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Wordle and the future of the internet's favorite word game

Wordle game displayed on a phone screen is seen in this illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on January 23, 2022. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Wordle game displayed on a phone screen is seen in this illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on January 23, 2022. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A simple word game has taken the internet by storm.

But now that the New York Times owns the game, can the wonder of Wordle last?

Today, On Point: What is it about Wordle? How did the simple game charm so many, and will the wonder last?


Jonathan Knight, general manager of games at the New York Times. (@jk00)

Ian Bogost, game designer and director of the film and media studies program at Washington University in St. Louis. (@ibogost)

Katy Pearce, associate professor in the department of communication at the University of Washington. (@katypearce)

Also Featured

Penny Pexman, professor of psychology at the University of Calgary. (@PennyPexman)

From The Reading List

The Daily Beast: “Are Puzzles Like Wordle and Scrabble Good for Your Brain?” — “In recent weeks, a web-based word puzzle called Wordle has become a popular daily distraction. Suddenly, millions of people are focused on their vocabulary of five-letter words and are newly aware of concepts like letter frequency and letter position as they strategize about the best opening words and faster solutions.”

Interview Highlights: The Psychology Of Wordle with Professor Penny Pexman

Penny Pexman is a professor of psychology at the University of Calgary. She studies language, and how it’s understood and acquired. And she, like millions around the world, is a devoted Wordle player.

PENNY PEXMAN: I’m excited that words are having a moment, like as a language researcher, I feel like this is great.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: And she told us that there’s a specific reason why so many people are drawn to word games.

PEXMAN: Word games are captivating because they allow you to feel like you get this little moment of play, right? So it’s tapping into something that’s pretty readily accessible in your mind, thinking strategically and getting to engage in some complex cognition, which for many people is quite pleasurable.

CHAKRABARTI: And here’s the interesting thing. Pexman’s previous research focused on a specific subset of word gamers, professional Scrabble players.

PEXMAN: I’m interested in how language is processed in the brain in general and heard about competitive Scrabble, which is a little bit different than the Scrabble you might play at your kitchen table with your grandmother. Unless your grandmother could be a very good Scrabble player. But competitive Scrabble players devote a lot of time and energy to practicing Scrabble, so they would engage in multiple games a week. They practice word lists. They memorize word lists so that they can have a bigger repertoire of potential plays. There’s a tournament circuit, there’s international rankings. So these people are devoting a huge amount of time and effort to their word knowledge. And the question that I found really interesting was, how is that changing their brain?

CHAKRABARTI: That’s a really interesting question, because you heard a little earlier, one of our listeners said that he believes playing Wordle keeps his brain sharp. Well, so what does Scrabble tell us about whether that’s actually true? Well, Pexman has found out that pro Scrabble players’ brains do change in ways that help them be good specifically at pro Scrabble. For instance, they are better than average at reading words in a vertical orientation. That’s something that usually stumps most people, but Scrabble players do it quickly and easily, which suggests some kind of neural remapping. They’re also good at recognizing words and making decisions about them without having to know what those words mean.

PEXMAN: And again, that’s not something the average reader can do. Most people need to think about the meanings of words in order to know what they’re looking at. But a Scrabble player doesn’t need to know what the words mean.

CHAKRABARTI: But having those skills does not necessarily correlate to much beyond professional scrabble.

PEXMAN: It’s really this sort of situation where playing a lot of Scrabble makes you really good at Scrabble, but it doesn’t make you smarter.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so where does Wordle fit into all of this? Clearly, there are marked differences between the two games, but Pexman thinks there’s a lot of similarities that Scrabble players, or what she’s found about Scrabble players, that can apply to Wordle players too. Because wordplay is so accessible. For example, people do learn it quickly, and therefore their brains adapt.

PEXMAN: Unbeknownst to them, there are changes happening in their brains, in their language systems, and they’re thinking about things like letter frequency and letter position in ways they’ve never thought of before.

CHAKRABARTI: But again, you’re wondering, is there a correlation between being good at Wordle and being good at other things? When your friend brags about getting a word in one or two tries that you maybe gotten six, should you hang your head in shame?

PEXMAN: Given what we know about Scrabble, we would also have to say those changes probably only make them better at Wordle. And don’t make them better at anything else.

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