A View from the Hill – May 2022

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The Alchemy of Wordle

During lockdown, a software engineer called Josh Wardle created a word game to entertain his wife. After it proved popular with friends and family, he published it on the web and released it to the general public in October 2021. From humble beginnings, with just 90 players in November, it duly accelerated up to over 300,000 by the start of the New Year – and after the rights to the game were bought by the New York Times for an undisclosed seven figure sum at the end of January, it is now played by millions of people across the world on a daily basis.

In a recent post, Wardle said he wanted Wordle to feel like a croissant, a “delightful snack” that’s enjoyed occasionally. This is explicitly why there’s only one puzzle per day. “Enjoyed too often,” he explained, “and they lose their charm,” Wardle explained.

Wordle is a humorous play on the inventor’s own surname, Wardle. Since it keeps track of one’s score but does not include any gimmicks, levels, or pay-to-play options, it is arguably more streamlined than crossword or Sudoku puzzles which are printed in physical newspapers. The fact that it is just one single, straightforward daily puzzle is only a small part of its appeal.

I suggest that the actual inception of such a traditional word game, together with its subsequent popularity, shows how people have recalibrated their tastes during the pandemic. Its simplicity, in addition to the concept of an attainable challenge, which can be solved in a time-effective manner and shared with family or friends, has proved to be a literal ‘game-changer’. Who would have predicted that a game like Wordle would be a global icon before April 2020? It is no co-incidence that an earlier version of the game in 2013 failed to make a dent in popular culture. However, fast-forward to a much-changed society in 2022 – and the difference is tangible.

So what is it that makes Wordle such a phenomenon?

In simple terms, Wordle challenges your brain, fosters community and even provides a daily hit of dopamine triggered by a sense of personal achievement. And it is those little moments of being proud of our accomplishments—even if only due to a successful Wordle play—that are essential to our mental health as we rehabilitate towards a more normal existence this summer.

Assistant Professor of Psychology, Matt Baldwin, notes, “When we experience something together, the feelings get amplified so when we have fun with Wordle, that feeling is magnified when we remember that we are playing with millions of people at the same time.”

Having seen increasing numbers of people on social media who discuss Wordle, Baldwin highlights that people are playing with their friends and family, and discussing the experience on private messages while the rest of the world continues solving the puzzle. By coming together around a common goal, Baldwin notes that research demonstrates how common goals create group cohesion. “The fact that we can share our experience on social media just seals the deal,” he says.

With only one word per day, he argues, “We do not feel that the game asks too much of our time or attention. And because it is a shared experience, playing Wordle connects us with others.” As long as there is access to an internet connection and a couple of minutes, Baldwin suggests that this experience can be shared. “The pandemic has caused such great harm, stress, and hardship to so many people and for some, it might be difficult to see beyond that,” he says.

Baldwin highlights, “Something about Wordle reminds us that there is simple good still out there, and that we may be more similar than we are different. We may be starkly polarized on social issues and politics, but if we can all agree that Wordle is fun, maybe there is some hope.”

Equally, Neuroscience specialist, Renetta Weaver, comments, “Regardless of what side of the COVID experience you fall on, it’s safe to say that the past three years has changed something about the way we all experience life. For many, Wordle has provided an enjoyable way, that’s right at our fingertips, to escape from the noise.”

For many, Wordle may provide a reprieve from the stress and exhaustion that individuals feel from trying to figure out how to embrace normality again. “Wordle presents a challenge that our brain is motivated to solve. When we aren’t able to solve the challenge, we are given the answer and that “aha” moment brings calm to our stressed brain,” she says. Weaver also highlights how babies need to be held to thrive and adults need to be socially-stimulated to survive. “The pandemic has taught us that social connection is important to all of us across the lifespan,” she says.

On a short-term basis, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are surprisingly beneficial for our brains because these hormones signal to the nervous system that there is a challenge that needs a response. Weaver explains, “When we are able to resolve a challenge, we get a surge of dopamine and when we are able to share our wins with others, we get a surge of oxytocin. Both hormones bring calm to our nervous system and help us to relax. Consequently, Wordle is a great way to achieve stress release.”

TEN FACTS ABOUT WORDLE:

  • The name of the game is a play on the developer’s name, Wardle.
  • There is only one word to solve each day; it resets at midnight.
  • Everyone solves the same word each day, wherever you are playing.
  • Wordle can only be played on a browser – not an app.
  • The game is completely free and has no adverts.
  • An earlier prototype was floated in 2013 but failed dismally.
  • The game chooses from a database library of 2,315 ‘mystery’ words.
  • In its current format, the game will run for six years with no repeat.
  • Wordle uses American English for its spellings.
  • A ‘share result’ option enhanced the game’s popularity significantly.

It probably says more about my social life than I need to divulge, but unfailingly my family and I tend to discuss Wordle over dinner every night. It has managed to become a part of the daily routine, something that it is eminently quick and achievable, so one feels bereft if it is not ticked off the ‘to do’ list. The feeling of angst is humiliating if the challenge is not accepted, or heaven-forbid, failed – conversely, the gratification of unravelling the solution offers a sense of meaningful, accomplishment, especially if it is achieved with three or fewer guesses – this equates to bragging rights…at least until midnight when the game starts all over again!

So, if you have yet to see what all the fuss is about – check out this link:

 

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