Opinion

Gwen Rockwood: J is for joy as word nerds find a new game to love and battle

I love it when something old becomes new again. And lucky for me and my fellow letter lovers, word games are not only new again, they're cool. Even my teenagers are doing it.

In case you haven't heard, I'll fill you in on the hippest new (and free) word game that has captured global interest. It's called Wordle, and it's a rare, joyful thing that came out of the pandemic.

According to a recent New York Times article, a software engineer named Josh Wardle invented the game for his girlfriend. The two of them had become obsessed with word games from the New York Times, like one called "Spelling Bee" and the iconic Times crossword puzzles. Since she liked word games so much, Josh made her one of her own. He named it Wordle, a cute spin-off of his own last name. Not only did she love it, their friends and family did, too.

Trusting his gut, Josh made the game public last October. By the first of November, the game had a little under 100 people playing it. But you know the saying "word travels fast"? It turns out that Wordle travels even faster. Two months later, more than 300,000 people were playing the game. Today, some estimates say the number has jumped to nearly 3 million people worldwide.

The simplicity of the game is its strength. No need to read a page of instructions to get it. You just guess a five-letter word and hit "enter." The letter blocks then light up one of three different colors. A gray block means that letter isn't in the secret word. A yellow block means you guessed a correct letter, but you've put it in the wrong place. A green block means you've guessed the correct letter and you've put it in the right spot. (We love it when a block turns green!)

Using the process of elimination, you keep guessing five-letter words until all the letter blocks light up green, which means you've discovered that day's secret word. But you only have six guesses to get it right. If you don't figure it out in six guesses, you can't just try another puzzle or play again. You must wait a whole day for a new Wordle to appear.

In America's on-demand culture, you might think that making people wait 24 hours before they can play again would hurt a game's popularity. But in this case, it helps. Those six guesses are all you get for the day. It's as if Wordle believes that, after playing the game for a few minutes, maybe it's better if you just put your phone down and go do something else. No binging allowed. And (at least so far) it doesn't ask you to look at online ads or swat down pop-up banners.

Once you solve the puzzle -- and even if you're stumped and run out of guesses -- Wordle gives you a "statistics" screen which shows things like how many times you've played the game, your percentage of wins, your current number of consecutive wins, as well as the longest winning streak you've had so far. It's like ESPN sports stats and "Wheel of Fortune" had a baby and named it Wordle!

It also gives you a bright green "share" button, which lets you send a spoiler-free text to your family or friends that proves you solved the daily Wordle. Like most families, we have a group text chat, and lately it's dominated by Wordle rivalry. On two separate occasions, I solved the Wordle on the second try even though I only knew one letter. My 17-year-old son accused me of using some kind of Wordle wizard dark magic. But the truth is, I just take my time. I'm a Wordle turtle. I use the plain old process of elimination -- and yes, I sing the alphabet song in my head to figure out which letters to try next.

In the interest of fairness, I should mention there's also a similar (yet unrelated) game called "Nerdle" that uses mathematical equations instead of letters. You must figure out the equation in six guesses. I watched my 15-year-old teenager play it once, and the math made my brain hurt. So I'll stick to the letters I love, but the math lovers out there might want to try that game, too.

Experts say we grown-ups often forget that saving time for joy each day is a good way to take care of our mental health. If you've forgotten, joy is something you do just for the love of it -- no other reason. If you can't think of anything you do just for fun, that's a sure-fire sign you need to go find that thing. Then do it. Rinse and repeat.

But I've got to go now. The countdown clock says the next Wordle puzzle will be available in 32 minutes and seven seconds. Here's hoping we all save a little time for joy this week.

Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at [email protected]. Her book is available on Amazon.

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