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How a Simple Word Game Became an Internet Sensation

Factors that may make the game Wordle's design so compelling.

Key points

  • The game "Wordle" has recently captured the attention of players around the world.
  • Several design and motivation-related elements are likely driving Wordle's success.
  • The rules and game design are simple.
  • Wordle does not artificially compel users to keep playing or spend money, making it unusual in an era of apps that compete for our attention.

A couple of weeks ago, I started noticing people posting curious grids of green and yellow squares on their Twitter timelines. After ignoring them for a couple of days, thinking Wordle was probably just another pandemic fad that would pass, I finally decided to give the game a shot. And maybe it goes without saying, but I became a fan.

For the uninitiated, Wordle is a game that requires the player to guess a five-letter word within six attempts. The player starts off with a random guess, and the game tells the player how many letters in their guess also figure in the actual word of the day. Some of the letters might be in the correct position, and some in the wrong ones. Hence the green (correct letter, correct position) and yellow (correct letter, wrong position) squares.

Here’s why I think Wordle has quite the ideal game design, and why it has achieved so much success during the pandemic, based on the science of motivation:

  1. The game may be just the right amount of "challenging." I’ve been playing Wordle for over a week now, and have encountered only one game in which I couldn’t guess the correct word at all. When it comes to games, people often give up very early on if they perceive the game to be too hard to crack. And on the other hand, a game that is “too easy” doesn’t quite seem like a worthwhile investment of time. Video game developers spend a lot of time setting up difficulty levels, given that players like to be challenged at a scale appropriate for their level of skill. The creators of Wordle, for their part, have spoken about carefully choosing a subset of 5-letter words that are relatively well-known in the English language so that players are challenged enough, but not unfairly so.
  2. It doesn’t demand much time. Each Wordle game can be completed in anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes. At a time when we are all saturated with devices and trying to reduce our time on screens, a game that doesn’t demand too much of our time may seem like a breath of fresh air.
  3. There is just one released each day. Read any article on the psychology of game design, and the word motivation will come up multiple times. Game designers think so much about how to motivate their users to keep coming back to the games they create, and Wordle might have just chanced upon the solution—release one word a day. The anticipation that Wordle players feel about playing the game each day may be what keeps them coming back and releasing just a word a day likely aims to ensure that the game doesn’t get stale. I can personally imagine myself playing Wordle every day for years to come.
  4. There is no “engineered pain.” If you’ve played games like Candy Crush (or indeed any game that aims to make money off your compulsive need to play it), you have likely encountered several situations that were engineered to be painful enough to encourage you to pay money to alleviate them. You only get five lives, for instance, after which each life takes 30 minutes to “refill.” For someone who feels an intense desire to play a game, paying a few dollars to get additional lives might not seem like such a terrible idea. As it's currently designed, Wordle does not appeal to that compulsive need to keep playing—in fact, given that it releases only one word per day, it seems to be working against problematic playing habits. And paradoxically, that has worked really well in its favor.
  5. It is easy to share your scores without spoiling the game for others. The grid of yellow and green squares gives away nothing except for the number of tries a person took to guess the word. This may make it especially fun to share with family and friends, and for people to try and guess others’ game paths.
  6. The design of the game is simple. The webpage of Wordle currently has no distracting elements such as advertisement, and the rules of the game are simple and easy to learn.

There is currently a section of the internet that likes to gripe about seeing Wordle grids on their Twitter timelines. To them, I’d just like to say: Stop being such _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _! (If you were into Wordle, you’d have known that that spelled “spoilsports.")