The Wordles of Zion

Like about 20% of the English-speaking world—and a much higher portion of my personal friends and acquaintances—I play Wordle every day. I start at exactly midnight, play the day’s Wordle, and then post my result to Facebook, where dozens of friends post their scores, commiserate with me when my score sucks, and celebrate with me when it doesn’t. It has become an important ritual in my life.

But here’s the thing. It is not the game itself that fascinates me. I mean, it is OK as far as games go. But I found a Wordle clone site where I can play any time as long as I want, and, really, I don’t play much. I don’t see much point in playing the game for myself. There are hundreds of other games on the market that push the same cognitive buttons, and most of them are, quite frankly, a lot more fun. And they are all games that you can play for more than a few minutes a day.

But the whole point of Wordle is that it is not on the market. It is free, with no advertisements or other signs of monetization, and nobody can play it more than once a day. Sharing the experience of playing it with other people, it seems, is the real point. The genius of Wordle is that everybody works on the same puzzle every day, and we have all entered into a massive, unspoken conspiracy to talk about it without ruining it for other people. Even though we must all Worlde alone, it only really becomes meaningful when we all do it together.

And, to my great surprise, I do not even feel competitive about my score. I am as happy to post an abject failure—where I fail to get the word at all—as I am to post a rousing success, like getting the word on the first or second guess (which, to be clear, I have never done—three is my best). Either way, the post generates conversation and good feelings. I am not actually that good. From what I can tell, I am clearly in the bottom half of world-wide Wordlers. But that’s cool, because winning isn’t really the point.

The Worlde craze that has swept the world strikes me as one of the most positive things that has happened since the pandemic began. Worlde players do not seem to have a predominant political affiliation, income level, age range, or vaccination status. Pretty much anyone can do it, and nobody does it perfectly. The trend has been going on for several months now, and nobody has figured out a way to politicize it or interpolate it into a partisan narrative. It may be that the day’s Worlde is the only media activity that we can all do together, even though we must ultimately do it alone.

Wordle is not going to end the current culture war or even bring everyone to the negotiating table. Worlde does not have a foreign policy or a domestic agenda, and it doesn’t get to nominate anyone to the Supreme Court. But the fact that it has become such a global phenomenon in such a short amount of time points to some things about human beings that give me hope. We like to work on problems that other people are working on too. We can combine individual achievement with a common purpose. We can take an interest in other people’s lives and find places where their lives intersect our own. We can combine the work we do alone and the work we do together in order to create an egalitarian community.

The fact that we can do all of this when solving a five-minute word puzzle shows that it is in our nature to do things like work for a common purpose and balance individual achievement with a collective good. It is also in our nature to do other things that work against common purpose and shared experience. We can be tribal, aggressive, selfish, and indifferent to others. But we don’t have to be. We can also mourn with those who mourn, comfort those who stand in need of comfort, and make happy-face icons when someone guesses the word ULCER on the second try.

And let’s not forget that Worlde can save lives, as happened last week in Illinois. Denyse Holt, an 80-year-old woman who played Wordle every day and posted her score, was held captive by a naked, knife-wielding man for 20 hours. Her daughters on the West Coast noticed that she hadn’t posted all day, and they tried to get ahold of her, which eventually led to the police rescuing her and arresting her abductor. This didn’t happen because she played Wordle, of course, It happened because people were involved in her life on a daily basis. But they were involved in her life on a daily basis because she played Worlde.

The principle of Zion means that we are all called to be involved in each other’s lives. It means that we are supposed to notice when other people are struggling celebrate their successes, and mourn their tragedies. And they are supposed to do the same for us. A daily Worlde score isn’t exactly a substitute for the Kingdom of God, but it is a tiny glimpse into some of the core principles of such a kingdom, and, unlike almost everything else in our media environment, it seems to be moving us in the right direction. At least for now.

I have no idea what will happen to Worlde now that it has become a property of the New York Times, but I can’t imagine it will be anything good. Once Worlde becomes monetized—either by charging a fee or by hosting advertisements, or even by collecting names and emails that can be sold to other enterprises—then it will be like thousands of other idols of the marketplace. But no matter what happens to Worlde in the future, I for one will remember the few moments of grace that the English-speaking world experienced for about two months in what will hopefully be the final days of the great pandemic, when, for a few minutes every day, we cared how many tries it took someone to come up with a five-letter word.

Comments

  1. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    ULCER almost broke me. I agree with all your reasons for enjoying Wordle – while it lasts. There’s a very low bar for participating. It’s more fun when shared with others. It doesn’t do evil things like try to hook you into spending all your time on it. And if it takes me a little longer to figure it out, I don’t feel judged or ostracized by those who claim to have mastered it.

    Those used to be my reasons for enjoying my membership in the Church. Then it fully embraced its identity as a behemoth corporation whose sole purpose is to demand my support and attention, and aims to remain exclusive by establishing a metaphorical and very real paywall.

    Worlde will die, or just fade in relevance (for those not baptized into the NYT fold). There will be spinoffs. Some of those may even provide joy and community, as long as they remain unsullied by a behemoth organization. My daughter introduced me to Mathler. We’re already bonding over it, in anticipation of the end times for Wordle.

  2. I’m ok if the NYTimes adds an unobtrusive ad, but pray they don’t put it behind their paywall

  3. hurstme1990 says:

    What a wonderful, comforting observation you have made about the simplest of things. I’ve only played Wordle once but I felt the sense of “togetherness” you speak of in the piece. Such thoughtful, insightful observations you’ve made. Thanks!

  4. My friend Ann, who used to teach math to math teachers, posted her score on a similar game called nerdle, where you get 8 spaces and all the numbers and the five arithmetic symbols to choose from. You have to guess the equation, using the same trial and error and process of elimination as Wordle. I have never shared my results, because the contempt from people who hate math or don’t like numbers or whatever made it apparent that this is a different fit. So I play, and I enjoy solving the puzzle. I like puzzles. But I’m not interested in defending my choice to play a number game, too. There’s probably a metaphor for my decreased engagement in politics in there.

  5. Wordle has a very nice shape. Six lines is enough for most people to finish most days (there’s some rigorous analysis to prove this), but short enough to create some frisson. One or two lines feels like luck. Three or four seems normal. Enough to feel successful but not enough to feel extraordinary. I think there’s a lesson in there about inclusion and division. Something about binaries are too small, and infinite variety is more than necessary.

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