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Wordle is our new drug

Five letters. A rush of dopamine. The new word game soothes the covid blues.

(Washington Post Staff)
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Alan Simpson, a 52-year-old writer and former librarian in Odenton, Md., is used to being the word person in his relationship. His wife, Dawn, an accountant for the Government Accountability Office, has a knack for numbers.

Lately, that balance has been upset.

Last week, Simpson introduced his wife to Wordle, a popular daily puzzle where players have six tries to guess the five-letter word of the day. She often finishes in fewer tries than Simpson or answers correctly on days he’s stumped. Each defeat stings a little.

“She’s much more methodical about it,” Simpson says of his wife’s technique. “She’s writing things down on a piece of paper while I’m throwing letters at the squares haphazardly.” Dawn also paid close attention to the rules, so she knew she could use the same letter more than once. Meanwhile, Simpson didn’t grasp this Wordle quirk until the day he missed “banal.”

Wordle has ensnared the numbers people and the word people, the Scrabble obsessives and the Sudoku fans. It’s easier than the New York Times’s Spelling Bee; it’s free; and it’s one small thing that’s solvable when much else during a pandemic seems insurmountable. A quick timeout where the only variants that matter are those in your vocabulary. Predictably, players are sharing their scorecards — including how many tries it took — on social media.

Created in late 2021 by a Brooklyn software engineer, Wordle has become the sourdough bread of January 2022. All you need is a starter.

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Some players think strategically, beginning each day with a word composed of commonly used letters, such as “stear” or “ratio.” Others go with the first five-letter word that pops into their brain. If a letter is in the right place, the square turns green. If it’s in the word but not in the correct spot, the square turns yellow. A gray box means the letter isn’t in the word. And a row of green means you’ve got it right. Afterward, personalized stats appear, revealing how many games you’ve played, how often you solve correctly, as well as a clock counting down the wait until the next day’s puzzle.

On Tuesday, Julia Fine, a 33-year-old novelist in Chicago, went with what she knows: Query, as in the letters aspiring authors send while seeking a literary agent. She got five green boxes on the first try, a Wordle hole-in-one. Astounded, she posted her victory on Twitter, reasoning: “What can I do with this other than share?”

Fine used to be a crossword enthusiast, but as a mother of two small children, she doesn’t have time to decode dozens of clues. Instead, she plays while her kids watch “CoComelon” on repeat or when they wake her up at 4 a.m. “Wordle scratches the same itch and stretches the same muscle,” she says, a brain snack for those who don’t have the time, patience or energy for anything more consuming.

Obsession with wordplay is not new. Word nerds have been gathering at crossword tournaments and battling in competitive Scrabble leagues for decades. Every few years, an online game captures the Internet’s attention. In the 2010s, it was Words With Friends. Early on in the pandemic, the New York Times’s Spelling Bee anagram honeycombs were splashed all over Twitter. Wordle started to take off once there was a way to brag — er, share — your grid on social media. Earlier this week, the game’s creator, Josh Wardle, said it has more than 2.7 million players.

Wardle told the New York Times that he built the game for his partner, Palak Shah, as a simpler diversion than the New York Times’s Spelling Bee. In December, Wardle added a feature so that players could share their results without disclosing the answer: a grid with the gray, yellow and green squares showing how many tries it took to get the answer. One woman has taken to cross-stitching her results.

Seth Perlow, an English professor at Georgetown University, finds the game much easier to solve when jotting out ideas with a pen and paper before entering words into the grid. He also finds the challenge humbling. “There’s something a little funny and self-deprecating that after all this education in literature ... the real test is how good you are at spelling.” While he’s yet to be stumped, he knows at least one tenured English professor who has been.

Benjamin Dreyer’s whole life is language. He has written a book on how to use it (“Dreyer’s English”), has created a game testing players’ grammar knowledge, and serves as managing editor and copy chief for Random House. He has also fallen for Wordle, and he says that the game’s immediate gratification is making it “increasingly difficult” to play Spelling Bee. “It’s free. It’s 1/10th the investment of time,” he says, “and you get the same rush out of it.”

Once you get the right answer, those green boxes are a little dopamine hit, says Drew Lightfoot, a licensed therapist in Philadelphia who studies gaming culture. Just the act of playing can pause everything else going on in your head. “Something small like this — a 2- to 5-minute distraction — can ... break those ruminating thoughts that can cause anxiety and depression,” Lightfoot says. “There is research that shows if we intentionally play games for an hour a day, that is very healthy for our emotional well-being,” Lightfoot says, yielding a sense of accomplishment and feelings of autonomy, which are in short supply these days.

Games like Wordle can sharpen our deductive reasoning skills, Lightfoot adds. “For every letter you get wrong, it teaches our brain how to think and increases our vocabulary.”

How long 'til tomorrow’s puzzle?

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