John Sturgis

Why Wordle won’t last

Why Wordle won't last
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My name is John Sturgis and I am a Wordle addict. It’s not quite heroin or crack cocaine but it did have me hooked within minutes of trying it. And I have been chasing the high that those first hits gave me ever since.

Or at least, I was a Wordle addict. Just two weeks ago I was confidently predicting that this was a hobby that I would keep up on a daily basis until I went to the grave. I was completely sold. Today that seems a much less likely scenario.

Wordle was invented by a British geek, Josh Wardle, working in the US tech sector, the game’s name a wordplay, natch, on his surname. He launched it for family and friends last summer and went public in the autumn.In those distant days of three months ago he had under 100 daily players, according to backstory legend. By this week that had grown to an unspecified number of millions around the world; most, like me, coming back every day for more. The game relies on guessing a mystery five letter word within six attempts, using a clue system apparently adapted from the widely popular Mastermind board game of the seventies and eighties – a green square for the right letter in right place, yellow for the right letter in the wrong place, grey for no luck at all. 

If it sounds very basic, it is. Grand Theft Auto this is not: there are no car crashes or explosions; the most explosive moment possible is the surprise appearance of five green squares. And its charm is bound up in its simplicity. There’s only one game each day so you can’t binge play it. You don’t need to register to use it, you don’t even need to download the app. You don’t need to consent to its cookies since it doesn’t have any. If it’s mining your data at all, it’s doing it in a way that’s unnoticeable. They don’t remind you that you’ve now played it X times this month and it might be nice to pledge some cash towards its running costs. It exists outside of commerce. It is just a ‘guess the mystery word’ game, nothing more. 

There was a lot of hype around it as its user numbers grew exponentially throughout December and it was shortly after Christmas that I deigned to see what the fuss was about, fully expecting that it would be one of the many things that I was content to let others enjoy without partaking myself: sudoku, Eurovision, golf. But soon I would be on Wordle within moments of my morning alarm sounding. And I wasn’t alone: a friend recounted how his children were getting to school late every morning because of his Wordle habit. This was a genuine craze.

At first it seemed moderately challenging. There were occasions when you arrived at your final attempt with a feeling of genuine jeopardy: with only three or four clues or half clues as to the solution and no idea. But gradually as you learned little strategies the risk of total failure receded. Now I can only achieve that risk by being deliberately reckless in earlier rounds. This in itself has been pleasing when it’s worked: to return to the golf comparison, there’s been no hole-in-one yet but there have been a couple of eagles. And there were some outrages in those early days: who can forget the day in early January when Wordle went with the no-u American spelling of favour? People were going nuts. Even people who don’t play it were going nuts in consternation at the number of people in their timeline who were droning on about it. 

But the days when one could be thrown by something like this or as simple a curve ball as a double letter seem long gone now. Already we are into spin-offs: there’s a sweary version, of course, a double two-words-at-once version, a rip-off copy all but the same as the original. I hear of people who find it so easy they are now attempting it in French or Spanish. And this is where we come to the problem of its longer term future: if it’s easy to become adept at it so quickly that you know you cannot lose and you can, in reality, only achieve spectacular success with a lucky guess, can one really be bothered plodding on with it for months and years to come? It says something about the modern media landscape and the standard consumer’s attention span that it is now possible to pass from ‘never heard of it’ through ‘obsessed with it’ before arriving at ‘completely over it’ in the short window between Christmas and Valentine’s Day. But that’s where we are – or at least where I am. And just as I was coming to terms with this shift along came a new problem: this week it was announced that Wardle had sold Wordle to The New York Times for ‘a seven figure sum’. Their Times, like ours, is behind a paywall and despite assurances that it would ‘initially’ remain free one doesn’t need to be Logan Roy to predict that this might not remain the case indefinitely. Would I pay to get that initial hit back? I’d have the credit card out in seconds, yes. But, as Peggy Lee said, the thrill is gone. Sadly, I think we are in sight of the last Wordle.