Thu. Jan 20th, 2022


You may not have encountered Words. It is possible that if you are not on social media and know no one with a compelling need to prove daily how smart they are, you may never have seen the mysterious grid of gray, green and yellow squares that indicate how fast someone else guessed a five-letter word.

But in two years, when Netflix broadcasts its 90-minute cultural flashback about the craze surrounding this humble internet word game, you, the discerning FT reader, might enjoy this piece. The rest of us can get together and warm ourselves by the bonfire of the country’s redundant Scrabble boards while we consider whether Wordle can hold out beyond his splashy debut.

In a pandemic time, molasses, so perhaps it is meaningless that, as recently as November, the browser-based interface had only 90 daily players. By last week, it had reportedly reached more than 2 million a day, an R rate to compete for a new variant.

For the dwindling number of uninitiated then, what’s the point of Wordle? It is to guess a word of five letters within six tries. Each guess must be a valid word, and after each attempt it is revealed which letters are correct and in the right place, correct but in the wrong place, or wrong. Every day is a brand new Wordle dawn and once you have solved one, you will be asked to share your colored grid (with the letters removed to prevent spoilage) with your friends and opponents. Temptation?

My first real Wordle conversation took place just last weekend and involved three men having a heated dispute over which word one’s first guess should be to maximize effectiveness. Another friend posted on Twitter that he would rather give up his password than share his “Wordle starter”. The puzzle editor at the Times offers tips on how to improve your score; the Guardian presented a column explaining the language history of commonly used consonants. Every morning, new Woordlers present their completed rosters with a mixture of shame and pride to an indifferent audience.

As social media once again divides into two challenging camps, the division that keeps the game alive has already moved underground. One day last week, I received four unsolicited images in my DMs. All Wordle scores. I know what you’re thinking – and I’m not sure there’s much difference in motivation.

Wordle’s secret, of course, is his lack of novelty. It was executioner crossed with the 1970s code-breaking game Mastermind. If you’ve figured out how to crack that clipboard, Wordle will not give you much trouble. Its inventor attributes its popularity to its simplicity, which masks complex thought processes: “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 it,” he told one reporter.

Satisfactory puzzles with clever solution tactics have strange traction and people go wild for it. Do you remember the Sudoku madness? They have long pursued obsessive loyalty, hence their power in the daily market; legendary is the first line of print “never mess with the crossword puzzle”. In these more stubborn times, we call them “engagement managers”.

But Wordle remains free of this unbridled commercialism. His origin story is probably the most romantic thing I’ve ever read – NYC hipster Josh Wardle makes a gift for his puzzle-obsessed partner, she tells the New York Times that’s how he shows his love. Nora Ephron looks down from her throne of infinite wisdom and says: “Good job, mate”. He does not take any ads, he has not even built an application, because he is not eager to “attract attention” or suck the data. You play once a day and that’s it. You just look at a clock countdown until tomorrow’s puzzle is available.

What could be more endearing or indeed more wholesome? The last “pure thing” on the Internet, as Wordle was christened, inevitably attracted a multitude of predators.

Last week, an unscrupulous, or entrepreneurial, young man decided to put Wordle into an application, and indeed an App Store, with a $ 30 subscription for unlimited puzzles. Despite its claims of innocence more or less as credible as those of the Downing Street party unit, Apple has removed it. More in line with the spirit of the enterprise, several free games inspired by the original appeared. Querdle has a pink background and a more demotic lexicon. Swear – Yes, you have the core.

The game’s code-breaking features made it just as popular with the mathematicians as with linguists. One day, after the big commercializers, an engineer withdrew Wordle’s source code to discover all 2,500 words in his database. Congratulations to the man who can win every day with the first try: you completely misunderstood the assignment.

janine.gibson@ft.com



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