Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She cohosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is coproducer of the podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
Wordle, the word-guessing game that swamped social media feeds at the start of 2022, has now passed from fad to fixture: On Monday, The New York Times announced it had paid “in the low seven figures” to acquire the game. Soon Wordle will join the stable of popular online games offered behind the Times paywall (though the paper says Wordle will “initially” remain free for users).
For such a simple game – players have six attempts to guess a five-letter word – the story of the Wordle craze is surprisingly complex. There is the business story about the Times, a newspaper whose digital-subscription revenues have soared not only because of its journalism but because of its array of online games and recipes. There’s the social media story about the game’s rapid spread, aided by the (to many, annoying) ease with which players can share their results in a pleasingly graphic form to Twitter and Instagram. But there’s also a cultural story: Wordle, like most games that capture the public imagination, is overwritten with some of the key anxieties and tensions of our time.
Wordle is, first and foremost, a pandemic story. Told as a love story in the pages of the Times, the game’s creator, Josh Wardle, developed it for his partner, an avid word-game player. That idea – that a game created as an act of love soon won the hearts of millions of players – is a pleasantly wholesome respite from the start of a grindingly unpleasant new year (thanks, Omicron). It also allows a moment of shared experience at a time when, in parts of the country, in-person events have been canceled.
Yet unlike the lose-yourself-for-hours games that dominated the early pandemic months, from low-tech jigsaw puzzles to the omnipresent Animal Crossing, Wordle meets the needs of a mostly open, still-chaotic country that has refilled its empty calendars but still faces the disruptions of constant testing and unexpected closures and quarantines. A game takes only a few minutes to play, and the platform offers only one game a day. Once you’re done, you’re done – the perfect late-pandemic pastime.
Its acquisition by the Times, however, highlights another social aspect of playing Wordle. Sharing Wordle scores is not just an act of community but, in some ways, a boast of intelligence. Solving a Wordle with just two or three guesses feels not lucky but savvy: a combination of intellect and cleverness. Its introduction into the Times universe alongside the newspaper’s storied crossword puzzles and word-nerd Spelling Bee game only underscores that quality.
The virtue of playing word games comes not only from the atmosphere of intellect around the games, but also the belief that such activities help keep aging brains nimble, improving memory and warding off dementia (the scientific evidence on this is mixed). It is the same virtue-washing that happens when someone sits down with a glass of red wine and a square of dark chocolate while murmuring that the after-dinner indulgence is an effort to maintain heart health.
But that too is a product of our cultural moment. When crosswords were first introduced to the United States in the 1920s, they were laden with the anxieties of that time: worries that they were mindless entertainment on the level of comic strips, distractions from more serious endeavors. The New York Times, in fact, refused to run crosswords in its pages because the game was, as a 1924 editorial put it, “a primitive sort of mental exercise.” It only reversed course after the United States entered World War II and New York began dealing with regular blackouts. Times editors decided that New Yorkers had earned a distraction from the heavy news found in the rest of the paper.
Nor were crosswords the last gaming trend to spark hand-wringing from people worried that players were ignoring more virtuous pursuits. Video games, first in arcades and then at home, regularly drew charges that they contributed to juvenile delinquency. Those fears intensified when put alongside concerns about guns and violence, culminating in congressional hearings about violence in video games that led to a new rating system developed by the gaming industry.
Worries about the anti-intellectualism of gaming, a mainstay of video game criticisms since the mid-20th century, have in recent years broadened to include anxieties about all screen time, whether it’s an interactive game, Twitter-scrolling, watching YouTube videos or TikToks or texting with friends.
It’s not surprising, then, when games seem to require a new level of justification: Pokémon Go and Wii weren’t just games, they were fitness regimes. Wordle, Spelling Bee and all those other word games keep brains sharp. Even more mindless pursuits like Candy Crush could be written down as a few moments of self-care.
And while that’s not the worst way to think about the games we play, it does betray a puritanical streak in American culture: a sense that pleasure must be qualified, that fun must be intellectualized, that vice must be transformed into virtue. But as we enter the third year of the pandemic, with all the tragedy and monotony and sacrifice it has brought, now seems like the right time to insist that pleasure is a virtue in and of itself.