How Wordle Went 🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩


If you’re at all involved in academic twitter, you’ve probably come across a pattern of green and yellow squares that looks something like this. No, your friends, classmates, and colleagues haven’t joined a cult, and no, these posts aren’t some sort of secret nerd code you’re not privy to. Rather, they’re result sheets for viral word-guessing game “Wordle”.

A typical game of Wordle. The player is allowed six guesses to determine the secret word. Limited feedback is provided for each guess
🟩 indicates a letter that is present and positioned correctly
🟨 indicates a letter that is present but whose position is incorrect
⬛ indicates a letter that is not present in the secret word.

The mechanics of the game are simple, reminiscent of the classic board game Mastermind and the ITV game show Lingo. Through an iterative process of trial and error, the player is challenged to guess a five letter secret word in as few steps as possible. Because of this format, absolutely no attention is paid to the semantic value of each codeword – the fact that words are used at all may be more to do with their ubiquity than their communicative value.

So, if the game is so simple, how can we understand the game’s sudden viral appeal? Wordle is the brainchild of former Reddit employee and software engineer Josh Wardle, who designed it for his word game loving partner. While it was initially played mainly by family members, it rapidly gained a following on social media, spawning countless imitators, parodies, and most importantly, memes. I believe the success of Wordle can be attributed to three factors[1] – its addictive nature, its shareability, and the appeal of community play in a post-pandemic[2] world.

First, addictivity:

Used with permission from Angeline Rodriguez (@gelrdrgz) on Twitter

A single brief exposure to the game is enough for Wordle-fever to take root. While copycats exist that allow multiple games to be played in one day, the original Wordle only allows one, forcing players to wait until the morning (or, more realistically, midnight) to attempt a new word. This approach prevents players from overindulging and burning out. If players could attempt multiple official Wordles[3] in one day, a small fraction of their time would be spent Wordling[4], and then another (hopefully larger) proportion of it would be spent doing other things, and there would be no significant pressure to return to it. However, under the current model a player’s time is divided differently – ten minutes or so of gameplay, and an entire day spent anticipating the next Wordle. In order to test new strategies, attempt to replicate a good score, or improve upon a negative one, a player must commit to playing on the next day, which incentivises habit forming and the integration of Wordle into one’s daily routine.

The statistics tracker that appears after the completion of a Wordle, which measures overall performance and punishes streak-breaking.

This approach is common in mobile games, and it often comes with mechanics such as streaks and long term statistic-keeping[5], both of which are also replicated here. While Wordle doesn’t participate in some of the shadier data-tracking and monetisation practices associated with the genre, it’s clearly been designed with similar principles in mind.

Second, shareability.

After a game of Wordle is completed, the player is prompted to share their result on social media. This doesn’t require logging in, or anything particularly intrusive – rather, the share button copies a collection of colourful emoji squares into their computer clipboard, which can then be disseminated via direct messages, group chats, or Twitter. While the social aspect of this will be explored in greater detail later in the blog post, there are numerous reasons why one might be tempted to share their Wordle journey. If you perform poorly, you might want friends to commiserate, and if you perform well, you might want to brag. The ease with which results can be shared means that the mere act of being on social media bombards you with unpaid advertisements for today’s Wordle, direct from your friends. If you’ve not yet played today, you’ll be reminded to do so, and if you have already, you’re less likely to forget when the time comes to play again.

This is again reminiscent of techniques used in advertising – viral marketing is an often lucrative business strategy, which can yield massive gains with comparatively little investment. One might make a comparison to music challenges on TikTok, or to the gossip surrounding an outrageous twist on a long-running soap. By harnessing community participation, a project can make countless organic impressions essentially for free, hijacking the audiences and social networks of those discussing it.

Thus, we get the final factor: community play.

It’s an often repeated stereotype that British people love to discuss the weather. While this observation is probably accurate to a certain extent, I don’t believe this phenomenon is unique to the UK, or even to discussion of the weather. Rather, people enjoy discussing shared experiences in general, even when those things are entirely out of their control. While the pandemic’s impact on in-person social interactions cannot be understated, it’s also created conditions conducive to shared experiences online. Cultural sensations like Tiger King, Squid Game, and most recently Big Jet TV have made waves in online discourse, and games like Among Us[6], Animal Crossing, and Skribbl have achieved significant success within existing friends groups. This is likely because they provide people with things to discuss or do together, especially in the relative absence of real life social events.

Josh Wardle is no stranger to this aspect of online interaction – he’s a virality veteran. During his time at Reddit, he created the website’s inaugural April Fools social experiment, The Button. The Button was a pretty simple concept – a page with a single pressable button on it, which could be pressed only once by any given Reddit user. Beside the button was a countdown, which would count from sixty to zero if unattended, but would reset whenever it was pressed. While Wardle and his team provided very little information about The Button or its purpose, users, who could obtain coloured tags[7] by interacting with it in certain ways, soon formed larger social groups and even cults dedicated to ensuring the button was interacted with in specific ways.

Final screenshot from Attribution is difficult due to its status as a community project.

Another of Wardle’s April Fools projects was Place, an open canvas that allowed users to each colour specific pixels, subject to a variable cooldown. I actually participated in Place when it was first released, and observed its impact first hand – as individuals couldn’t do very much on their own, new and existing communities had to cooöperate[8] to create art and counteract vandalism. Some communities such as the Blue Corner and the Black Void sought to create large, uniform expanses on the canvas, while others, most often national or video game subreddits, sought to create pixel art representations of existing logos or graphics.

The choice of The Button and Place as names feels deliberate – Wardle’s art is often mechanically simple and self contained, but provides a single shared experience for people to connect over. The determiner “the” implies a single button, and “place” infers a shared space for coexistence. It is, therefore, no surprise that every player must guess the same word.

While the game itself does not account for semantic meaning or cultural context, the discourse around it does. To some audiences, the word CAULK may be obscure and unintuitive, for others it represents a win for the working class. TACIT may be elitist or commonplace, and while HUMOR  is uncontroversial in America, it stirred significant controversy in the UK[9]. Each daily word is a shared experience, great travesty, or inside joke, which renews interest in the game and fosters discussion with friends and strangers. Participating in that discussion requires you to play Wordle, too, subsuming vast and complicated linguistic discussions and disputes into the game’s behemoth marketing machine.

The simplicity of the Wordle format also makes the format easy to parody or imitate[10]. Foreign language variants of Wordle exist[11], like the Dutch Woordle, the German Wördl, and French Le Mot. Murdle has the player solve a Cluedo-type murder mustery, Sweardle’s word list consists entirely of euphemistic “four letter words,” and Queerdle dabbles in lavender linguistics[12]. Even variations on the Wordle result format exist, with users making various emoji-based memes or attempting to generate art using specifically targeted guesses.

To sum up, Wordle is not a result of the unknowable whims of various algorithms. Rather, Wordle is a project that uses a variety of industry tricks to grow its audience, keep existing players engaged, and generate organic discussion about itself. It is also a member of a series of projects by the same developer, all of which play with ideas of collaboration, interactivity, and collective experiences. Finally, while it is agnostic at best to the semantic meanings of the words it promotes, Wordle’s format taps into ongoing linguistic discourses, provoking conversation about topics like dialect, subcultures, and orthography.

… Although, I still think VIVID was unreasonably difficult.

[1] This is a lie, but a convenient one – the rule of threes is powerful and setting arbitrary constraints can make the writing process a great deal easier.

[2] When I say “post-pandemic”, I mean in a world that has already been irrevocably reshaped by the pandemic. I do not mean it in the Hancockian “the pandemic is over” sense.

[3] The expansion of the term “Wordle” to refer not only to the game itself, but also to each daily word is an interesting example of internet culture’s tendency to play with the use of words. In this case, a proper noun becomes general, possibly a case of conversion.

[4] A charming derivation, using the “ing” morpheme to turn a proper noun into a verb. See “Googling”.

[5] There’s been much discussion online about conspiracy theories regarding the New York Times’ acquisition of Wordle, and whether or not the game’s difficulty has increased since then. While I can confirm that those theories are unfounded, the jury’s still out on my own NYT-related conspiracy theory: the moving of Wordle to an NYT domain is intended to punish me specifically for regularly deleting my NYT cookies to bypass their paywall.

[6] sus

[7] Known as “Flairs” in Reddit jargon. Red flairs were assigned to users who pressed the button while it was close to zero, while purple ones were assigned to those who pressed it when it was nearly full.

[8] Diaeresis is underrated in terms of diacritic use in English, indicating that two adjacent vowels ought to be pronounced separately

[9] Any argument claiming oppression of the British people is already silly at face value, but even more so considering the presence of words like BLOKE. I’m not bitter, you’re bitter.

[10] My favourite Wordle variant is Absurdle, an adversarial variant of Wordle that works with a field of potential words rather than a specific set guess

[11] The very existence of a Chinese language Wordle proves that the format must be universally applicable

[12] Queerdle refers to its derivative relationship with Wordle as yassification, the word yassify itself being a delightful interjection-verb derivation based on AAVE and queer ballroom cultural factors. Lavender linguistics here refers to the study of language use by LGBT+ people.