy Fallon:
“Yes! All right, so it's ‘A’. We got a definite, that's a guaranteed letter.”

 

Archival tape – Steve Higgins:

“Exactly the right place.”
 

Archival tape – Jimmy Fallon: 

“Yes, that's exactly right. And ‘E’ is somewhere in there…”

 

JINI: 

Each time. You guess the game gives you some feedback, so it greys out any letters that aren't in the final word. If you have the correct letter, but it's in the wrong position, it highlights it in yellow. And if you have the right letter in the right position, it highlights it in green.

Archival tape – Jimmy Fallon:
“‘Achoo’?”
 

Archival tape – Questlove: 

“I thought the same thing!”

 

Archival tape – Jimmy Fallon: 

“What?”
 

Archival tape – Questlove: 

“I thought the same thing.”
 

Archival tape – Jimmy Fallon: 

“Uhh what do you think...”
 

Archival tape – Steve Higgins: 

“But there’s no ‘E’ in ‘Achoo’”
 

Archival tape – Jimmy Fallon: 

“The ‘E’ isn’t-...that’s true, there’s no ‘E’ in ‘Achoo’...”

JINI: 

So over the course of six guesses, the number of letters that are left to you kind of whittles down. And that's kind of the game.

Archival tape – Jimmy Fallon:
“Alright let’s try ‘Abbey’. You guys agree, ‘Abbey’?”
*drum roll*
 

Archival tape – Steve Higgins: 

“Oh I think it’s really allowed.”
 

*crowd cheers*
 

Archival tape – Jimmy Fallon: 

“Yes!”

JINI: 

And then at the end, you're given the option to, as you say, share the famous or maybe infamous grid of coloured squares to your social media feed. There’s a new Wordle every day, everyone gets the same one, there's no way you can get a new Wordle before the 24 hour limit is up. So kind of design wise, that's it. But I'd argue that the meta games and arguments that have kind of broken out across social media are as important to how the game works and what it is as the guessing of the word itself.

 

OSMAN:

Totally. The discourse and the sometimes very serious and touching conversations about how to play or how not to play Wordle is pretty intense. Now, the game has...it's only been around for a few months, as far as I can tell, but it's absolutely exploded in popularity. Can you tell me just how many people are Wordle-ing and how fast that's all happened? 

 

Archival tape – Unidentified Reporter #3:
“What is Wordle? On November 1st, 90 people played. As of Monday, it has more than 2.7 million players…”
 

JINI: 

From what I've read, it looks like there are about two million, or maybe more, Wordle players worldwide. And those stats are from a couple of weeks ago, so I imagine the number could even be higher now. Which is pretty incredible for a game that was developed by a software engineer, Josh Wardle, for his partner, Palak Shah, just as a bit of fun because he knew that she really liked word games. Originally, it hadn't been intended for any kind of public release. He designed it first for her. She shared it with her family. They played it, I think, over Messenger together, and then eventually he thought: they liked it so much, let's put it out into the world. So it was designed for a player base of one and has instead reached a player base of several million.

 

OSMAN:

It's pretty amazing, and there are obviously some reasons why it has caught fire; like it is easy to play, its browser based. You can play it on your mobile. It's free. The rules are pretty straightforward. The barrier to entry is pretty straightforward, so there's all of that going for it. But then at the same time, there are so many games out there in the world, there are so many things fighting for our attention, whether it is a game, whether it's a TV show, whether it's TikTok, YouTube, whatever. This is like a lot of stuff to do while you're trying to kill time around the place. I feel like there are a few different reasons why Wordle in particular, has exploded. I guess I was reflecting on...I had a few weeks over summer where I was a very serious Wordle player. Like I would do it first thing in the morning and I was really into it. And I never shared my scores on social media but I would text some of my friends, and I still really enjoyed sort of seeing, you know, other people sharing the stuff. And to me, that maybe was what was the most exciting part of it. Like that kind of social element where you felt like you were part of this community that were playing the game every day and kind of having this conversation about how you played and seeing the different strategy around it. But I wonder what else you think has contributed to the game's success. What about playing it makes it so fun and so addictive? 

 

JINI: 

Well, I think something I found really interesting when I was kind of reading more about the game is the developer. Josh Wardle has a pretty interesting history with creating kind of playful experiments specifically for social media. Do you remember ‘The Button’ on Reddit? Basically, on April Fool's Day in 2015, this new subreddit appeared called The Button. And on it there was a timer counting down from 60 seconds and it would reset itself. Each time somebody clicked on it and each user could only click one time, they could only click one time. And the idea was that when the countdown reaches zero, the experiment would be over. 

 

OSMAN: 

Oh, wow! 

 

JINI: 

And it was only intended as an April Fool's joke, but it became an absolute phenomenon. People created communities around it, people would attach whole identities to being like ‘non button presses’ or to pressing the button only at a very particular time, and would then like, meet up with other people who would only press the button for like 14 seconds or whatever. It became this huge thing that was designed by the guy who designed Wordle. 

 

OSMAN: 

Oh wow, that's so fascinating. So it sort of seems to have this insight into the psychology of why people want to do certain things, press buttons or play word games.

 

JINI: 

I think so. I think he really understands that. You know, we talk a lot about how incredibly hostile and negative social media is and how those sites are designed to generate hostility and negativity, which they are. And he, twice now, has found a way to turn two of the worst offenders, I would say, like in this category: first Reddit and now Twitter, into places where that hostility is channelled into something kind of community building and fun. I think it's kind of amazing.

 

OSMAN: 

Yeah, totally. And I think when you describe the game like it does sound simple, but also there's an elegance in its simplicity, right? Like, let me think about how to explain this, right? So there are games that you know, you have to be a really serious person to spend lots of hours a day to get really good at a particular game. Games like ‘Call of Duty’, ‘Battlefield’, I think are games like that; if you just pick up a controller, it can be very overwhelming to play that for five minutes a day, you're going to get very frustrated. And then there are games that are, you know, super easy and super simple to get. And I think something like Wordle is really fascinating, because to play the game requires almost no knowledge. It's not like Scrabble, where you necessarily need an enormous vocabulary because you can sort of just kind of guess and figure it out as you go along. 

 

But the kind of level of difficulty, or how you show off how good you are isn't by choosing a different difficulty setting. It's just by getting the word in fewer guesses. And then you share that. And the website sort of records how good you are at getting the word in one guess, two guesses, three guesses or, you know, potentially five guesses. And because it's the same word every day for everyone around the world, you've got millions of people guessing the same word. And it's like a game show on an enormous global scale. And so you can, you know, you see people when there's a word that's particularly tricky. I remember there was a word Rebus - R E B U S.

 

JINI: 

That one got me. 

 

OSMAN:

Yeah, everyone freaked out a little bit. Rebus is apparently a game in and of itself. Is that right? Is that what the word means? 

 

JINI:

It's that thing where you like, try to guess the word based on a series of symbols.

 

OSMAN: 

Oh, right, that's a rebus.

 

JINI: 

But yeah, that infuriated me too. 

 

OSMAN:

And then just the fact that you wake up one morning and everyone's like, Oh, this Wordle was so hard. Like, What is this word? This is tough! Or when there's like an American version, the spelling of a word kind of seeing all these people very earnestly and sweetly express frustration or just talk about how great it felt to get that word. That, to me, seems a big draw behind why it's become so popular beyond the kind of mechanics and entertainment value of the game itself. Does that make sense? 

 

JINI: 

Yeah, I totally agree. I think the game is…I mean, I take great pride in being very good at Wordle. But that doesn't actually mean anything. I think everyone feels that way because actually, functionally, the game is not that hard. You have six guesses. There are only 26 letters in the alphabet. It doesn't let you guess words that aren't valid. So you've got a pretty good chance of whittling down your guesses until you get it by guess six. You're probably going to win Wordle. Most times you are probably going to win Wordle. And so the challenge of the game and the satisfaction of the game is totally personal in this weird way. People set themselves kind of targets for the amount of guesses that they will personally consider a win. You know, if they get three or they give in two, that's the ideal state. But those people, because it's not a particularly strategic game, as you say, it's not really something you can get heaps better at. Those people are still going to come in clutch like a late win every so often. It always feels kind of in some ways, it's kind of really old school. It's like doing the cryptic crossword. I used to do that with my grandparents when I was a little kid. By which I mean they would do it and I would be there, feeling like I was part of the process.

OSMAN: 

We’re gonna take a quick break, and be right back.

 

[Advertisement]
 

OSMAN: 

So with Wordle there is this debate and conversation about strategy or not strategy, and there's been some stories and like linguists have been sharing things saying, you know, sharing facts like, Well, the most common letters in words like this, the most common starting letter in the English alphabet is like ‘T’ or an ‘S’ or something like that. And so if you play the odds and you pick a starting word that has the most common letters, and start with the most common letter that starts a word, over time, like, you will be paid dividends for that. Do you play Wordle with a kind of strategy? Do you have a go-to start word? Or do you just sort of, like, make it up as you go along? Talk me through your Wordling.

 

JINI: 

So I started out strategic, and then very quickly found that I don't think it does pay dividends. I have found that I have more success, totally in terms of just my own enjoyment, and my own sense of satisfaction, when I just pick words that I think would be interesting and see where that goes. 

 

If you put in your first guess and you don't get a single letter, that's quite thrilling. That feels exciting. Like it makes the stakes feel higher, I think. But also, I think like quite a few other people, I've been developing weird little meta games of my own where I just make the game fun for myself. I saw someone the other day whose idea of a win at Wordle was if they could create a pattern. Like a repeating pattern in their guesses, but still get it by the end. 

 

OSMAN: 

Well, that's cool. That's fun. I like that. It's like diagonal green squares or something like that. 

 

JINI: 

Yeah. Exactly, exactly. And that's like, those are the only ones they post. So I'd be like, OK, got it. 

 

OSMAN: 

That's wild. People are making up their own games within Wordle. Yeah, what a world we live in. 

 

JINI: 

Totally. I saw someone else who tries to write little poems, in Wordle, and then like on guess 6, let the game finish the poem. 

 

OSMAN: 

Wow. Wow. 

 

JINI: 

So I think Wordle is a game that encourages people to feel good at it, which is great. Do you have a starting word?

 

OSMAN: 

No, I kind of change it up every time, just depending on how I feel. And, you know, if there's a particular word that jumps out at me. I've seen some people…this is a really fascinating strategy, and I wonder what you think about it: so say your starting word is ‘adore’, right? And you get like the ‘A's’ in the right place and the ‘E’ is in the right place. Often, and this is what I do, right, the next word I will do will also start with an A. And start with an ‘E’. I just try to fill in those blanks. But I've seen people where they pick. They get a word right. They know what the letters are. And then they completely change up. The second one just sort of rule in and rule out other letters. And then I've seen them parlay that into a kind of like, third, go guess because it's like: I could keep iterating and what I got right the first time around. Or I could just cancel out a bunch of other letters and be like, OK, cool. It's definitely now this word; and they nail it on turn three. I was really fascinated by that, and I think that's a really smart way to do it. Have you seen that, do you have a take on that? Do you think that's within the spirit of the game? 

 

JINI: 

I think it's all fair game. I say, go for it. I even know people who inspected the like code of the game on the web page and found the full list of words like, I've got it, I've solved every Wordle, for the next 200 days or whatever. And I have to say, like if that's how you want to play, if you feel like you get satisfaction from every day inspecting the page and then just putting in the correct word, why not? Totally. It's your Wordle. All in some ways, the game kind of feels more like a social ritual than a game in itself. You know?

 

OSMAN: 

I agree, and we were talking before about the kind of social element of Wordle and how sharing it, and talking to people about it, and saying the grids that people post, is a huge part of why the game has become so popular and built this community. 

 

I actually have had a real life kind of random Wordle interaction where I was waiting for a table at a café and this couple, they were in their, I would say, like, you know, 50s or 60s. They got up and just asked me and the person I was with all you know, ‘Before guys sit down like, Have you guys done the Wordle for today?’ Oh, no, I haven't done the Wordle today, but cool that you guys Wordle. They said, ‘Yeah, you know, the good weekend quiz that's published by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald isn't up yet, and it's not back till the end of January. So we've been Wordle-ing every day as a communal activity over coffee’, and that was my first like IRL Wordle conversation. 

 

I found it very sweet and moving, and I thought it was so nice that we've got this thing that is so wholesome to talk about. Yeah, rather than every other conversation it feels like is, Oh, what are the case numbers today? Or have you gotten sick yet? Or do you have a tip on where we can get a quick PCR test? That is, that is kind of what unified society for the past two years. And now it's this silly little word game. 

 

JINI: 

Totally. I love that interaction that's so gorgeous. I feel like that kind of passive sense of community, I think, has felt very rare. In fact, I think there have been lots and lots of attempts to replicate that sort of spirit on the internet through things like Zoom trivia or Humble Town…is that what it’s called? Humble Town, that little RPG-looking meeting space. People who tried to make the internet feel fun and like, you want to hang out there with your friends. And I feel like most of those attempts have kind of failed. Or at least they felt like compromises. And it's interesting to see, even seeing tweets that are just like ‘good Wordle today’. No guesses, stuff like that. Yeah, yeah. Nice. Totally. We're all part of something I wrote in my review about the fact that Wordle kind of sits completely outside of the traditional video game industry, or really the video game industry at all. 

 

OSMAN: 

We’re gonna take a quick break, and be right back.

[Advertisement] 

 

OSMAN: 

So Jini, you said that Wordle sits completely outside the traditional video game industry. Tell me about that - how is it different to the rest of the ecosystem, even when compared to other simple mobile games?

 

JINI: 

I mean, it's completely free. It doesn't seem to be gathering…man if it turns out that Wordle is like gathering everyone's data and selling it for a huge profit. That's going to be it. I'm packing up my bags and going home. But it seems like that’s not the case. 

 

OSMAN: 

Not you, Wordle, you were the chosen one! You were supposed to bring balance! 

 

JINI: 

Yeah. It doesn't seem to be harvesting people's data. The auto-generated tweet doesn't even link back to the game. There's no sense of self-promotion. There's no monetisation of any kind, which kind of defies the logic of how we understand games working online. But actually, in terms of the ecosystem more broadly, I think this is a form of game development that I am very familiar with. That feels very, yeah, very familiar to me. And it's actually the kind of game development that made me interested in games in the first place. 

 

There's, in Melbourne in particular, an absolutely huge community of people who kind of treat game development as a personal art practice, rather than as a commercial practice. There used to be a bar called ‘Bar SK’ that called itself a ‘trash art and video game bar’ where people would make…they would host ‘game jams’, where people would try to make games in like 24 hours, they hosted this annual event called ‘Delete’, where you would spend, I think again it was 24 or maybe 48 hours making a video game that was designed to be destroyed by the end of that period. I have an ex-partner who made me a birthday card that was just a little interactive garden. 

 

OSMAN: 

Oh, cool. 

 

JINI: 

So the idea of making a game as just for someone you love, just for fun, and not for money, I think is actually indicative of a very active and surprisingly common way of approaching game development as kind of a practise, though maybe not one that people who aren't down the ‘trash art video game’ wormhole would be so familiar with.

 

OSMAN: 

Yeah, it's really interesting to hear that there is a community and a kind of context around this, and I think if maybe Wordle exposes more people to the idea that you can just make stuff because you care about it and other people can derive joy from it, that that is a good thing. I think there's so much, you know, the kind of false propaganda of capitalism is that things only get created because people want to make money and have success. And Wordle is like, Wordle doesn't even have its own website. 

 

Like, it's a subdomain. It's powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle, it’s so low fi.

JINI:

Yeah!

OSMAN: 

And Josh Wardle isn't making any money from it. He doesn't seem to have any desire to do that. He just likes to make stuff. And it's such an amazing reminder that you can make art and you can bring joy to people just for its own sake. And I think, Jini, you know way more about this stuff than I do. We've previously talked about, you know, big corporate video game culture and companies and sort of the problems with that, but I haven't been able to stop contrasting the success of Wordle, and what it means is kind of a lo fi, indie, completely free production to the news from from the other week that Activision Blizzard, the the biggest games company in the world, was just swallowed up by Microsoft.

Archival tape – Unidentified Reporter #1:
“Microsoft has agreed to acquire Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion, making this acquisition the largest buyout in video game history…”

Archival tape – Unidentified Reporter #2: 

“Microsoft announced their plans to buy Activision Blizzard, including all of their studios, from Blizzard Entertainment to Infinity Ward and even King, the makers of ‘Candy Crush’ and of course, all their biggest IP. From ‘Call of Duty’ to ‘Warcraft’, from ‘Tony Hawk’ to ‘Overwatch’, ‘Spyro’, and even perhaps one of the most iconic PlayStation characters of all time, ‘Crash Bandicoot’…”

 

OSMAN: 

So you've got this spectrum of what games entertainment is right now, where you've got these really corporatized versions of games where they not only cost to play, there's weekly subscriptions. People spend millions and millions and millions, if not billions of dollars a year buying skins and, you know, loot boxes and all this sort of stuff. And it's just, you know, the financial corporate element of videogames on steroids. And then on the complete other end, you've got this wholesome, Wordle experience. And you know, I think it's not to say that one is better or worse than the other, games like ‘Fortnite’, which are huge money-makers for the companies that own them, bring people a lot of joy and a lot of pleasure. But it does sometimes feel like, well, I'm just a cog in this machine making money for these huge companies, whereas something like Wordle feels much more kind of wholesome and community oriented than that. 

 

JINI: 

Totally. I think we're kind of reaching a point with the way we talk about video games, where collectively we're going to have to contend with the fact that it's not a particularly meaningful category anymore. I resolutely call Wordle a video game because I think it's important to recognise the diversity of what is being made, and what is being achieved, in that space broadly. 

 

And I think we're kind of seeing this across the creative arts and particularly screen art. The fact that Disney owns basically everything now kind of feels similar, like would you think of a Marvel movie in the same category as a TikTok or like a student film? Games have that same breadth, for sure. And in the same way, unexpected and personal things can suddenly become incredibly popular. But I think the way we talk about games in the way in Australia that we fund them really focuses on the idea that games of these ‘commercial, commercial, commercial’, economic force, this money maker, this job creator, when actually the most exciting kind of interactive or like playful art works being made don't fit that narrative at all.

 

OSMAN: 

Yeah, and I think another thing I really like about making something that feels so kind of open source, and community oriented, like Wordle, is how many derivatives of the game have already been constructed and created. There’s all these different versions people play, it’s being translated into different languages. I know someone who doesn’t speak French, but they just play the French version for fun. There’s more complex versions with longer words. All of this is really only possible because it’s free from that super corporate, rights-based approach that so much of the content we consume comes from.  I’m also, on a very basic level, just enjoying all the memes that are coming out of it.

 

JINI: 

And I think it's also weirdly really, really healthy to have a shared frustration that is totally minor and that totally doesn't matter. Like, I think even people who are doing 10 think pieces a day about how sharing your Wordle score is violence, or whatever? I'm like, Yeah, go for it. Please redirect your bad opinions to something that literally doesn't matter at all.

 

OSMAN: 

That's so funny. Low stakes. Yeah. Enough about ‘West Elm Caleb’ destroying the New York dating scene. Let's just stick to Wordle chat. 

 

JINI:

We can just get back to Wordle. 

 

OSMAN: 

This is what we should say. Any time anyone's got a take that they're particularly excited about. Just think about Wordle, just think about your views on Wordle, and tweet. You can substack your Wordle takes. Just give us that more than anything else. 

 

Hey, Jini, thank you so much for talking to me about Wordle. I would really encourage anyone listening to check out Jini's write up of it on thesaturdaypaper.com.au. Thank you so much.

 

JINI:

Thank you for having me. It's always a lot of fun. 

 

OSMAN: 

The Culture is a weekly show from Schwartz Media.

 

It's produced by Atticus Bastow. Our editor-in-chief is Erik Jensen, and our theme music is by Hermitude.

 

You can follow us on Instagram, we’re @theculture.pod.

 

I’m Osman Faruqi, see ya next week.

Host

Osman Faruqi is a political journalist. He was the host of Schwartz Media's The Culture podcast and the editor of 7am until early 2022.

Guest

Jini Maxwell is The Saturday Paper’s games reviewer.