Why the Online Game Wordle Went Viral, According to Psychology

Users are sharing their game grids, which show how they played without spoiling the answer for others

An image of the Wordle instruction page on a mobile phone
This image shows the Wordle instruction page. Photo Illustration by Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Twitter users may have noticed more and more people posting gray, green and yellow squares in a grid on their feeds this month. On other platforms, memes, art and even cross-stitching inspired by these matrices have popped up across the internet. The source is the latest pandemic craze: an online game called Wordle

The goal is to guess a mystery five-letter word in as few tries as possible. “After each guess, the color of the tiles will change to show how close your guess was to the word,” the directions state. The simple premise is reminiscent of the color-guessing game, Mastermind.

Green means the letter is in the correct spot. Yellow means the letter is in the word, but in the wrong spot, and gray means the letter is not in the word at all. The game can only be played once a day, and the answer—usually a common word in the English language—is the same for everyone. Players have six chances to solve the puzzle. Afterwards, they can share their game as a colored grid without letter, which doesn’t spoil the answer for others. 

Wordle exploded in popularity at the cusp of the new year. In November, the game had 90 players, but now it has over 2 million, reports Kyle Chayka for the New Yorker. 

Thi Nguyen, a philosophy professor at the University of Utah and a scholar of games, wrote a Twitter thread offering his opinion on why the game went viral. 

“The cleverest bit about Wordle is its social media presence,” he writes. “The best thing about Wordle is the graphic design of the shareable Wordle chart. There's a huge amount of information - and drama - packed into that little graph.”

He describes each game of Wordle as an “arc of decisions, attempts and failures.” 

“I don't know any other game that has nearly as graphically neat a synopsis, where you can just see the whole arc of another's attempt so quickly,” he writes. 

A screenshot of a Wordle game, with the solution "Robot"
Green means the letter is in the correct spot. Yellow means the letter is in the word, but in the wrong spot, and gray means the letter is not in the word at all. Wordle

The game stimulates both the language- and logic-processing areas of the brain, psychologist Lee Chambers tells Insiders Sian Bradley, and it leads to the release of dopamine, a chemical that causes people to seek out a positive experience again.  

Wordle’s creator, Josh Wardle, originally made it as a gift to his partner, who enjoys word games like the New York Times’ Spelling Bee.  

Because all users are trying to guess the same word, everyone is sharing a common experience and struggle. 

"The fact that we are all trying to solve the same puzzle brings us together,” Chambers tells Insider. "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?'" 

At first, the game used all five-letter words as solutions, Wardle tells Slate’s Nicole Holliday and Ben Zimmer, but he says that wasn’t very fun. 

“Think about it—if the first time you play Wordle, the answer is a word you’d never heard of, I think you would feel cheated,” he tells Slate

So, Wardle’s partner categorized approximately 13,000 five-letter words using another game he created, marking whether she knew a word, didn’t know it or maybe knew it, per Slate. This process narrowed the list down to a subset of around 2,500 solution words. 

Wardle originally created the game for him and his partner, so it has no ads or any other monetization. It also only requires a web browser to play. 

“The game feels really human and just enjoyable.” he tells Slate. “And that really resonates with where we’re at right now in the world and with COVID.” 


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