The psychology of Wordle: what's the real appeal?

A blend of gameplay, good design and good luck has made the viral word game so popular

Wordle can only be played once a day, which adds to its hype and appeal. Reuters
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“It’s as if Mastermind and Hangman had a baby” is perhaps an odd, yet fairly accurate description of the word-guessing game that’s taken over your social media timelines.

Wordle, to the uninitiated, is a free web-based, one-play-a-day puzzle. You have six guesses to crack a five-letter word. The game finely walks the line between neither too hard nor too easy (although since The New York Times' acquisition some may say it's the former). Its gameplay, as Goldilocks would say, is just right.

Released to the public in October 2021, the website was drawing an average of 90 players by November. Two months later, it was being played by millions.

You never know if you'll win or lose until you see the green colours, and that unpredictability excites us as humans
Nazih Fares, professional gamer and head of communications and localisation, The 4 Winds Entertainment

It’s a story with a humble and charming beginning.

Wordle’s bare-bones was first designed in 2013 by software engineer Josh Wardle in Brooklyn for his partner, so they could enjoy playing together. Unlike today’s Wordle, the 2013 version featured endless play and every five-letter word from the English language that Wardle could find.

“You would often end up brute-forcing or using your knowledge about how a word might be constructed,” said Wardle in an interview on Slate’s Spectacular Vernacular podcast. “So when I brought it back up, I made changes more in line with games like the crossword and spelling bee, and those changes have really led to its success.”

Success through simplicity

Wordle’s allure lies in its simplicity and familiarity, both in terms of design and gameplay. There are no flashy graphics, relenting ads or irritating pings reminding you to play. There are no levels to cross or never-ending chances, no pricey add-ons or data collection. And even when scores are shared online, there are no spammy link previews littering timelines.

But is this enough to warrant Wordle’s success?

“For a game to work and be addictive, it must first give you a sense of incomplete satisfaction,” says Nazih Fares, an award-winning gaming professional who is head of communications and localisation at video game publishing company The 4 Winds Entertainment. "Video games in general, and Wordle in particular, are made that way, where you have to keep playing to get better at it — the core ingredient to become hooked."

Repeat play and unpredictability are two other factors that have made Wordle a success, Fares says.

It stimulates the language and logic-processing areas of our brains, and then releases dopamine when the puzzle is solved
Fatima Abdullah, psychologist and managing director, Enliven Counseling Center

“You can only play the game once a day. It’s something that helps your mind get this rather easy and immediate release of dopamine against a less intense but beneficial pleasure in the longer term. You never know if you'll win or lose until you see the green colours, and that unpredictability excites us as humans,” he explains.

The "aha" moment is an excellent driver, agrees Fatima Abdullah, a psychologist and the managing director of Enliven Counselling & Wellbeing Centre.

“It is the reward of engagement and completion that keeps the player motivated to continue with the puzzle and then move on to the next one and the next,” says Abdullah. “It stimulates the language and logic-processing areas of our brains, and then releases dopamine when the puzzle is solved, which is a ‘reward happy hormone’.”

Wordle is far from being the first puzzle of its kind. Many have already traced its lineage to games such as Bulls and Cows, Jotto, Lingo and others. So what sets it apart from its predecessors?

Right time, right tweet

Today’s zeitgeist is coloured by the pandemic, a time that ripped people apart from their routines and their communities.

“The pandemic pushed people to search for and create connections that bypassed face-to-face [communication] and were built in a new, creative way. This is where online games such as Wordle come into their own,” says Abdullah.

Wordle offers a platform for people all over the world to join in on a daily target or task, which is to successfully guess the word of the day and share their scores. This creates a playful, casual environment,” she says.

Players bond over particularly frustrating solutions (for instance, the missing U in “FAVOR”, Valentine Day’s “CYNIC”, and who can forget “KNOLL”?), and enjoy a sense of healthy competition in seeing how their scores stack up against others.

But the real credit of the game’s popularity lies with Elizabeth Scrivener, a public servant living in New Zealand who invented the Wordle score emoji grid. Until December, people were sharing their results in words as simple as “five tries today…”. On December 5, Scrivener changed the game, literally, when she used simple square emojis to visually showcase her Wordle journey on Twitter.

That simple graph showed the entire arc of her play from her almost-there guesses to when she finally reached victory. Seeing its popularity, Wardle folded the feature into the design, unleashing a flood of multicoloured grids across timelines. With nothing else but random numbers and colourful squares posted, the method shrouded the game in a cloud of mystery that definitely piqued rather than dissuaded interest.

'Wordle' today, gone tomorrow?

Wordle is at the peak of its popularity if The New York Times’ purchase of it is anything to go by. But if you’re worried about hitting a paywall the next time you try to Wordle, Fares isn’t sold on it.

TNYT sees this potentially as a way to raise its daily unique visitor count, resulting in larger monthly active users, which screams success for shareholders. Those spikes in site viewership will eventually allow the publication to offer a larger audience for advertisers, and there you have it. It’s a much smarter strategy than adding a paywall on it to boost subscriptions,” he says.

Currently, Wordle is enjoying at least 300,000 players daily on Twitter alone, according to @WordleStats on Twitter. Undoubtedly, there are many more enjoying the game away from social media, sharing their scores in private chats and channels.

The word-guessing game has done more than offer us a few moments of fun every day, though. “Wordle has created a bigger phenomenon in the non-English native world than people anticipated,” says Fares. “I’ve seen three different versions of Wordle in Arabic – my favourite being AlWird – a version in French, Spanish and Russian.”

There are countless others circling the edges, their presence introducing a fun practice aspect to many language learners and creating platforms for many more to reconnect with their native languages. There are plenty of other spin-offs floating around the web, too, such as Lewdle, Absurdle, Nerdle and, a Wardle favourite, Letterle.

But here’s the million-dollar question: will Wordle take its place in the World Video Game Hall of Fame alongside evergreen favourites such as Scrabble or will it fade away like Words With Friends et al?

Given how viral culture works, Wordle may well prove to be the banana bread of 2022, but until the next flash-in-the-pan fad comes along, go ahead and whet your literary appetite. Your brain will thank you for it.

Updated: February 18, 2022, 4:50 AM