Why have we all gone wild for Wordle?

Last year, a former Reddit engineer devised a simple online word game for his partner to stave off boredom during lockdown. Today, only a few months later, this particular lockdown project is played by millions around the world, and has just found a new owner in the New York Times.  

The game in question is, of course, Wordle. The online puzzle – caught somewhere between hangman and the 1970s code-breaking boardgame Mastermind – has quickly grown into an internet phenomenon, coursing through social media and WhatsApp group chats as players share their daily scores. On Tuesday, it was announced that founder Josh Wardle had sold Wordle to the New York Times for a “low seven-figure” price, marking the end of the game’s humble beginnings.  

But what is Wordle? Why do we love it? And what can we learn from its success and sale to the NYT?   

For those still uninitiated, the aim of Wordle is to guess a five-letter word within six attempts. After each guess, which must be a valid word, the letters flip and change colour to reveal whether they’re correct and in the right place (green), correct but in the wrong place (yellow) or incorrect (grey). By the end of the game you’re left with a grid of green, yellow and grey squares and an (often disproportionate) sense of accomplishment. I’ve been hooked since mid-January.  

“By the end of the game you’re left with a grid of green, yellow and grey squares and an (often disproportionate) sense of accomplishment. I’ve been hooked since mid-January.”

The game’s success lies in its simplicity. Wordle is found on a website, not in an app, negating the need for downloads. It’s also a relatively easy win. The answers are sometimes tricky (see 24th January’s answer ‘knoll’), but never too tricky, and the unlimited time-frame allows for deliberation and experimentation.  

“Games are most successful when it’s just beyond human capability to play the perfect game,” said Will Sorrell, CEO at Clarendon Games when I caught up with him this week. “The best games sit in that sweet spot, giving you enough to think about – but not too much.” Wordle certainly falls into this category, requiring just the right combination of skill and luck.  

Most of all, Wordle has inspired connectedness. Each player is given the same daily word, and built into the game is the option to share your results without spoiling it for others. As a result, social media (particularly Twitter), is full of green, yellow and grey squares as users express frustrations or celebrate lucky victories. Much of the joy of Wordle comes long after play has ended, from seeing how many attempts it took others and swapping tactics with friends. 

The aim of Wordle is to guess a five-letter word within six attempts.

We’ll never know if Wordle would have been as popular in pre-Covid days. For starters, the number of active social media users climbed by nearly 10% in 2021, and there’s certainly something to be said for simple and accessible online joys which bring people together in times of continued uncertainty (who remembers the sea shanties era?). Writing in Forbes, commentator Will Jeakle reflected that “despite everything we’ve gone through, [Wordle proves that] Americans still have the ability to appreciate the little things and connect over them.” Typically, the internet is not united on this view. In stark contrast, a blog in Psychology Today makes the dispiriting suggestion that “Wordle reveals just how competitive and insecure we are. It’s not about sharing intellectual experiences; it is about trying to feel superior to others.”  

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but the game’s grip on our lives is obvious. Growing from ninety daily players in November to ‘millions’ today, according to the New York Times, Wordle has inspired countless online meme formats, copy-cat apps and spin-off games. There’s Absurdle, a backwards version which presents players with 2,315 potential correct answers; Primel, a maths-based alternative for guessing prime numbers; and Sweardle, a not-safe-for-work variant in which each answer is a rude word.   

There are a few things we can learn from Wordle’s sale to the New York Times, which will see the puzzle relocated to the media giant’s games platform and likely go behind a paywall.  

First, whether by accident or by design, the sale is well timed. Viral games tend to disappear as quickly as they start, and by the end of January it was already beginning to feel like Wordle had reached its peak. Selling now guarantees that Wordle will live on (even if to a smaller, paying audience), and not meet the same fate as other viral creations like Houseparty or Vine.  

Second, a founder is not always the best person to commercialise a concept. While some may have expanded the model or waited it out in hope of further growth, handing over control will allow Josh Wardle – who is a software engineer, not a Silicon Valley tech founder – to step back. In his statement on the acquisition, Josh wrote that Wordle’s growth had been “a little overwhelming”. I’m reminded of the viral Flappy Bird app, whose founder shut the game down suddenly in 2014 with a tweet that read “I cannot take this anymore”.  

Third, it speaks to the pervasiveness of the gaming industry, which continues to dominate the consolidation efforts of businesses across the consumer-facing sector. This year alone, we’ve seen two major gaming acquisitions worth more than $80bn in total: Take-Two Interactive’s $12.7bn purchase of Farmville maker Zynga, and Microsoft’s $68.7bn acquisition of Activision Blizzard, the group behind Candy Crush and Call of Duty. For a legacy media organisation like the New York Times, whose commercial landscape is continually evolving, it’s no wonder that gaming is central to future growth strategies.  

Who knows whether we’ll all still be playing Wordle in a month’s time, or how many of us will follow it onto the NYT platform. But if we can learn one thing from the game, it’s that things don’t have to be flashy or complicated to be successful. Wordle’s charm comes from its simplicity. In an age of metaverse gaming and augmented reality shopping, a nostalgic word game might be all we need.