Love in the Time of Wordle
Updated: Sep 25, 2022
By Mohan Rajagopal, UG '24
It was no secret that Palak Shah loved crosswords, spelling bees, and word games. Software engineer Josh Wardle, her partner, created a prototype of an online word-guessing game for her. He had made a few puzzles in the past, but this one was unique in having been developed by him all on his own. The game was meant to be enjoyed just by him and his partner, not for mass consumption. As a play on his last name, he called it Wordle.
Encouraged by his family to release it to the rest of the world, Wardle made the game public in mid-October 2021, and within two months, it went viral, amassing more than 300,000 daily players. In its essence, Wordle is remarkably simple and reminiscent of the childhood board game Mastermind. Players are given six tries to guess a specific five-letter word every day. Across the six attempts, the correct letter in the correct spot is highlighted in green, while a correct letter in an incorrect position is shown in yellow. Using these clues, one can modify their guesses until the correct word is entered.
As Wordle took on a life of its own, Shah stepped in to help her partner with the game. Initially, the puzzle operated on a list of 12,000 five-letter words, including several obscure combinations that would have been almost impossible to guess. To get the game ready for the public, Shah whittled the list down to around 2,500 words that were more common and manageable. With the couple working on Wordle together, the game became a labour of love.
The addictiveness of the game could be largely attributed to the fact that it can be played only once a day. The algorithm generates a unique word at midnight, and once completed, the players need to wait till the next day to play another round. The scarcity of the game makes it more enticing for people to log in every day, rather than playing several rounds in a single stretch and losing interest quickly. Once the game is completed, players also have the option to share their performance online via a minimalist grid of emojis.
The sociability of this element catapulted Wordle from just another puzzle to a fun task that brought together an entire online community. Be it light-hearted complaints about the game using American spellings or deceiving players the first time letters were repeated in a word (‘ABBEY’ was an emotionally difficult day for all of us), posts about Wordle are still omnipresent. It served as a bonding experience for those of us who played the game together, and I made several friends from Ashoka via Twitter by tweeting about it.
Ananya Madan (UG’24) credits Wordle for having “brought [her] closer to a lot of people, starting some friendships, and strengthening some more.” Others got the chance to introduce it to their family. Tia Garg (UG’24) says, “My dad started sending his score to our family group, and then it became a tradition for us to play it every day, send our results to the group, and tease each other if we got a better score. It’s just a cute thing we do now.”
When we consider the origins of the game, the reception to and attachments fostered by Wordle are unsurprising. Josh Wardle created the puzzle out of love for his wife. The innocence of the game is implicit in the way it is branded: nowhere on the website are you accosted by any advertisements or avenues for monetisation, and while most creators would attach a link when attempting to share player statistics online, Wardle has made sure to not do the same. Although the game has now been acquired by the New York Times, his original intentions for Wordle still persevere. “I think people kind of appreciate that there’s this thing online that’s just fun,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. “It’s not trying to do anything shady with your data or your eyeballs. It’s a game that’s fun.”
Over the past few months, a number of Wordle spinoffs have made their way online, the most famous being Heardle, where players try to guess a song based on short snippets. Although it has been acquired by Spotify, none of these iterative versions has managed to reach the success of the original puzzle. Half a year later, the hype has admittedly died down, but there are still dedicated players who vanish for a few minutes around midnight every day. Samhith Shankar (UG’24), whom I spoke to for the first time in relation to this article, continues to solve the puzzle even today. For him, Wordle presented the perfect opportunity to spend more time with his friends back when it went viral: “it became a tradition for us to do it together at 12 am, especially if we were already on a video call. Watching others do the Wordle is really entertaining because they could spend 20 minutes thinking they’ve thought of every possible word, and then it randomly hits them.”
With the new academic year beginning soon and UG '25s moving in within a week, I've been dwelling a lot on my own batch's bonding rituals in March 2022, after a semester and a half online. For me, it is Wordle that often comes to mind when I think about our first experiences on campus since the two phenomena more or less coincided. I still look back on Wordle existing in an uncharacteristically pure corner of the Internet, homing an unspoken agreement to never spoil the day’s solution for others or humiliate them. Rarely has a game with such potential for competitiveness become a trend for completely unrelated reasons, thriving in a space of kindness and unadulterated enjoyment. Quite literally a love language, Wordle has succeeded in lighting a small spark with nothing more than affection and five alphabets.