Wordle, the buzzy new daily word game, is minimal by design. The game is a website, not an app. It updates every evening at 7 pm Eastern with a new word puzzle, with only one available at a time. Players get six attempts to guess the correct word, and the site makes it easy to share the results on social media.
That combination of simplicity and shareability seems to have made Wordle an unexpected viral hit in recent weeks: When’s the last time a game that wasn’t built for an app or a platform took the internet by storm?
Created by New York developer Josh Wardle as a two-person pandemic game, the game took off organically after its October launch. After he noticed people sharing their results using a stylized emoji grid to indicate their progress, Wardle added the feature into the game itself, creating a unique, spoiler-free way for fans to share their daily Wordle result without spoiling the word of the day for anyone else. (And woe betide you if you do!) The game has spawned spinoffs in all varieties, elaborate reverse-engineering efforts, and a spate of short-lived copycat apps that drew scorn for failing to match the original’s charm.
The cottage industry of viral Wordle takes is also pretty unprecedented for a game of its size and newness. As it gained popularity, particularly over the long winter holiday, so did Wordle gain meaning. “We’re playing together, but we’re also playing alone,” mused Molly Roberts for the Washington Post, speculating that Wordle’s isolated connectivity makes it the perfect game for the moment. “Wordle is a love story,” gushed the New York Times, explaining that the designer had initially created the game for his partner. (For his part, Wardle had a much humbler take: “It’s just a game that’s fun,” he told the Times.)
At Vox, we’re no stranger to the delights of Wordle, but we also wondered What It All Meant. Given what seems to be a recent reevaluation of episodic media, from The Office to The Underground Railroad, it seems that Wordle’s popularity might be converging with a larger trend in day-to-day connectivity — a search for a low-key, modern-day equivalent of the fabled “water cooler discussion.”
Depending on who you believe, the idea of a single, buzzy TV show with the ability to unite us all around a busy water cooler at work ended sometime between 2013 and 2019, roughly between the rise of Netflix and binge-watching and the end of Game of Thrones. This concept elides the fact that water coolers pretty much died out in the ’90s, not to mention that binge-watching has been a thing since at least the mid-aughts.
But in this era of isolation, remote jobs, and social distancing, could there be something to the water cooler idea? Is a yearning for connection fueling the public’s desire to, say, tweet about the latest episode of Yellowjackets and also share their daily Wordle guesses?
Katy Pearce is an associate professor in communication at the University of Washington. She’s researched social media’s role in everything from state-sponsored trolling to the boom in mobile games during the pandemic. She’s also a big Wordle fan. “It’s low social labor,” she told me. “Wordle is interesting because it has such low barriers to play — you just have to open a website, you don’t need to make an account. And the sharing of the result is quite simple.”
Pearce speculated that Wordle’s delayed gratification and forced waiting makes it more desirable to play, and perhaps gives people a greater sense of accomplishment at nailing the word of the day. “I don’t share when I fail a Wordle, including this morning,” she said. “But when I do okay on a Wordle, my sharing is signaling that I’m part of the broader intellectual Wordle community.”
To Pearce, something like Wordle differs from episodic television because in the case of episodic TV, the pressure is still on to binge — to become part of the conversation as soon as possible. After all, as she noted, Yellowjackets became particularly buzzy after families like her own had a chance to catch up on it over the holidays. And she pointed out a similar effect with Netflix’s runaway hit Squid Game, where “there was pressure to watch it quickly, as to avoid spoilers.”
Pearce also points out that whereas social media is always performative, what we’re performing with these daily reactions on our feed changes depending on the media. “When one shares their Wordle results, they’re also demonstrating that they engaged in a semi-intellectual activity,” she noted. She says all her professor friends share their Wordle results.
With a buzzy word-of-mouth TV show, however, what we’re performing may be a mix of status and stamina. “There are people who enjoy being on the front lines of pop culture and sometimes like to demonstrate that they are early adopters,” Pearce noted. For those people, discussing a show like Yellowjackets, that airs on Showtime and hasn’t gone fully mainstream, may be more about demonstrating that you’re part of the in-crowd, watching the niche but still cerebral show before it gets to the Facebook crowd.
As for stamina: “By watching it, you’re also saying, ‘I can withstand the gore,’” Pearce added.
Okay, so maybe the “water cooler” theory isn’t totally applicable to Wordle. Still, there’s something to the idea that Wordle represents a kind of low-maintenance way of replicating that type of social experiment.
“More intensive social experiences are harder to come by right now,” Pearce told me. And would we even want them if we had them? “People just lack [the] bandwidth to interact.”
So, Wordle: an easy, low-stress way of generating conversation and achieving a straightforward daily task in an era where even daily tasks and low-key interaction are sometimes strenuous and overwhelming.
Is it really that simple? Maybe. After all, as Wardle told Slate, he intentionally designed the game to be “mindless,” a truth that may have gotten obscured by all the reverse-engineering and hot-taking.
But there’s deceptive genius in making a clever word game feel mindless, and a hidden, maybe even subversive appeal in making a game go viral because it’s not incredibly challenging. That’s the opposite of what we usually expect modern games to deliver. But Wordle gives us something more than just linguistic gamification: It gives us a pleasant, low-lift social comfort in an era where low-lift social comforts are especially hard to come by — and that might make all the difference.