Wordle, a deceptively simple online word puzzle, has had a meteoric rise since its launch last autumn, from 90 daily players in November to 300,000 at the beginning of January, to 2 million last weekend. But, for its creator, the game’s rapid success has resulted in as much anxiety as excitement.
The game has become an unexpected grassroots hit for Josh Wardle, who developed it for his puzzle-loving partner. The pair played it for fun on their sofa, and other users slowly began to join them.
Every day, there is a new word to guess, and players get just six chances to identify it. Wordle’s popularity is thought to be partly because, in an era of apps aggressively competing for your attention and time, the game was deliberately built to be played once a day, and without features designed to promote its growth such as push notifications and email sign ups.
As its popularity has snowballed on social media, Wardle, a software engineer based in Brooklyn who is originally from Wales, has begun to feel overwhelmed by the response. “It going viral doesn’t feel great to be honest. I feel a sense of responsibility for the players. I feel I really owe it to them to keep things running and make sure everything’s working correctly.”
But he takes comfort in the knowledge that his game has brought joy to people at a difficult time. “I get emails from people who say things like ‘hey, we can’t see our parents due to Covid at the moment but we share our Wordle results each day’. During this weird situation it’s a way for people to connect in a low effort, low friction way.”
The game really took off when one user in New Zealand (where the game is especially popular) displayed her results in a sequence of emojis on Twitter, prompting Wardle to build a function that would allow users to share theirs more easily, in a visually appealing Rubik’s Cube-style grid configuration.
Wardle also thinks the game is so popular because it’s simple and accessible, yet also challenging. “Even though I play it every day, I still feel a sense of accomplishment when I do it: it makes me feel smart, and people like that.”
Part of the appeal of Wardle’s game is that it harks back to a more innocent age of the internet, gaming experts say. Users have grown cynical about many apps’ ethically dubious use of their data and attempts to monetise game play or foster addictive behaviour.
“The internet is in a really bad place at the moment, but this is great because it’s not doing all those nasty things. It’s what the web was like when we first had it, it was much more playful,” said Adam Procter, who leads the game design course at Southampton University.
Prof Chris Headleand, the head of game design technology at Staffordshire University, added that Wordle may also have benefited from its timing. A short daily game is a welcome reminder to take a break for those who are working from home. Equally, people have missed out on opportunities to connect with family and friends over in-person games during the pandemic.
The rules were also intuitive for people who grew up playing word games such as Scrabble, or a code-breaking game such as Mastermind, said Steve Bromley, the author of How To Be A Games User Researcher. Wordle combined this familiarity with an opportunity to show mastery and to improve performance over time, a blend which enabled players to enter into a “flow state”.
The game has also proven popular among mathematicians, who enjoy applying information theory to work out the best strategies for success. One tweet shared an algorithm that it said would result in the answer 50% of the time, or a choice of three 90% of the time.
Others have worked out which words are best to start with to maximise your chances of success. One suggestion is to start with adieu, which has a lot of vowels. Tim Gowers, a mathematics professor at Cambridge, suggested choosing two words with a lot of commonly used letters where none are reproduced, for example “tripe” followed by “coals”.
Gowers explained that the game touched on the theory of entropy, which is a measure of how much information is needed to specify a particular object (the Wordle’s word of the day) out of a collection of objects (all the five-letter words in Wordle’s dictionary).
The question Wardle is currently grappling with is whether to evolve the game further. “I need to be really thoughtful. It’s not my full-time job and I don’t want it to become a source of stress and anxiety in my life. If I do make any changes, I would like to think they are changes I would have made even if it was just [my partner and I] playing.”