Why Do We Love Wordle So Much?
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Wordle, a simple puzzle game, has quickly become a defining trend of 2022. Its popularity extends around the globe and the game has been adapted into over 20 languages. Its creator, a Brooklyn software developer named Josh Wardle, made the game as a gift to his partner, a word game enthusiast. He never realized that Wordle would gain over three million users, or that the New York Times would want to purchase it for seven figures.
The concept is simple: you have six chances to guess the five-letter word of the day. Correct letters in the correct spot show up green, correct letters in the wrong spot show up yellow, and incorrect letters show up gray. After playing, users can share their results through an emoji grid, which lets others know how they did without giving any spoilers. The website is elegant and simple. The directions are so clearly laid out that both my 10-year-old cousin and 76-year-old grandmother play it.
The popularity of Wordle is linked to how our brains work. According to the shared reality theory, we seek validation through people that share our subjective opinions and experiences. We are also hardwired to mirror the beliefs of those around us. When everyone around us talks about how much they love Wordle, we are more inclined to enjoy it as well. Playing Wordle is a unique shared experience: everyone will have the same word and the same rules. Participating in the Wordle craze creates a sense of community that we rely on as a social species.
Wordle is also appealing because it lets us know how we stack up against others. From an evolutionary standpoint, comparison is useful because it helps us form cohesive communities, and serves as a motivator for self-improvement. Because Wordle is so shareable, it gives us the opportunity to see how we’re doing in relation to others. This can make the game especially enjoyable when we do well. A study by the University of Southern California found that the human brain considers winning in a social setting more valuable than winning alone. A team of researchers observed brain activity of people who won the lottery while alone versus those who won against a peer. They found that the striatum, which controls the feeling of reward, is more active when beating peers. The social aspect of Wordle makes doing well more fun, but the game is still low-stakes enough to not discourage the players who do poorly.
One of Wordle’s most frustrating features may be the key to its enjoyability. It was built to be played once a day, preventing boredom and building a sense of anticipation for the next word. The University of Melbourne led a study on how binge watching impacts how well people enjoy and remember TV shows. Study participants were split into three groups that would watch a six-episode series at different frequencies. One group watched all of the episodes in one sitting while another watched one episode per day. The third watched one per week. Members of the binge-watching group reported significantly lower enjoyment of the show, and recalled less details about it. A similar concept may apply to Wordle. If you could play Wordle an unlimited amount of times per day, it would likely feel less enjoyable. One word a day preserves the fun of the game.
Our brains crave a game like Wordle, partly due to the “aha” moment that we get. This “aha” moment, also known as a Eureka moment, can activate regions of the brain linked to the dopamine circuit. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is largely responsible for creating feelings of satisfaction. When an action induces pleasure, dopamine reinforces that behavior, driving us to repeat it. When we come up with a good guess for Wordle, even if it’s wrong, we have a Eureka moment, which stimulates the release of dopamine. This in turn makes us feel good, and creates an absorption that causes us to keep playing the next day. A Wordle victory, like any challenge that you solve, brings a surge of oxytocin and dopamine. Both are associated with stress relief, which explains the calm feelings we get from playing Wordle.
Playing Wordle can bring a sense of satisfaction because, while it is a game, it feels intellectually stimulating. Many word game apps will claim to “sharpen your mind” or “improve your mental age.” However, it has been disproven that such games reverse or slow brain aging. Studies have shown a link between word puzzles and improved short-term memory, but when compared to brain-boosting practices such as exercise, the effects of playing word games are minimal. Playing Wordle probably won’t translate to increased brain power. The social, rather than intellectual, stimulation that you get from being a part of the Wordle craze is likely more beneficial to your brain health.
It is clear that what makes Wordle so enticing from a psychological standpoint is that it can provide a feeling of accomplishment while fulfilling the social connections that we crave. Unlike previous viral games such as Pokemon Go, Wordle does not require a great investment on your end, requiring only a few minutes of your time each day. That’s one of the best parts about the game: it’s easy to play. No app required, no pop-up ads, no time commitment. The challenge it provides is well within our ability to overcome, but it’s just difficult enough that finding the solution will make us feel good. We love Wordle because it’s simple, social, and rewarding.