Every once in a while, a new game takes on the role of the internet’s latest obsession. These games become sensational not only because of their entertainment quality but also because they have simple mechanics and aren’t time-consuming. For example: Temple Run, Subway Surfers, Flappy Fish and Candy Crush were all successful games that possessed these qualities. Yet, these games die out just as fast as they rise to prominence, ultimately becoming distant memories that are recalled with nostalgia from time to time. It’s an interesting phenomenon that seems to be resurfacing with the fast-growing popularity of the game Wordle.
Wordle is a word puzzle app that gives users six chances to guess the five-letter word of the day. When a user enters a word, the letter blocks change colors to guide the user’s next guesses: a green letter block meaning the letter is correct and in the right position, a yellow letter block meaning the letter is correct but in the wrong position, and a dark gray letter block meaning the letter is not in the word.
Its daily puzzles, which take approximately 5-10 minutes to solve, have proven successful in maintaining international interest. Every day, thousands of players enthusiastically solve the new puzzles upon release and overwhelm social media with their results.
There is, however, another common characteristic between Wordle and other popular games: they’re free to play. Wordle fans have enjoyed unobstructed access to the game, but given recent news, they fear that its free-to-play feature is in jeopardy.
On January 31st, 2022, The New York Times announced that it would be acquiring Wordle from its creator, Josh Wardle. That same day, Wardle posted a letter on Twitter that expressed how overwhelming managing the game by himself had become.
“It is important to me that, as Wordle grows, it continues to provide a great experience to everyone,” wrote Wardle. “Given this, I am incredibly pleased to announce that I’ve reached an agreement with The New York Times for them to take over running Wordle going forward.”
To Wardle, it made sense that the national newspaper should obtain the game. Their games had inspired Wordle’s origins and the newspaper’s values aligned with his. In return for the game, Wardle received a low seven-figure payment from the company.
In his letter, the creator also tried to allay concerns about a potential paywall restricting access to the game when it is relocated. “When the game moves to the NYT site, it will be free to play for everyone,” he said.
However, The New York Times article contradicted that statement. “The game would initially remain free to new and existing players,” said writer Marc Tracy, implying that the game would eventually require a subscription.
In response, Wordle fans flocked to Twitter to express their anger, asserting that it was unfair that The New York Times was depriving people of a simple pleasure for their financial gain.
“The bigger thing is, we’ve had this great run so far with Wordle and playing it every day, and it’s been one of the bright spots of 2022,” said Brett Molina on the USA Today’s 5 Things Podcast. “The thought of it being acquired and potentially changed…it’s bummed some people out.”
As we enter the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, games like Wordle offer people an escape from their chaotic lives. They also connect people through different mediums during a time when in-person socialization is strongly discouraged, which Wardle has acknowledged.
“I get emails from people who say things like ‘hey, we can’t see our parents due to Covid at the moment but we share our Wordle results each day,’” Wardle said to The Guardian. “During this weird situation it’s a way for people to connect in a low effort, low friction way.”
Having defied the social barriers imposed by the pandemic, the creation of Wordle epitomizes our ability to adapt to difficult circumstances and find happiness even in the darkest of moments.
“This is really what makes Wordle perfect for a weary populace: We’re playing together, but we’re also playing alone,” wrote Molly Roberts for the Washington Post.
As business closures, economic slowdowns, staff shortages, rising house costs and lockdowns remain omnipresent, time seems to have stopped in our pandemic-ridden world. In a time where motivation and meaning is hard to find, Wordle offers people something to look forward to instead of mulling over the many concerns the virus has created.
Nicole Hemmer for CNN explains it best: “Wordle, like most games that capture the public imagination, is overwritten with some of the key anxieties and tensions of our time.”
Giving Wordle to The New York Times might be effective in extending the longevity of the game’s success since the media company possesses the capabilities to enhance the game. Still, considering that Wordle is at its most popular right now, fans of the game will have to decide whether they are willing to pay a subscription to continue playing their favorite game, or if it is time to say goodbye to their simple pleasure. Nonetheless, the unification of the world through this game has helped rebuild the sense of community that the virus had misplaced. And to think, it began as a game intended for one person: Wardle’s wife.