Why is the world so rapt by Wordle?
Move over Scrabble and Words With Friends - there's a new word game craze. Wordle has become an internet sensation. Megan Dingwall examines the secret to its success.
What’s green and yellow and shared all over? That would be Wordle, the viral online game capturing the attention of word nerds everywhere.
Its popularity is such that the game has even become a verb; “do you Wordle?” is now a reasonable question. It was designed with only one user in mind, launched with no fanfare, and its premise ignores common tactics to entice and keep a user’s attention. Which begs the question, why in the world is Wordle so popular?
For the uninitiated, Wordle is a browser-based game that gives players six attempts to guess a five letter word. Once a guess is submitted, each letter will display as green if it’s in the correct position, yellow if it’s in the word but not in that spot, or grey or black (depending on your settings) if it’s not in the word at all.
The game was invented by Josh Wardle, an American software engineer, for his partner and then released to the world in October 2021. By 10 January 2022, Wardle said it had more than 2.7 million players. Later that month, it was announced The New York Times had purchased the game from Wardle "for an undisclosed price in the low-seven figures".
Less is more
Dr Penny Kyburz, a Senior Lecturer at the ANU School of Computing, says word games continue to be very popular because they are familiar and easy to understand.
“Wordle is very simple, accessible, and easy to get into. It’s basically Mastermind with words,” she says.
But unlike other games that have hooked the globe in the past (remember Candy Crush?), you can only Wordle so much - a new puzzle is released each day. This means users are immediately left wanting more, which could be part of the reason Wordle is so popular, says Kyburz, who is also an experienced game developer.
“So many games now are built around letting, or expecting that, players buy themselves out of these uncomfortable feelings of wanting more or failing to access instant gratification. Most games you can binge on until you are done. But stringing out just this small hit every day keeps it fresh.
“Scarcity is the ultimate driver of human desire. Remember when cliff-hangers in TV shows meant something, because you had to wait until next week? Now you just roll on to the next episode and it doesn’t have the same terrible wonderful effect.”
What in the Wordle?
In December, creator Wardle added the ability for users to share their results on social media via a grid that displays the green, yellow and grey/black squares so others can see your progress without giving away the word. The no-frills post doesn’t leave many clues for those who aren’t in the loop, and there lies another potential secret to its success - the mystery and intrigue.
“I first got into it because I saw all these strange coloured boxes popping up on Twitter,” says Kyburz. “What did it all mean? Everyone seems to be playing. I must have been missing out and late to the party. Combine the FOMO with the intrigue of ‘what is this thing?’, ‘how does it work?’, and ‘can I beat everyone else?’ - and you’re driven to the site to check it out.”
Even when playing solo, Wordle offers a shared experience - all users are trying to guess the same word each day and the trend of sharing the results on social media means it’s easy to see how you measure up.
“You naturally want to see if you can match or beat your friends and social media crowd,” says Kyburz. “It’s fun competition with a good mix of randomness and skill. People have defined their own achievements around it, like ‘wordle in 3’, a badge of honour, or shame if you can’t achieve it.”
Wordle took off in Australia about the same time as the Omicron outbreak, and provided a welcome distraction. And at a time when many apps or websites are scavenging for data, money or both, Wordle is pure fun.
“Wordle is a game that doesn’t ask anything of us. Many games are now designed around aggressive monetisation,” Kyburz says.
“At every twist and turn you are asked for money, to buy in-game currencies that the game is designed to be unpleasant and unplayable without, or bombarded with ads. It’s amazing to even see a website, game or otherwise, that isn’t saturated with ads, particularly where the content is free.
"It’s just you, five letters, six attempts, and a ‘wordle’ of possibilities.”