I’m leaning over my friend’s shoulder in the middle of a party trying to help him guess the day’s “Wordle.” The music is loud and so are the people, but it’s been a long time since I’ve felt this locked into a task. Two of our friends are sitting next to us also trying to solve the puzzle, and it soon becomes a group effort until we land on the word. Do I remember what the word was? No. Do I remember all four of us exploding in cheers and clapping, briefly drawing the attention of other partygoers? Yes. Do I recognize that it is strange to be so absorbed by a word puzzle game in the middle of a college party? Also yes. However, I don’t think many “Wordle” players would blame us.
“Wordle,” the online word game that has captivated much of the world in recent months, was released in October 2021 by creator Josh Wardle, who originally made the game for himself and his partner to play during the pandemic. “Wordle”’s gameplay is fairly simple: Each day a new five-letter word is picked, and players have six tries to guess it. The puzzle is presented as a five-by-six-square grid; the game denotes wrong letters in gray, correct ones in the wrong place in yellow and correct ones in the right place in green. The game blew up around December 2021, and became an internet phenomenon as people began sharing their results in easy-to-share graphics online.
In November 2021, “Wordle” had 90 players and by January, that number jumped to over 2 million. People have a tendency to love puzzle games — “Words With Friends,” “Candy Crush,” “Tetris” — but “Wordle” stands out and took off because you have six tries to guess the word, and whether or not one can guess it correctly, those six tries are all you have until the next word is released. It keeps players on the edge of their seats for the next puzzle, and since every player gets the same word, solving the game becomes something of a pride point for players online. It is good, wholesome fun in our pandemic landscape. Devoid of politics or opinions, “Wordle” is a perfect way for people to connect over a shared love of a free, simple word puzzle game (hence college students playing during a party).
Then The New York Times bought “Wordle.” On Jan. 31, 2022, The New York Times acquired the game for somewhere “in the low seven figures.” If you’re keeping up, that is at least one million dollars. The game will be part of The New York Times Games section, which is home to the publication’s daily crossword puzzle and the game “Spelling Bee.” The acquisition of “Wordle” is a part of The NYT’s quest toward “becoming the essential subscription for every English-speaking person seeking to understand and engage with the world.” In a Twitter statement, Josh Wardle referred to “Wordle”’s popularity and its upkeep as “overwhelming” and went on to call the purchase “very natural.” His excitement about the move and handing control to a larger team was palpable, so we should all be excited for him, right?
Well, let me tell you, the afternoon of Jan. 31 on Twitter was insane. As I logged onto the app for probably the millionth time that day, I was met with “RIP Wordle” on the trending page. Most users worried that the game would be stuck behind The NYT’s notorious paywall. One Twitter user summed the predicament up pretty well: “I have never seen twitter as immediately mad as it is rn about the NYT wordle buyout. the NYT took one nice and simple thing that a lot of people really liked, a dumb bit of fun in our exhaustingly dark times, and implied that they’ll stick it behind a paywall. exhausting.” Others used the opportunity to poke fun at the nature of capitalism, “rip wordle, there is nothing sacred to capitalism apparently.” Some turned the acquisition political: “NYT buying Wordle is the puzzle equivalent of an out-of-touch politician instantly killing the appeal of a pop culture thing.” The cheekiest among us even brought back the classic millennial adage, “‘How millennials killed Wordle’ -NYT op-ed tomorrow.” However, the humor seemed to be only a thin veneer masking a very real sense of anger over the acquisition of “Wordle.”
Wardle’s original statement was meant to assuage fears that his game might be put behind a paywall. He claimed that the game would “be free to play for everyone,” but The NYT said that “Wordle” would “initially” be free to play. This, combined with the fact that The New York Times purchased “Wordle” in hopes of boosting subscriptions, leaves the fate of the game’s freedom in question and raises an important question for players: Has the New York Times killed “Wordle”?
The prospect of charging money for things that were once free tends to put people off of it, and the case may be no different with “Wordle.” Not having to pay for the game is one of its major appeals, and it’s one of the things that allows players to come back to it over and over again. I wonder if The NYT has considered the fact that, if they were to require a subscription to play “Wordle,” they would be effectively cutting off an “astronomical amount” of players and possibly losing more potential subscribers than gaining them.
I would be remiss not to account for the decreasing longevity of digital trends — as with all things, trends have a life cycle, and we know digital ones tend to have some of the shortest. According to a 2019 study by the Technical University of Denmark, trending topics on Twitter in 2016 stayed in the top 50 most popular hashtags for an average of 11.9 hours. TikTok trends are said to last approximately three to 10 days on the app. This is simply the reality of how online trends function, and it raises the question of whether “Wordle” will die on its own in a few months’ time anyway. If this is true, then “paywalling ‘Wordle’ would accelerate that decline dramatically,” and The NYT would be left with a game that they killed.
You may be able to tell by now, but I have no desire for “Wordle” to fade away. It became something of a rock for me in the past few months — logging onto Twitter every day guaranteed friendly discourse about the game, and knowing that a new word would appear every day is a surety in our otherwise turbulent world. As a creative writing major, the game also feels like a chance to test my vocabulary, to boost my ego when I know a hard word or to teach me a new one. “Wordle” is educational, reliable and social as I continue to hear cries of “New ‘Wordle’ just dropped!” in my home, and I should mourn to see such rare dependability be lost.
If “Wordle” does fade into the internet trend afterlife soon, then I want to emphasize what the game did for us. For a few moments in time each day, we stretched our brains, trying to recall as many five-letter words as we could remember. We used that to challenge our friends, to race them to the end of the puzzle and to help each other uncover every day’s word. We competed and we triumphed with no expectations — with no fear that we would be asked to view an advertisement or pay for a subscription. If this is how “Wordle” will go, then let me introduce you to a few of its cousins: “Taylordle,” “Lordle of the Rings” and “Evil Wordle,” because I suppose all good things must come to an end… or an untimely demise.
Daily Arts Writer Maddie Agne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.