Why Wordle works

Wordle, the alphabetical logic game, has been impossible to ignore since before Christmas. It had its big moment on Twitter and beyond, its flash in the pan of social media, and then… it didn’t go away like it was supposed to.

The stickiness of Josh Wardle’s word game was apparent at the start. It allowed him to sell it to The New York Times for “a seven-figure fee” and spawned an unfathomable number of spin-offs, from more complex word versions to adaptations in football, music, film and pretty much everywhere else.

It is, by any measure, a social phenomenon. Every morning a handful of people I follow on Twitter share their Wordle exploits and the first batch of messages in my most active WhatsApp group is dedicated to who managed what on the game that day. Then Heardle. Then Worldle. Then Footbl5. Then Framed. Then Quordle.

My own involvement is more limited. I generally do Wordle without sharing, unless I’m particularly impressed with myself (or the opposite) and that’s about my limit. I’ve played some of the others; some annoy me because they’re annoying, others because they expose weaknesses in the way my brain processes such challenges.

Besides, I have other odd little habits to service. Nevertheless, despite my own dabbler-only status, Wordle and its teaser offspring keep rattling along day by day, every green square further embedding it into the established behaviours of the online western world.

When these phenomena take hold I tend to be more interested observer than regular participant. So, as Wardle hails the Times sale as a chance to walk away from his creation, I’ve taken to thinking about what it is that makes it so damned moreish.

Wordle’s success will fit a multitude of theories and models from different scientific and industrial disciplines, and will be explained quite adequately by them all. What follows is nothing more than the recipe as I see it – the ingredients that I, a non-academic and barely scientifically minded social media professional, believe to be crucial to Wordle’s longevity.

Design

Wordle has brilliant branding. The lack of clutter makes for a sharp user experience. No noise, no navigation – just turn up and play, once a day. The green and yellow boxes (for correctly placed and correct but wrongly placed letters respectively) are now instantly recognisable to millions who don’t even play.

Given Wardle’s profession, it’s no surprise that the animations are slick and unobstructive, adding to the experience where one might expect they’d detract from it, and the whole thing just works. That might seem like a minimum requirement; on the participatory internet in 2022, such cleanliness is harder to come by than you might think.

Simplicity

In a world blessed with open world video games and complicated creative achievements throughout industry and the arts, there’s a place for simplicity. Our lives are busy but lots of people will find a little time once a day to test the ol’ noggin. By removing unnecessary extensions and frills, Wordle has become that slice of morning fun.

It’s incredibly easy to understand. The instructions behind the hamburger menu button are clear but also largely unnecessary – such is the virality and simplicity of the game, most of us probably had the mechanics figured out before we ever visited Wardle’s original Wordle page. If not, the object of the game quickly reveals itself regardless.

Familiarity

Wordle is a lexicographical game inspired by the classic Mastermind game found in the back of cupboards all over the UK and briefly enjoyed before returning to the darkness, its coloured pins banished once more as each new generation realises there are better things to do.

The challenge is to identify the winning combination (colour or number codes elsewhere, letters in the form of a five-letter word on Wordle) over the course of a number of guesses. After each guess the player is made aware of any elements they have guessed correctly and whether any of those are in the right place in the combination. Easy.

Repetition

Simplicity and familiarity only scratch the surface. What really makes Wordle work is two pairs of interlocking concepts, one individual and one social. For the individual player, repetition and scarcity rub up against one another to generate addictive friction. Players are prompted into repetitive action not only by the daily challenge in itself, but by the lack of more.

The streak mechanic and guesses graphs that are revealed after each play are clever additions. We are predictable and easily manipulated beings; we like to compete against ourselves, we like to track our performance and, if we’re made aware that we’re on some kind of streak, we’ll fight tooth and nail to keep it going.

Competition

The other interlocking concepts are the shareability of the game and the sense of communal experience engendered by it. To take the last one first, the very fact that we’re all hunting for the same word is a huge driver of Wordle’s success. No matter our playing style, tactics or starter words, we’re all trying to hit the same target.

Underpinning all of this – and perhaps the single most important element – is the game’s shareability. Players tweet their results like they’re on Facebook in 2008 because (a) Wardle made it easy to do so and (b) everyone else does it. It’s a fabulously deft piece of experience design, considered irritating by many but recognisable to them all. By igniting a sharing habit late in 2021, Wordle secured its growth into 2022 and beyond.

Timing

If the five ingredients above feel like a finger in the air with no scientific value, try this on for size: at another time, Wordle simply doesn’t catch on. By the standard of the terrible twenties, Wordle’s formative days occurred in a quiet spot. Just as it really started to catch on, in the UK at least, thoughts had turned to the Christmas break.

Wordle’s share function brought it into the mainstream Twitter realm when people were primed for a trivial distraction. Its simplicity, familiarity, repetition and competition powered it through the Christmas holidays and into the new year. By then, we had streaks to maintain and friends to beat.

Wordle, then, is a demonstration of the potency of these individual elements working in harmony. Irrespective of my haughtily parped cod psychology, the game has become part of the daily routine through some combination of them. Whether that’s by accident or design only Wardle will truly know. It doesn’t matter anyway.

To me, what’s really special about Wordle isn’t why it works, but that it works. I might not be a regular participant but I can’t get on board with Twitter complaints about players that share their results daily. Those green and yellow boxes mean people I like are enjoying something. Who can’t be pleased about that?