Wordle has become pretentious – it’s not much fun anymore

It isn’t just that the words have become harder – there is something different about the game that’s very tricky to put a finger on

Pragya Agarwal
Monday 21 February 2022 17:17 GMT
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We joked that we were becoming slower and stupider, but secretly felt aggrieved at how the previously joyful game now seemed frustrating
We joked that we were becoming slower and stupider, but secretly felt aggrieved at how the previously joyful game now seemed frustrating (Getty)

Let me start off by saying that I have loved Wordle for a while. The game. Not Josh Wardle the creator of this game, although I admit having some loving feelings towards him for designing such a simple yet brilliant distraction.

I played it every midnight as soon as the new game was released, and I wrote about it in glowing terms. I tried to also evangelically convert my family with regular updates and messages in our family WhatsApp group. The simplicity of the game, the regular endorphin release we got from solving the daily challenge, and how accessible it was all combined to create a phenomenon.

Another reason why people loved Wordle so much was because of the ethos behind it. Wardle had refused to monetise it and the game was available without any complicated software to download, and no subscription needed. Anyone with internet access, on a phone or their computer, could play this from anywhere in the world. It seemed to bring people together from all walks of life, whether they were big readers or not, and no matter how extensive their vocabulary was. It somehow seemed stripped of any pretentiousness.

Then The New York Times bought the game from Wardle for an undisclosed 7-figure sum. I read this news but wasn’t aware of when the transition had happened. I was overseas and was still using the same site for accessing the game. And, then I noticed that it was becoming trickier. Maybe it’s just my tired and jet-lagged brain, I thought and persevered.

I spoke to a few other people in our Wordle WhatsApp group who had started wondering if the game had become harder recently. We joked that we were becoming slower and stupider, but secretly felt aggrieved at how the previously joyful game now seemed frustrating. “They are out to trick us” someone commented and although we sent each other laughing face emojis, I couldn’t help but wonder if there is some truth in this.

We were not the only ones feeling this and it seems to be a broader sentiment on Twitter, at least, where many Wordlers have come together to post their yellow, green and grey grids. Perhaps there is a sense that what was a common person’s game has now been taken over by a corporation. From a one-man show, it has become part of this large media empire. Perhaps the new owners want to weed out those who are not as clever, and then monetise the experience for those who are deemed more intellectual. There is a real fear that Wordle is becoming exclusive, and that the joy has been sucked of it out by the subtle veneer of pretentiousness added by association with The New York Times.

When I tweeted about how I feel Wordle has changed, I was baffled to receive so many aggressive messages by people who felt personally affronted, many of whom accused me of holding bias against The NYT and many who suggested that I go and read more and increase my vocabulary so that I wouldn’t find the game so hard.

I used to pride myself on my vocabulary, having scored very highly in spelling bees and verbal aptitude tests throughout my life, so this did sting a little! Yes, I should go and read more books, and learn more 5-letter words – we could all do with reading more. But this game was never about showing off our vocabulary – and now, if it has become a game just for those with extensive vocabularies, then perhaps it is time to hang up our Wordle-boots. Perhaps it is no longer for everyone.

I’ve read The NYT’s statement where they assure users that they haven’t changed the word list, but that does not mean that the design of each game hasn’t changed. Wordle is not just guesswork. Yes, there is luck involved and which word you start off with, but there is a certain amount of logic involved in the elimination of possible solutions.

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I have always loved The NYT and I subscribe to it faithfully too, so anyone saying that my scepticism is rooted in some underlying anger against the publication is completely wrong. It isn’t just that the words have become harder – there is something different and it’s very tricky to put our collective finger on. There was the word “caulk” and then there are the very seemingly simple words that could be any of the five words just by changing one letter. And of course, there seem to be more double-lettered words as well.

Even though The NYT claims to not have changed the word list except to remove a few words (Agora being one of them), there is no evidence that they have not curated the games in any way. After insisting that nothing had changed, an NYT spokesperson put out a revised statement that “Offensive words will always be omitted from consideration. As we have just started Wordle’s transition to The Times website, we are still in the process of removing those words from the game play.” So, these are the changes we know about. Are there other changes haven’t we been told about yet?

I am intrigued as to why we do not have more transparency around what changes have been made to Wordle and what plans The NYT has for the game. We know that transparency and communication leads to trust, and this sense of in-group and out-group always leads to scepticism and prejudice. Are we now getting divided into those who think that there is something about the game that is different and those that think that nothing has changed?

While Wordle is the least of our worries right now, we could all do with more transparency from the puzzle-masters, so that we could all begin to enjoy the game once again.

Dr. Pragya Agarwal is a visiting professor at Loughborough University

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