After I turn the shower off and brew some coffee, my morning begins with my phone. First, I check my texts and email, then navigate to social media and the news. However, before I get ready to embark on the day, there is one more thing I have to do: the New York Times’ Daily Wordle.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game played by over three million people, the goal is simple: guess a random five-letter word that changes daily, in just six tries. The challenge was created by Josh Wardle, a Brooklyn-based developer who, according to sources, reportedly received a payday in the “low seven figures for a game he made to keep his partner entertained during the pandemic.”
Crazy, right? It’s a game that seems so simple that surely nobody would be completely enthralled with it. Yet, they are. I have a 30-day win streak going and am trying to improve my average guess to be in the three-out-of-six range (it is currently in the low fours). For those of you who have no idea what this means, check this article out.
So, why are we so captivated by Wordle? According to Dr. Tracy Alloway, a psychology professor at the University of North Florida, our obsession may be due to the concept of the Zeigarnik Effect. Similar to the idea of closure, our brains are built better to better remember unfinished tasks than completed ones.
This point is profound to me. When something is unsolved, it drives us nuts. On a micro-level, this might mean an assignment that is due soon, a job or internship application we never receive a response on or the roommate who doesn’t change the Brita filter. But couple any of these situations with an unfinished Wordle and you will find me going stir-crazy inside.
However, I contest that Wordle’s social value may be its greatest gift. The game itself is a network effect; I find it trending on Twitter each morning, where elated (angry) players will celebrate (complain) about their triumph (incompetency). I have a group chat with my friends called “Wordle Hardos.” As one of my friends told me, “My mom and I talk every day now, and we start each conversation with the day’s Wordle”.
How badly has society needed to connect like this? Gone, for the most part, are the days of gathering around the table after dinner to play a board game; we simply cannot put down our phones. It’s become apparent people no longer have the patience for tediously long board games. Scrabble, a game which many compare Wordle to, can get boring if you do not have a dictionary or thesaurus nearby. Thus, the physical togetherness — which is often marketed to the public as the main value of board games — has disappeared as well.
That’s why Wordle is the perfect medium for technologically-savvy people in need of social interaction. We express ourselves in a variety of ways over this game, which is something that we’ve needed to do for what’s become a long time now. In thinking about all the volatility our population has endured lately — COVID-19, the civil unrest stemming from social injustice and the growing skepticism surrounding the U.S. presidency — perhaps Wordle is our metaphor that we are still able to convene as a constructive community of diverse individuals.
As Alloway points out, we focus on the incomplete tasks first. But eventually, the black squares become yellow, telling us we are close to a solution. Then, those yellow squares become green, indicating that we’ve reached full clarity on a certain section of the puzzle. Once all six squares become green, well, we celebrate. This is to say, eventually, we solve the challenge, regardless if it takes us minutes, hours, days or weeks. Once we do, we set a baseline standard for ourselves and build our skills and knowledge from that point.
Eventually, though, the popularity of Wordle will fade as all strong trends inevitably do. I am not here to suggest that we attach our livelihood to the game — such behavior would suggest immense amounts of irrationality. Perhaps, however, we can learn to appreciate it here in this moment; born out of a time of crisis, Wordle may be a device that advances society one step closer to the new normal that we all desperately seek.
Sam Woiteshek is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.