This week I want to take a break from our usual format and write about the biggest news in the word-puzzle community since the invention of the anagram. By now, you’ve probably heard about Wordle 10 times over from friends and followers alike. The daily word game, originally created by the software developer Josh Wardle to amuse his partner during pandemic downtime, quickly became a viral sensation. The game is simple: You have six guesses to reach a secret five-letter word. Each time you guess a word, the game color-codes your guess back to you, revealing wrong letters in gray, letters in common with the mystery word in yellow, and common letters in the correct position in green. Wrong guesses yield more information, locking certain letters into place and eliminating others, leading, hopefully, to an all-green right guess before the six-guess limit has been reached.
The concept is nothing new. The game show Lingo, recently revived in Britain, centers on a practically identical concept. Jotto, invented in the 1950s, offers a very similar head-to-head analog version, with two players competing to guess each other’s secret word. The board game Mastermind, around since the ’70s, replicates the experience with only color patterns. Put Jotto and Mastermind together and you have Wordle. The play is beautifully simple and exciting: The more information you get about the secret word, the closer you get to losing it all. Knowledge is exchanged for time. It puts the solver in the adventure-cryptography spirit of Robert Langdon or Indiana Jones: Three more guesses until the ancient Mayan cryptex self-destructs!
The game traveled across the internet like wildfire. People began to share their results each day on social media via an arrangement of colored squares representing their journey to the secret word. The obsession filtered up to celebs such as Jimmy Fallon and J. Smith Cameron (Geri on Succession) and even got sent up on Saturday Night Live. All of a sudden, the first popular meme of 2022 was an online word game.
As a puzzles editor, I was over the moon. Wordle achieved what every original digital puzzle game aspires to. It adapted a simple, classic, and intuitive puzzle to the online world, keeping the barrier to entry low and using the medium to clarify the user experience through a visual reveal. The result allows the player to engage with words in a new way—in the realm of pure aesthetic symbology, devoid of meaning, as pure play. It doesn’t have the richness or depth of a crossword puzzle, which teeters language on the precipice of both meaning and play. But it’s cathartic and elegant. I play it religiously.
What exactly about Wordle made it skyrocket to viral fame? Only Indy could say for sure, but I think the answer has something to do with the sacred. A fellow Wordle obsessive sent me one of the various Wordle clones, which allows you to play the game as many times a day as you want, and even to adjust the length of the mystery word. It was fun for a little while but it wasn’t the same. Something essential about the Wordle experience was lost in the accessibility. I missed looking forward to the one five-letter word a day that everyone else on the internet would be trying to guess along with me. For once, something fun online was kind enough to leave me wanting more. And although some among the social-media masses have found ways to hate each other over it, I find Wordle to be a sublime communal experience.
In an attention economy of constant maximization and scaling-up, Wordle is an impressively restrained exercise in beauty for its own sake. No ads, no marketing campaign, no “aesthetic,” no ability to binge, no feed with its endless scroll. Just one small, clear, discrete, new challenge each day. Its origin as a game made for one person, out of love, is what makes Wordle special. An antidote to overstimulation, it feels personal, even intimate—there was no ulterior motive in its creation. I play Wordle first thing in the morning or just before bed, as do most people I know—like a collective daily prayer ritual. Or maybe I’m just addicted.