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Wordle isn't actually about the words

Viral word game Wordle is a triumph of pretty much everything except testing vocabulary skills

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Wordle (I was so damn close to getting this in 3)
Wordle (I was so damn close to getting this in 3)
Screenshot: Wordle

The annoying thing about anything going viral online these days—in this case, the Twitter-friendly word game Wordle—is that all the fun metaphors have gotten a little grim. You can’t talk about Josh Wardle’s hyper-shareable web game “sweeping the nation,” or people “catching the Wordle bug,” anymore, because… well.

Even so: A lot of people have been playing and sharing Wordle lately, in a way that in no way invokes any other things people have been indiscriminately sharing with each other of late. And it is, in fact, the rapid transmissibility of Wardle’s game that’s made it novel.


That’s not a knock on the game’s actual mechanics—which see you play a daily bout of Mastermind with a five-letter mystery word, using hints about your previous guesses to narrow down the search. Unlike many things associated with Chuck Woolery, the core gameplay of Wordle (derived from games that date back to nearly a century of code-breaking quizzing) has aged surprisingly well.

But it’s also not why Wardle’s game has taken off, and suddenly begun clogging your Twitter feed with all those little green and yellow boxes. Instead, Wordle has parasitically latched onto people’s brains—that one’s not depressingly reflective of reality just yet, right?—by lifting an element from another classic word game: the daily crossword.


Outside the genuine thrills of a well-crafted puzzle, the appeal of the crossword is obvious: Everybody gets the same one, and they only get one a day. The end result is a communal experience with a healthy underpinning of smug competition, one that Wordle ably replicates. It’s not for nothing that the game only took off for real in December, when Wardle implemented an easy way to allow players to show their daily attempt on Twitter.

Those little graphs of green and yellow boxes are about more than bragging, too—although that’s definitely in there. They’re also an invocation of shared struggles, as you look at someone else’s grid and see that they also got fucked over by a surprise double-letter lurking in a recent puzzle.

What’s especially interesting about this is that it helps highlight what Wordle isn’t about, which is words. Yes, your vocabulary constrains the possibility space of the letters you input, and you have to at least have some grasp of English to find the proper solutions. But successful Wordle play is much more about figuring out how to game the solution algorithm. (Personally, I always start with “orate,” since it gives me data on three of the five vowels; I’m sure there are infinitely better strategies out there waiting in the weeds.) It’s similar to the way that Scrabble tests, not for vocabulary or literacy per se, but for memorization of a vast and specific set of letter sequences. (See also: Babble Royale, the other big recent revolution in online word games, which marries battle royale elimination mechanics to Scrabble to make a game that’s the tense, frenetic opposite of Wordle’s quiet simplicity.)

The real question, of course, is: Can Wordle last, or is this just another easily shared, easily disposed online fad? That core simplicity is a double-edged sword; on the one hand, every game is a low investment of time and energy, making it an easy inclusion in daily routine and habit. On the other hand, nobody loves playing a solved game, and the longer people have to learn the system’s quirks, the more likely it’s going to get reduced to a game of Tic-Tac-Toe with 24 extra letters to use.


For now, though, it’s shockingly nice to have a communal experience that doesn’t involve screaming at people on Twitter or, uh, dying. Here’s hoping it can hold out at least a few more weeks. (Or until my streak breaks, in which case, I’m out!)