In Wordle, a case for ‘pure’ play

In a Q&A with Penn Today, Cait Lamberton of the Wharton School discusses some possible reasons for Wordle’s popularity.

Wordle interface with three five-letter words listed
Wordle, a web-based word game, was originally created by software engineer Josh Wordle for his partner. It now has millions of users around the world. (Image: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via AP)

Seemingly overnight, software engineer Josh Wardle’s “Wordle” word game has become a cultural phenomenon in certain corners of the web.

The reality, though, is that the game has been accruing popularity for months—and perhaps, culturally, was an inevitability.

For the uninitiated, Wordle is a once-a-day word puzzle in which players have six tries to guess a five-letter word of the day, with a few hints along the way. Since November, the game’s audience has grown from double digits to as many as 2 million players per week, largely driven by Millennials.

Cait Lamberton, the Alberto I. Duran President’s Distinguished Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School, says it’s no coincidence that the game has become popular at a moment when work is “anywhere and everywhere,” making it more appealing to carve out space for something that is simply “play.” Here, Lamberton explains this further, along with other reasons a game so simple has had such a large impact.

Let’s talk first about Wordle’s scarcity. Being available only once per day, what do you think is the significance of that in getting people interested?

This is a great question. In marketing, we often assume that people want options and, at least within a manageable scope, more than one opportunity to do something they enjoy. Wordle presents us with a situation where people are drawn to something that’s completely limited. You can do one, and then you wait until the next day.

But I think this is a different experience of scarcity than, for example, the scarcity you experience when a store is out of paper towels. I’d argue that Wordle’s experiential value doesn’t exist because it’s scarce, but because the game is wonderfully unitary. It’s just one thing. It has a discrete beginning and discrete end. So if you complete one Wordle, you’ve completed 100 percent of something. But if you access a platform with an infinite number of puzzles and only do one, you’ve left something incomplete. You’ve barely made a dent.

Most of us have a lot of tasks more like the second kind—they have lots of pieces, they stretch out over days, and they have indiscriminate endings. Our workdays might not even feel like they have beginnings and endings right now. Given that people have a strong bias toward completion, the appeal of the one-and-done Wordle format makes a lot of sense.

And the contrast is that if you use any other word game or app, any other mobile game, they’re always trying to get you onto the next task, right?

Yes. Most games and apps are designed to create continued engagement. Behavioral scientists who design many of our most popular apps understand exactly how to give you correctly timed rewards, how to appeal to your motivation, and how to create a sense of deprivation when you stop playing. [Former Google design ethicist] Tristan Harris has done a lot to shine a light on the way that tech companies have learned to capture and manage our attention, largely through his Center for Humane Technology. They make a strong argument that many of our tech experiences are explicitly designed to shape the way we process information, change items that are top of mind, or alter what we think is important, all the time. In a sense, the secret is out on that. Many of us now know that we’re addicted to our phones, our social media, or our email. We know what clickbait is. We know that our buttons are pretty easily pushed, and we have to guard against that.

So, I think Wordle, in its visual and experiential simplicity, does something quite reassuring. For a few minutes, people don’t need to filter out intrusive messages or sort out information from disinformation. Instead, we come to Wordle by choice, and take from it exactly what we put into it. There are no ads or guilt trips or obligations. So, on one hand, it looks weirdly low-tech. But on the other hand, that un-designed, un-strategic format might be a welcome break from the tech pile-up that chases us in most of our online experiences.

No one is inundated with ads, which is something that’s come up in observations of its appeal.

Yes. [Laughs] No ads. No badges. No small animal-shaped avatars. The absence of the extraneous material is a relief.

You joke, but that’s nearly every app, with the badges and cutesy stuff.

Yes—that’s part of keeping people in this constant cycle of achievement.

And I think this is part of the genius of Wordle, too. By contrast, it lets us really play. [Dutch cultural historian] Johan Huizinga wrote this wonderful book in the late 1930s called ‘Homo Ludens,’ which seems relevant here. Because even though we call those other badge-heavy things ‘games,’ they’ve been designed in a way that Huizinga would say doesn’t actually allow us to play.

For example, by being so heavily incentivized, online games create a sort of material interest. It may be a social interest, or just virtual badging, but it’s captured in a visible, extrinsic motivator. When those are prominent, people may play for the rewards more than for the enjoyment of the game.

And it’s not that the people who do Wordle aren’t excited about doing well—some of them post their scores everywhere—but because the game is contained, these achievements are localized. You can get a great score once in one day and do badly the next day. But those scores aren’t the point of playing—they neither seal nor undermine your enjoyment of Wordle itself.

My editor’s husband has been playing and has been frustrated he can only play once a day. Is it that he’s genuinely enjoying it or is that sort of like a symptom of addiction?

[Laughs] Well, it could be that he doesn’t have a lot of tasks in his life that have this character. Because it feels both satisfying and engaging, it’s natural to want more. The truth is when you click away from the Wordle, you’re faced with tasks not nearly as discrete and cognitively clean. So, when you find a task that really does allow you to engage your mind in a way that is satisfying and undistracted, you’ll be likely to look for more.

That said, if Wordle rolled more puzzles out on a regular basis, the appeal might fade for a lot of people. What research also tells us is that people can become easily satiated; it may not take that many repeat games before people say, ‘I’ve had enough.’ And many apps show exactly this pattern: their growth hits a very fast peak, but once people satiate, the apps become ignored. At that point, the developer has a couple of options. One thing they can do is add more ‘widgets’—features that keep people engaged. Another option is to constantly find new people who haven’t played it before, to keep expanding the market. And another is to find true loyalists and monetize them. Wordle, were it to become a more typical online game where you could play 1,000 games in a row, could easily need to take these steps to keep growing. It’s not clear that doing so wouldn’t undermine the game’s entire appeal.

As it is, it may also be a relief that they don’t seem concerned about keeping people on the platform. People play because they choose to. Nothing yells, ‘Come back tomorrow!’ or ‘If you play again, we’ll give you a reward!’ Wordle is very ‘pure’ play in that sense.

Can you talk about this idea of needing play?

In Huizinga’s book, he argued that human nature is rooted in play. We are, by nature, creatures that play. More than that, he argues that play is central to human flourishing. Play allows us an experience that is truly free, and separate from our real life in such a way that we are allowed to try different experiences and even experiment with our own identities.

Huizinga argues that it’s also important that play offers an ordered environment—it’s not simply chaos or fantasy. Rather, play offers humans the balance of order and experimentation that we need to learn and grow. At the same time, the play itself isn’t directly about giving benefits, it’s the experience of playing that teaches us and allows us to solve more problems.

So, when you look at Wordle, you see Huizinga’s characteristics: It doesn’t cost anything, it’s driven by personal free choice to engage, and it’s not tied to real life. I’m a fan of the New York Times crossword puzzle, but to get to the puzzle, I have to go through all the real news. [Laughs] The New York Times crossword, as much as I love it, is deeply embedded in real life—the crossword puzzle clues might even refer to news or historical events. Wordle doesn’t do that. It doesn’t draw from any of your outside knowledge. That makes it a little more play-like, in Huizenga’s framework, than the New York Times crossword.

In console gaming, the dilemma of competitiveness has been treated differently by each company. Whereas Microsoft might value things like leaderboards, for example, Nintendo shies away from that and values simply whether the experience is ‘fun.’ And it’s almost part of their brand identity.

I think so. Another nice aspect of Wordle is that people can use it either as a forum for competition or not: They can post it on social media and in that way enjoy the competitive aspect, but they can also post to be part of a community.

But the difference in these games is something Huizenga also writes about. He also says that as cultures mature, it’s hard for them to keep their playfulness. By his theory, gaming systems that introduce extrinsic rewards and competitions, badges, etc., are following a natural progression, just as people do. Developmentally, we move from play to work, and then we get very good at work.

In that sense, I think part of what you may be seeing among people who prefer the Nintendo approach is a desire to preserve an experience as something that feels like true play. And part of the appeal of Wordle might also lie in its–thus far, anyway–refusal to create the types of leaderboards and competitions that so many apps have incorporated. That’s in contrast to much of the rest of our lives. Right now, our work systems, home systems, health systems, and news systems don’t allow us a lot of pure play opportunities. So, the simplicity of the interface and lack of badges and rewards and quests may be something we need.

And how do you think this moment plays into the popularity?

I think it’s critical. We like to have a sense of order in a world that’s handed us an intermittent sense of chaos for at least the last 22 months. We also like the community formed around this--this community doesn’t involve opinions or politics. Your membership is only reliant on the extent to which you like playing this little game. While there are certainly many crucially important topics around which we need to organize, maybe we also have a bit of ideology fatigue. For a few minutes, something like talking about Wordle allows us to simply connect with people who like guessing words in squares, in a game that none of us control, where everyone has equal power. Maybe that’s more important right now than we might have expected.

And I do think the lack of commercial intrusion is a relief for many people. I hope it remains pure. And I hope I get a lot better at it.