Culture

Wordle, the free online word game everyone is playing.

The American public is divided right now, in myriad ways: We’re arguing over the efficacy of a vaccine that is clinically proven to protect the public from a ravaging, generation-altering disease, which has already claimed the lives of over five million people. The country cannot decide if the events of January 6, 2021, are the disturbing consequences of a newly radicalized far-right insurgency, a CIA false flag operation, or an act of noble grassroots patriotism. And I have spent the last two weeks reading an endless number of acidic, needlessly confrontational takes about Don’t Look Up, a Netflix comedy that stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, because that is the sort of thing we do online now

There is no common ground between us; consensus is dead and buried. In these trying times, however, we need something, anything, to unite us on our lowest-common-denominator instincts. My suggestion: Logging into Wordle every morning, like I do, trying to figure out what five-letter word starts with a B and ends with an L.

I know I’m not alone in my daily moment of Wordle. The free-to-play browser game has recently gone viral, as my fellow obsessives post their high scores all across Twitter and brag to their group chats about their daily successes. This all happened in short order, too: The invention of Josh *ahem* Wardle, a software designer in New York, the game began as a private contest for Wordle and his word game-loving wife; they played it together for months before releasing it to the wider world last October. At first, Wordle had a daily player count in the triple digits. Today, that number has jumped to over 300,000.

The gambit is simple. You have six attempts to guess a five-letter word. With each entry, Wordle lets you know if your characters are in the right place, if they’re in the wrong place, or if they don’t appear in the word at all, until the player pares down their vocabulary into a solution. (For example: You might start with “OUIJA” and move onto “HINGE,” before eventually deducing “TIGER.”) There is only one new Wordle puzzle a day, and old Wordles are not archived on the site. That means I wake up to a smattering of friends tweeting out their own detective journeys — marked by mysterious green, yellow, and gray squares that correspond with their progress — which will spur either superiority or envy. Man, my sister-in-law arrived at TIGER in only three guesses?

Video games, especially those that typically live in the freemium mobile app store hellscape, are traditionally sheathed in a thick layer of scammy opportunism. Banner ads burn into your corneas from every angle; pop-up windows beckon players to convert their hard-earned wages into an oppressive network of digital currencies; notification bars billow up with twinkling widgets that rival the dogged persistence of the Duolingo parrot. But to its eternal credit, Wordle has none of those depressing financial flourishes. It’s just a daily word game with an old-school sensibility, like cracking open the sudoku page in an in-flight magazine. Wordle wants a little of your time, and then it is pleased to leave you alone until tomorrow.

“You can’t get sucked in and play for an hour like some games want you to do, but there’s always another one coming,” says Jimmy Thomson, an editor in Victoria, British Columbia, and a newly-minted Wordlehead. “That keeps it from destroying my life, which it almost definitely would otherwise. I’ve heard there are infinite-puzzle clones being made, and I want nothing to do with them.”

Thomson participates in the gentle tournament that settles over his Twitter timeline each morning as everyone hustles to find the daily Wordle solution, but he generally finds the competition to be good-natured and low-key. If an aggressive, esports-ish veneer ever invades Wordle, Thomson believes he will eschew it entirely. “I think everyone knows that the difference between solving the puzzle in two and four entries is often more a matter of luck than anything,” he says. “It depends on what initial guess you go with.”

“With its mildness and gentle tug for attention, Wordle seems well-suited for the current moment”

Allegra Rosenberg, a writer in Brooklyn, disagrees. She tells me that she’s developed an airtight Wordle strategy built around “cryptographic techniques,” and she makes sure to complete each puzzle at midnight, when the new mystery word is shunted onto the servers. “I realized pretty quickly that the secret to the game is frequency analysis,” says Rosenberg, speaking like someone who has finally freed herself of the Matrix and can see all the lines of code.

“I got a yellow T right away, which meant I had to decide where in a 5-letter word a T is most likely to appear, and which letter or letters it would be accompanied by,” continues Rosenberg. “I’m not making charts or calculations or anything but I am thinking consciously about this stuff.” Will Rosenberg someday be representing the American Wordle team in the summer Olympics? Unlikely, but the momentum hasn’t stumbled yet.

I have no idea how much longer we’ll be living through Wordle mania. Josh Wardle has pioneered many sanguine memes that have briefly derailed the internet (remember Reddit’s “The Button?” That was him), so he clearly possesses a keen sense of the internet’s attention span. In a few months, I doubt my timeline will be consumed with those chromatic Wordle squares, but game designers all over the world should be invigorated by the plain reality that, in an age of Elden Ring and Halo Infinite, a simple word puzzle can absolutely seize the discourse.

“With its mildness and gentle tug for attention, Wordle seems well-suited for the current moment,” adds Thomson. “Maybe we’re all a little shell shocked and overstimulated.”

What Thomson speaks about is the enduring gift that trivia offers the universe. It’s impossible to have fun on the internet in 2021. All of our memes are dripping with caustic residue; I no longer know how to communicate with my fellow man without the prism of despair; there is always another exhausting argument waiting to be had about every conceivable facet of existence. But then something like Wordle, or HQ Trivia, or hell, Words With Friends comes along, and suddenly our collective sense of cosmic alienation melts away. How do you remind yourself that we all share the same hopes and fears and that humans are fundamentally good? I don’t know, but trying to solve for TIGER alongside a bunch of strangers is a great way to start.

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