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The Sweet Backstory of Wordle and Why We're Addicted to This Game

Daily thrills for word nerds

letter tiles like the letters used in Wordle

My morning ritual

Four hundred and eighty-four days ago, I started playing Wordle.

It's a seemingly simple game. You have six chances to guess the letters in a five-letter word. If you guess the letter in its correct position in the answer, it lights up green. If you guess a letter that's in the word, but not in its right place, it turns gold. If the letter you inserted is not in the word at all, the letter gets grayed out.

Friends were talking about this game and their successes, flashing a competitive streak that usually lay dormant. Social media popped with images of lucky rascals who guessed the word on the first or second try. People would text celebratory messages when they solved the puzzle quickly.

As an avid word collector, I was intrigued. Stupidly, I assumed because I am a voracious reader and professional writer, Wordle would be a breeze, and every single day, I'd blow through the riddle in a minute or two and go on to my chores of the day.

My faith in my ability was wildly overrated!

Josh Wardle, creator of Wordle, said Wordle only wants you to interact with it for a few minutes a day.

“It’s something that encourages you to spend three minutes a day. And that’s it. Like, it doesn’t want any more of your time than that.”

Some days, the game of Wordle is harder than I think it should be, and I admit that it takes me way more than 3 minutes!

The Sweet Backstory

What do you give to a person who loves words during a pandemic that keeps you homebound?

For Josh Wardle, the answer was easy.

A software engineer in Brooklyn, Wardle knew his partner loved word games, so as a surprise gift, he decided to design a fun little letter-based puzzle for her. It wasn't all that hard for him because he was a successful software engineer with Reddit. He created a bare-bones website with no ads, no data-collecting, no "flash." Just a simple approach to having a little fun. As a play on his last name, he named it Wordle.

The couple played it and shared it with their family and friends.

On November 1, 2021, Wordle had 90 players. By January 1, 2021, 300,000 people were playing every day. Now, a couple of years later, MILLIONS play it every day!

How entertainment jives with the news

I am now one of those millions of people playing every day, wondering why we're addicted to Wordle.

It dawned on me that my reading of the morning news and my habitual Wordle contest were inextricably intertwined. The New York Times understood that those two activities could be successfully conjoined.

Growing up, I watched my parents read the newspaper every night, but I was never a "newspaper reader" myself, finding the "news" boring and dirty, hating the black ink that sloughed off the newsprint and onto my fingers.

Maturity and digital news changed my opinion.

For the past four years, I've subscribed to the New York Times, wowed by its vast coverage of world news, science, technology, books, arts, style, and cooking. I love the amazing graphics, videos, stunning illustrations, and photography. Great writing. Solid journalism. Global coverage.

These days, if I don't do a quick morning read-through of the New York Times, I feel out of touch and off-kilter for the rest of the day. Part of that morning reading routine includes solving (hopefully) the daily Wordle puzzle.

I am not alone. Apparently, the game section of the New York Times is a huge portion of the revenue of the paper. (Who knew?) Here I was thinking that everyone wanted to subscribe to get the news. Come to find out that many people subscribe just for the games!

“The Times remains focused on becoming the essential subscription for every English-speaking person seeking to understand and engage with the world. New York Times Games are a key part of that strategy,” the company said in a release. As of the end of the third quarter, the company had approximately 980,000 Games subscriptions.

Love-gesture goes wild

Does love always win? Do good deeds done for a romantic partner always pay off?

Sadly, not. But in this particular case, Josh Wardle's sweet little romantic gesture for his girlfriend did.

The New York Times bought his simple little game for a low seven figures, meaning that he made at least one million dollars on his love gesture.

Tomorrow is another day

My maximum winning streak on Wordle at this point is 108 days in a row, which I know is nothing compared to many other people out there. As I write this piece, I am licking my wounds after being defeated by Wordle this morning. (The word was SASSY. I tried: aside / slant / spray / saggy / savvy / and saucy...)

Tomorrow is another day, and I vow to try again, sharpening my word-wits every morning to try to surpass my 108-day streak.

That nagging desire to win, my friends, is exactly what hooks so many people on Wordle.

Why we're addicted to Wordle

Scientific, psychological concepts explain why millions of people are addicted to Wordle.

Matt Baldwin is a professor from the University of Florida. He, too, admitted to waking up excited to play Wordle. The more he played, the more he understood the connection we're feeling to the game.

First, the "ah-ha!" moment:

The human brain is hard-wired to quest for answers. When we come upon the solution, we get what is called a sudden influx of fluency. Fluency, according to the American Psychological Association, means

the ability to generate ideas, words, mental associations, or potential solutions to a problem with ease and rapidity.

You know how you feel when you've figured it out? That jolt of pleasure at knowing the answer?

Wordle supplies us with that pleasurable feeling. It feeds our self-esteem when we feel smart and savvy. Even when you don't get the right answer, you still have the satisfaction of knowing the answer, not left hanging searching for a resolution.

Second, "the flow"

First, you feel "fluency." Then you get into the "flow."

"Flow" is when you feel pleasure from focusing on an activity that has challenge and meaning.

Writers, artists, and researchers revere the state of "flow" when they're immersed in a project, producing good work, and not distracted by the minutiae of daily life.

Thirdly, the "scarcity" of the product

Like Goldilocks in the story of The Three Bears, the amount of Wordle you can consume is not too much, not too little, but"just the right amount.

You can't binge on Wordle, but no day exists without it. You get one challenge per day, and one challenge only, making you want to come back for more.

More factors that hook us

Many people today love to share their thoughts and activities, and Wordle allows you to do that, giving you the ability to post your results on social media. It's reaffirming when you are immersed in an activity that other people love, too.

Believe it or not, most of us want to know how we stack up compared to others, and showing your Wordle score emphasizes that you did better than others. (Most people don't flaunt their bad scores, for sure!)

Go forth and conquer!

If you enjoy word games and vocabulary challenges, and if you're not already a player of Wordle, you might want to indulge yourself.

On rare occasions, it's frustrating, but most days, playing Wordle is just pure fun!


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