Diagnosing our Wordle addiction: Why are people so obsessed with the viral word game?

By Harriet Piercy

Published Apr 15, 2022 at 09:09 AM

Reading time: 5 minutes

As soon as 2022 began, Wordle became the, no pun intended, word on everyone’s lips—as for those of you who own a mobile phone yet haven’t heard of the viral game, all I can say is kudos to you. With just six chances to guess, letter by letter, the game tells you which ones are or aren’t in the day’s single secret five-letter word. It’s become the game of the times, and somehow even if you don’t play it, you still feel included. How many five-letter words can the game sustain before it becomes virtually impossible to play, and why in particular have players become, not to use the word lightly, addicted to this thing called Wordle? 

This is yet to be looked into, but just so you know—I will also be on the hunt to find out if there is some sort of trend (within the trend) to what the ‘word of the day’ might be, or if it’s solely based on a purely random algorithm—if there is arguably such a thing.

A Wordle overview

There have been hundreds of gaming trends over the years even before the internet came around; ball games, dice games, board games—you name it. Then yo-yos, Rubik’s cubes, Nokia’s infamous Snake, and more recently, Pokémon GO. Arguably, a game’s sole purpose is to entertain people. But the consistent trials of dopamine hits and challenges to overcome within the period of the game from start to end is possibly why people keep coming back to the ones they love—it’s the expectation of feelings that come with an action being there every single time you play the same game (or do the same thing), which is very similar to addiction to other substances and actions. Games can bring out all shades of personalities too. If you really want to get to know someone, just play a game with them.

As Wordle enthusiast Rachel Kate Macleod told SCREENSHOT, she comes from “a very competitive family, and every day we send the scores to each other. It started off as a laugh but now I catch myself looking out for some good five-letter words that I haven’t used yet. I have a routine where before my work morning meeting, while I make my coffee, I try to get it. It just adds some satisfaction to my day!”

Created by Welsh software engineer Josh Wardle, Wordle is actually published and owned by The New York Times. Initially though, it was invented for Wardle and his girlfriend when they needed entertainment during lockdown, and all started after the couple, according to National World, became “really into The New York Times crossword.” The engineer further explained to Slate that “I wanted to try making a game that she and I would enjoy playing together, and Wordle was a result of that,” and it has become a phenomenon since.

Released in October 2021, and played on a simple URL page that is linked to The New York Times website (or app), it’s no multi-visual or complicated programming feat either—not to be dramatic, but you could probably code it yourself. Wordle is an intimate mix of a simple word game and a blind guess with a sprinkle of logic. The game tells you how close you are to succeeding with just a few colours, if one letter is right and in the right place, it’ll be green. Yellow for the right letter but in the wrong place. All you have to do is shuffle and think. So what does the combination of all of this do to our brains that make it just as addictive, and almost habitual, as it is today?

What makes Wordle so addictive?

According to British psychologist, Lee Chambers, the game activates both the language and logic parts of our brain, and as we know, humans innately enjoy a puzzle. However frustrating a game or challenge might be, the dopamine reward we get as we beat or win the game is pure bliss, much like most of the other things we do for pleasure. Addictions are born in the chain reactions that ultimately lead to dopamine. This is, however, not to completely compare Wordle to things like drugs or alcohol, but it does use the same brain mechanisms for both outcomes.

Being as widely accessible as the game is makes it easier for all to ‘try out’, which in turn differentiates Wordle from other game ‘obsessions’ of the past because you only need a web browser to play, which most of us already have stuck to our hips in our phones. You don’t need to buy anything extra either, nor download an app, such as you do with let’s say, Elevate—which is an app that essentially acts in the same way as Wordle in regards to dopamine hits, brain ‘training’ and can be shared between friends (although it’s more than words, it’s one game per subject per day).

With Wordle, there is only one single word per day to guess, which means you’re not sitting there mindlessly playing like other games allow for—it’s a box to tick. A friend commented on the game accentuating exactly this point, she said, “Once it’s done you can’t play more, it’s like a habit and a checklist for the day.”

Rather than having a ‘just one more hit’ moment like you would with other games or situations, you have to wait a full day and have no choice but to wait. This also might make the game become a timeless habit rather than a game that comes in a rush, such as Pokémon GO did, and leaves as quickly as it first appeared when the hype is over. What’s more is that every time you play you still win, even if you don’t guess the word, as Wordle will tell you what it is, so the frustration of losing doesn’t deter you from trying again the next day.

Wordle wins are easy to share on social media platforms too, which means other users as well as those who don’t play the game get their external dopamine hits from friends and strangers alike. But it also means that you automatically become part of a community (which we spoke of earlier), regardless of whether you share it or not.

Chambers also stated that “the fact that we are all trying to solve the same puzzle brings us together, helping us feel like we are tackling a bigger problem together,” and a collective experience feeds into competitiveness because of the simple fact that there is someone out there playing too.

According to Business Insider, a video game developer called Harrison Gowland said that “there’s both a sense of community in terms of ‘How difficult did people find it this time?’ and a competitive angle in terms of ‘How well did I stack up in finding this word compared to everyone else?’”

How to crack the Wordle code

Now, please stop reading here if you don’t want to essentially cheat your winnings. As I mentioned previously, I personally wanted to know if there was a way to cheat the system—after all, algorithms are patterns and patterns are there to be followed and figured out, where and when possible. That’s where YouTuber and mathematician Grant Sanderson (also known as 3Blue1Brown on the platform) comes in to save the day with a video he posted where he showed his process for coming up with the best words to crack each day of Wordle.

Using simulations of various fiver-letter words and optimal followups, he whittled the potential letters down to the common averages of the possible answers. Sanderson figured out you need to know two words that add up to these likely letters, “crate” and “sloth”, and as Polygon commented on Sanderson’s calculations, “between these two words you should be left with a pretty short list of possibilities for your third guess.”

That being said, the YouTuber also stated his mistakes in calculating the outcomes (although I just a. Played the game for the first time believe it or not and b. Tested the above, got it in two minutes) but most importantly the point of figuring it out. He explained that it wasn’t to affect how we play the game, “it’s still just a fun word game,” but it’s for “honing in our muscles for writing algorithms in more meaningful contexts, elsewhere”—which is in its essence what Wordle really is for the rest of us, is it not? We are collecting data, following patterns and instructions in order to solve a problem or complete a task.

To sum all of this up, it doesn’t seem like Wordle is going to be just a global trend, it looks a lot more like it might be a rebirth of the newspaper crossword but for a new generation and quite possibly the next 100 years. It’s here, more than likely, to stay. Because you tell me what reason there is for it not to? I’ll wait.

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