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Simple word game takes over internet. Here's the psychology behind why we can't stop playing Wordle.

Business Insider US

These types of images have quickly taken over Twitter.
These types of images have quickly taken over Twitter.
  • Wordle has become the first viral game of 2022, with millions of players sharing their daily scores.
  • The simple puzzle can only be played once a day, and was not intended to be consumed by the masses.
  • Experts say a combination of timing, functionality, and wholesomeness has added to its appeal.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

At the start of 2022, images of green and yellow squares began cropping up everywhere on Twitter. The screenshots were from Wordle, a simple puzzle game that the internet has fallen head over heels for. 

For anyone not familiar with the buzzy online game, the aim of Wordle is to guess a five-letter word in six tries. If you guess the right letter in the right place, the tile turns green. If it's the right letter in the wrong place, you get yellow. Gray means the letter isn't in the word at all. 

The game had humble beginnings. The New York Times reported that in October 2021, Josh Wardle, a software engineer based in Brooklyn, designed the game as something for him and his partner to play. By mid-January, The Guardian reported the game had two million players.

British psychologist Lee Chambers, who specialises in environmental and wellbeing coaching, told Insider that Worlde is so appealing because it stimulates both the language and logic processing areas of our brains. Like all games, it also leads to a release of dopamine, a hormone that allows us to feel pleasure and satisfaction. Wordle is far from the first game to viral. Farmville and Candy Crush dominated Facebook feeds in the early 2010s, while Houseparty and Animal Crossing were everywhere in the early days of the pandemic.

But there are a few things that set Wordle apart. Firstly, you only need a web browser to play — there are no gaming consoles to buy or apps to download. Secondly, you only get one puzzle a day. Once you've guessed the word, you won't get another until after midnight. 

Insider spoke to experts to find out how these unique factors, along with perfect timing, led to the first viral gaming sensation of 2022.

Wordle's creator made it extremely shareable 

Wardle told the New York Times he added a score-sharing option in mid-December when he noticed that players were manually typing out their results using emojis. The automated option allows players to post their scores, along with a visual representation of the path they took to guessing the word, on Twitter without revealing what the word of the day is. This helped to create a sense of community around the game.

 

"The posts are instantly recognisable, so whether or not you've done today's challenge, you feel like you're part of the game," social scientist and productivity coach Juliet Landau-Pop told Insider. 

Chambers thinks the game's unique shareability is key to its online popularity.

"Constantly seeing the squares in our Twitter feed indicates that there is something to be solved, and others are on the case," Chambers said. "It pulls us into investigating it ourselves."  The aesthetics may play a part too, Chambers explained, saying the colored blocks can be soothing as they "bring a comforting level of psychological order even when surrounded by chaos." 

Its simplicity also makes it perfect fodder for memes, which have begun to flood Twitter and seem to resonate with people, creating even more buzz around the game.

One user likened the Wordle blocks to the shipping container on the boat that got trapped in the Suez Canal, while others turned the Wordle blocks into common imagery and created relatable posts about the process of playing.

Twitter user @traceyfanclub even started immortalising her Wordle scores into a cross-stitch, with one follower saying this was the tweet that finally made her play the game.

 

The game's functionality leads to a sense of connectedness

One of the key differentiators of Wordle is that players across the globe are all guessing the same word on the same day.

"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," Chambers said.

The collective experience feeds into our competitive streak too. Harrison Gowland, who works as a video game developer, said he doesn't share results for other online games he plays but with Wordle, he feels the desire to do so. 

"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,'" he told Insider. 

Part of the motivation comes from a sense of peer pressure, and not wanting to be left out and seem like you're missing out on a viral trend, Harrison thinks. Landau-Pop said this sense of community helps to counter the loneliness that many of us feel online and in real life, she told Insider. 

It created a wholesome distraction at the perfect time

Unlike lots of online games, Wordle can only be played once a day, meaning it has none of the potential pitfalls of being "addictive" that other online games can have. "It's a very smart product because people know that if they get hooked, they can't waste more than a few moments each day," Landau-Pop told Insider. 

Timing may have also been key to Wordle's success, Chambers believes. Because the Wordle puzzles are numbered with a daily counter, they can help anchor us to the day of the week, as our perception of time has been affected by pandemic restrictions and remote working, especially during the holiday period.

Landau-Pop said the sense of wholesome connectedness may be exactly what we were looking for at the time it blew up, explaining that the period before a new year is a time for reflection, and this past year may have been especially difficult for people.

"Within all the political discontent, economic uncertainty, ongoing health crises, there's a dearth of good news on social media. Wordle has given us all something fun to focus on, if only for a few moments of the day," she said. 

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