An obsessive society

By Craig Nudelman

Wordle. That one word can make you anxious, exhilarated, frustrated, annoyed, and superior, perhaps all at the same time. 

That’s true for me, at least. Wordle is now a daily part of my world (speaking of world, I play Worldle, too). I think I can speak for many people as well, where guessing a five-letter word is now a daily habit. But why have those grey, yellow, and green squares become so popular? 

Wordle, which became a household word at the end of 2021, was created by Josh Wardle for his wife who loves word puzzles. When it was released to the public in October 2021, it became an instant hit, eventually being bought by the New York Times for at least $1 million. The simplicity of the game, guessing a five-letter word in six attempts, is novel for the fact that the word changes every day. This ensures that the user will never get bored of racking their brains for a new word. Not only this, but the word is the same everywhere across the globe.

There are several psychological reasons why we, as humans, have latched onto Wordle, and all the offshoots of it, such as Worldle, Globle, Flagle, Quordle, Absurdle, Dordle, Octordle, Sedecordle, Lewdle, Primel, Queerdle, and so many more (including a Jewish-themed one, Jewdle!). All of these games lead to a sense of community, as we are all guessing the same word on a specific day. British psychologist Lee Chambers, writing for Insider, says that the fact that we are all trying, or stuggling, to solve the same puzzle makes us feel as though we’re working together to wrestle with a bigger problem. Others speculate that the timing of the game’s release brought people closer as they needed that feeling of interconnectivity. The Omicron variant, economic uncertainty, political discontent and other broader issues gave people something fun to think about, albeit for a few minutes (or hours) during the day. It is a distraction in the middle of a chaotic world.

Chambers looked at the way in which Covid affected our perception of time. She states, “because the Wordle puzzles are numbered with a daily counter, they can help anchor us to the day of the week, as our perception of time has been affected by pandemic restrictions and remote working.” Not only does our perception of time change, but the fact that you can only do one puzzle per day limits our ability to get bored with it. In a world where we are constantly distracted and may even over-indulge or binge, we are now restricted for the rest of the day for the next puzzle. I see this as going back to the old days of watching my favourite sitcom — we had to wait a whole week for the next episode (and we couldn’t always record it)!

Clinical psychologist Dr Patapia Tzotzoli looks at other psychological advantages. Quoted in The Guardian, she believes that Wordle’s appeal lies in the philosophy of self-determination. She states, “The theory suggests we can become self-determined when our three innate psychological needs — autonomy, competence and connection — are met.” Wordle does just that — we are autonomous in that we choose when to take the few minutes out of our day to play the game. We are offered the chance to be competent because of our ability (or inability) to solve the puzzle and do better than others (or commiserate with those who didn’t do well). And finally, it makes us feel as though we are part of a wider community. 

Although Wordle may bring us together and create a sense of community, Dr Bence Nanay, in Psychology Today, brings a different psychological dimension to the game. Instead of sharing our experiences in terms of our intellect, we are actually trying to feel superior to other players. Due to the ability to share our results on social media, the seemingly ‘kumbaya’ nature of the game is rather distorted to show our insecurities and competitiveness. He writes, that either we are amazing and better than our peers, or we realise that perhaps we aren’t as good as we think we are, and can do better the next day. Some people may even think that it was just a fluke that they didn’t get it, and were just unlucky (I have definitely thought this before). However, there is a psychological term known as the Dunning-Kruger effect

The definition of this is, ‘a cognitive bias whereby people with limited knowledge or competence in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain relative to objective criteria or to the performance of their peers or of people in general’. Can we say, objectively, that we are better than average at — as Nanay says succinctly — “pretty much anything”? Nanay brings up interesting statistics about groups of people who think their abilities are better than average. In the US, 93% of drivers believe that they are better than average at driving, 90% of university professors think their teaching is better than average, and 85% of teenagers believe that they are more amiable than their peers. With regards to Wordle, he says that this leads to a justification of sorts, when we do not do as well as we should. Nanay does not believe that this game and its offshoots bring us closer together. He states, “Rather, it manipulates our deepest insecurities.”

Whatever your feelings are about Wordle, there can be no doubt that it has changed how we see little yellow and green blocks and five-letter words. I have a subscription to the New York Times where I can see how well I fared against the global community. Yes, I am competitive in nature, and I do feel superior if I do it in three turns and my colleagues or friends take four or five. But that doesn’t change the fact that its popularity, and our obsession with this game, has changed the world as we know it.

Craig is a writer, Jewish professional, and tour guide extraordinaire. His deep bass voice has graced stages, synagogues and studios. He is an obedient husband, father to two spectacular daughters, and is known for dad jokes and trivia.

• Published in the PDF edition of the July 2022 issue – Click here to read it.

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