There is no doubt about it. Wordle, the simple English language word game created by software engineer Josh Wardle, is a viral hit.
If you’ve tried Wordle, there’s a good chance you, like me, are hooked. Since the game quietly went online in October 2021, the number of people playing has grown exponentially: from around 90 players in November 2021, to 300,000 in early January, to more than 3 million today. As you can see in the graph below, the number of people searching for Wordle on Google has increased rapidly in the last month.
Google search for “wordle”
The goal is to guess a five-letter word. Players are given six trials, and on each trial they receive feedback indicating which letters are in the correct place (green), in the word but in the wrong place (yellow), or not in the word at all (grey). With these colored prompts, most words can be determined with fewer than six guesses. There is a new word to guess every day.
A number of computer experts have now managed to hack Wordle – meaning they’ve gained access to the complete catalog of upcoming fixes embedded in the game’s code.
This probably doesn’t sound like good news, especially if you’re a Wordle fanatic and don’t want your fun spoiled. But really, it shouldn’t really matter.
So, how did Wordle become such a viral hit? What makes it so uniquely addictive? And why is the fact that it has been hacked unlikely to detract from our enjoyment of the game?
Read more: Wordle craze: Why do we love puzzles and are they good for our brains?
Wordle is unique
The gaming market is crowded and fierce. Of course, most games seek to make money. Asking players to pay for a digital game directly risks low uptake, so many games are offered for free, with revenue from advertising and in-game purchases. Declining player interest results in reduced revenue, so there is considerable focus on techniques to increase play time and keep players coming back.
These techniques typically target the brain’s reward centers, flooding the amygdala and hippocampus with dopamine, which generates feelings of happiness and a desire to continue playing. By tapping into primal tendencies such as competitiveness, excitement (or stress) and achievement, game and app developers can stimulate a craving for more.
However, Wordle was not created for financial gain (Wardle actually developed the game as a gift for his partner). And presumably little emphasis was placed on making it addictive. But the game clearly has a certain draw.
As a player enters each guess, they learn more information. This gives a sense of gradual achievement, which is reinforced if there is a sense of having improved or used skills. The positive feelings associated with the achievement peak with the achievement of deciphering the word correctly.
In terms of excitement (or stress), the game is limited to one word per day, which provides both a time limit to complete the puzzle, and anticipation for the next word. As the game records the streak of words guessed correctly, there is also a small penalty if a day is missed since you lose your winning streak.
However, these mechanics do not explain why the game has suddenly become a viral sensation. In large part, this is due to Elizabeth S, an early Wordle player from New Zealand who started tweeting her results as a sequence of colored square emojis (thus avoiding spoiling the solutions).
This prompted Wardle to create a “share” button once you’ve solved the puzzle, allowing players to show how well they did by tweeting a pattern of colored tiles. This drives competitive reward seeking among players – and acts as free advertising.
Software developers like to mess with other people’s work, so it was only a matter of time before some beans were spilled: the Wordle dictionary is included in the source code that displays the game on your device.
If you open the developer console on any modern browser (often by pressing F12, or by selecting the relevant option from a drop-down menu), you can inspect the code that tells your computer how to present the site to you.
This is because the entire game runs in your browser, rather than on a remote server. So anyone who knows where to look can find the word for today or a future date. You can even play a future word by changing the date on your device.
Some have taken advantage of this. Some players may play words before the intended release, and of course some will probably use the word list to cheat. A short-lived Twitter bot was set up to automatically destroy the next day’s words as a response whenever someone tweeted their score.
What can we learn from this?
Software developers should note that code running on the user’s machine is inherently insecure. Consider online purchases: If payments were processed on the user’s computer, it would be possible to falsify a successful transaction. So you should be careful where the code runs.
In retrospect, perhaps Wardle would have chosen a different architecture for the game. But maybe it doesn’t really matter. In my view, cheating against Wordle doesn’t have much appeal.
Read more: Code-cracking, community and competition: why Wordle has become the new online obsession
Cheating inherently stimulates the brain’s reward centers less than using skill. Cheaters lose out on achievements and excitement rewards for the “cultural capital” gained through competitiveness. But the culture around Wordle seems to be more of propriety and fun for the sake of having fun.
The game brings joy to a large number of daily players. The opportunity to share this joy and engage in a collective experience is, especially at a time when people need a little optimism, a great thing.
So is Wordle broken? Probably not. Long live Wordle, I say. Or at least to word 2,314 – the last in the dictionary.