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Online Word Games Are Ruining My Life. And Probably Yours, Too.

Wordle is only the tip of the spear where our current plague of cutesy viral word games is concerned

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I am addicted to Wordle. Goddamn it. I first started playing this cursed game, the bane of my existence, in December 2021. Back then, everyone was doing it. Wordle was the fad of the moment. The internet was flooded with articles about mathematically optimizing your starting word. (“Adieu,” we all thought then, in our innocence.) Jovial hackers were peering into the game’s source code, extracting the full list of correct answers, and posting them ahead of time, on a now-defunct social media platform called “Twitter.” We were furious with those hackers. We should have been listening to their implied message, that is, “This game is stupid.” They were only trying to save us from ourselves.

In January 2022, The New York Times bought Wordle from its creator, a man called Josh, for a price reportedly in “the low seven figures.” I picture Josh—the source of my suffering—as a fiery eye hovering over a demonic tower, glaring Sauron-ishly every time I choose “carny” as my second word. Wordle migrated to the NYT Games app, thereby entering a rarefied pantheon of time wasters aimed at a specific demographic: People who, when they encounter the phrase “Sally Rooney tote bag,” do not have to ask, “What is that?”

The crossword puzzle. Spelling Bee. Sudoku. These are the big dogs on the puzzle-game porch, and Wordle could now be found in their inner sanctum. In just a few short months, the game had leapt from obscurity (just 90 active players on November 1, 2021) to the spot on the Mount Rushmore of twee word games (millions of active players by the end of January 2022, all of them able to sing the lyrics of Belle & Sebastian’s “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” in their entirety).

I kept playing. I assumed—as I suppose many of us did, poor children that we were—that Wordle would be a fling, a mere dalliance. I saw it as something to dabble with briefly and then forget, like Pokémon Go or writing, “This is why we can’t have nice things” on retweets. Oh, friends. Oh, what a fool I was. Little did I know that I would someday become a person whose entire self-image hung on how much longer the “3” bar (indicating the number of Wordles I had solved in three guesses, like one of history’s greatest geniuses) was than the “4” bar (indicating the number of Wordles I had solved in four guesses, like an absolute moron) in my stats view. Little did I know that I would someday be reduced to saying curse words out loud, with my scandalized dogs as witnesses, when my can’t-miss guess of “shaky” turned out to be incorrect, because the word was “snaky.”

Yep. Snaky. I’m sorry, but what the fuck? How could you, as a player, possibly devise a heuristic that would enable you to choose “snaky” over “shaky”? The very idea is outrageous. My blood pressure is 210/160 just contemplating it. I am miserable every second I spend thinking about this game. Some days I open it before I even get out of bed in the morning.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. You’re thinking it’s weird that someone as cool as I am would spend so much time on something as manifestly uncool as Wordle. And you’re right—I did use the word “heuristic” in the last paragraph (a classic bit of cool-person diction). But the real tragedy is not what Wordle has done to my red-hot social status—I, a man who actually owns a Sally Rooney tote bag. Nor is it what Wordle has done to the daily schedules of millions of Americans. A recent survey found that 38 percent of Wordle players play every single day, spending on average 12 minutes trying to solve each puzzle. We are really out here burning three full days a year trying to choose between “fjord” and “flora.” Grim? Certainly. But the real tragedy is so much deeper than you can possibly imagine, unless you’re a lost soul like Kamala Harris and me.

The real tragedy is that Wordle is only the tip of the spear where our current plague of cutesy viral word games is concerned. That’s right. There are more. It’s not just the ones in the NYT app. Seemingly every upper-middlebrow publication on the planet is flooding the zone with harmless-looking puzzle apps that revolve around tapping letters on your phone. The New Yorker has its own crossword five days a week, which the website houses in a dedicated “Puzzles & Games” section. The Guardian recently unveiled a game called Wordiply, which gives you a string of three or four letters (say, “com”) and then asks you to think of the five longest words that include the string (say, “incomprehensibilities,” as in “Why anyone would spend their time doing this is one of life’s incomprehensibilities.”) Even Defector has a crossword puzzle now. It’s good. May I say once again: Goddamn it.

Why is this so tragic? After all, don’t large numbers of people enjoy playing these games? Aren’t they, you know, increasing the sum total of human happiness—and maybe even intelligence—in the universe? Hey, great questions. Thanks for asking. There is a very simple reason the rapid proliferation of online word games is an intolerable state of affairs. The reason is that I am addicted to every single one of them at the exact same time.

When I say “every single one of them,” I mean every single one of them. Remember how Mr. Burns had every disease simultaneously? It’s not just Wordle and the Times crossword (where my streak currently stands at 609). There are also the lesser Wordle variants, for example, the ones where you have to solve four or six or eight Wordles at the same time. There’s porn Wordle. There’s Letter Boxed, a Times game that involves dragging lines around a square to spell words for some reason. There’s Connections, another Times game that involves sorting words into matching categories. I haven’t even touched on the hellhound that stalks my waking life: Spelling Bee, a letter-jumble game so uniquely time-consuming and capricious that an entire internet subculture has sprung up around it complaining about the words the game’s creator-administrator disallows. I am sure Sam—the Bee’s equivalent to Wordle’s Josh—is a nice man. I am also convinced that his choices are causing me actual physical harm. Every time he tells me “inanition” isn’t a real word, I want to collapse onto a fainting couch and never rise again.

If there were only one of these games ruining my life, I could probably stand it. Sure, Wordle uncomfortably combines the features of an IQ test and a game of random chance; sure, Wordle tricks you into seeing it as a measure of intelligence while actually involving a lot of blind guessing (if you have “blank-blank-r-s-t,” you can’t always predict whether the answer will be “worst” or “first,” even though you are about to feel exactly like one of those words). But Wordle occupies a mere three whole days of my year. It’s when you spread that sense of continuous low-grade powerlessness across 247 apps—when you’re constantly depending on good luck to tell you you’re a smart person—that things get out of hand.

And yet the appeal, apparently, is irresistible. The sheer spread of the games tells you how publishers regard their return on investment. The Times’ own article about its purchase of Wordle described “the growing importance of games, like crosswords and Spelling Bee, in the company’s quest to increase digital subscriptions to 10 million by 2025.” Engagement matters more than ever in our era of vanishing attention spans, and people who still enjoy reading online (God bless you, every one) evidently love tapping their phones to turn “xmoitca” into “axiomatic.” The opiate of the not-quite masses!

In this sense, it might make sense to see the word game quasi-craze as something like the next evolution of the old BuzzFeed model of journalism. You know how people used to justify BuzzFeed’s corny listicles and “Which Celebrity Hamster Is Your Spirit Animal” quizzes by saying they funded its hard-hitting legitimate news operation? (This was, of course, before BuzzFeed shut down its hard-hitting legitimate news operation.) It’s probably no coincidence that the most popular online word games tend to be published by newspapers and magazines. After all, crosswords have been running in outlets like those since the late 19th century. “Quality” writing and reporting have been funded by seemingly extraneous tack-on features practically since the periodical was invented. There’s debate about the extent to which Craigslist is responsible for the death of local news, but it’s certainly the case that the classified ads page and the funny papers paid the bills for a lot of 20th-century reporters. In book publishing, the trope that 101 Favorite Baby Names bankrolls Pulitzer Prize–winning novels is a timeworn cliché.

The internet upended all of those revenue streams because upending revenue streams is what the internet does. Publishers looked for creative solutions. The weird little dopamine hit of correctly guessing “snout” on your second try may not seem to have much in common with an ad for a used lawnmower. But if the former can drive subscriptions, and thus replace the latter as a means of keeping the city desk open, what’s to complain about? In fact, it occurs to me that I, myself, am arguably a kind of journalist. Did I suggest that I dislike Wordle? No, no, no. I love Wordle. I love all these games. I play them diligently, not because I am insecure and desperate for validation, but because I am a good person trying to keep America’s fourth estate alive. Please join me. As far as I know, The Ringer has no plans to launch its own word jumble, but the health of the whole industry is at stake. A rising tide l-blank-f-t-blanks all boats!