In hindsight I realise word games have been my markers of this pandemic.
In the first wave, locked down at home, I religiously did the Jumble in my daily newspaper in Kolkata, unscrambling words and then solving a punny word puzzle. It was a way to find some measure of control in an unravelling world, a bright spot in bleak times. Or perhaps I turned to it to put off looking at the headlines about a rampaging pandemic.
In the second wave, I was immersed in The New York Times Spelling Bee. Unlike the Jumble, it could take hours. I could keep coming back to it all day trying to find more words from the seven letters at play. I would feel a rush of dopamine when I could fit all seven letters into the pangram word or reach the coveted Genius level. And I could grumble about the words the Spelling Bee didn’t recognise—TIFFIN or CONGEE or HAMMAM. The Spelling Bee fulfilled some basic needs—the desire to feel a sense of accomplishment and the need to complain. It’s no accident that I follow a Twitter handle called Not a Spelling Bee Word, where one can gripe about words that should be recognised by the Bee but are not.
In the third coronavirus wave, stuck at home in Omicron quarantine, I discovered Wordle. That’s the newest word addiction, where you try to guess a five-lettered word in six tries. Like many others, I discovered it when my Twitter timeline was suddenly flooded with grey, green and yellow boxes from people sharing their Wordle prowess.
I was sceptical and a little snobbish about Wordle. The Spelling Bee seemed more worthy. Wordle took too little time. And once it was done, you had to wait till the next day for the next word. I just couldn’t understand the point of all that obsessive social media sharing of your Wordle achievement of the day. As my timeline filled up with grey, green and yellow boxes, it was like that old Pete Seeger song about little boxes: “and they are all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same”.
I can understand why Wordle is addictive. In November, the game had 90 players. Now it has more than two million. Matthew Baldwin, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Florida, told the Science Friday podcast that it is a “shared experience, we see our friends playing it, we share the results on social media”. And when we were “grasping for some kind of social cohesion”, Wordle proved to be the right game at the right time.
But there is something about Wordle I didn’t appreciate initially. Wordle is almost the anti-app, the antithesis of all social media games. You don’t need to sign up with an email. It’s free but collects no data about you. It doesn’t push notifications and it does not try to keep you hooked to your device playing endlessly. It does not care about monetisation. “It’s not doing all those nasty things,” Adam Proctor, who heads the games design course at Southampton University, told The Guardian. “It’s what the web was like when we first had it, it was much more playful.”
Oddly, that’s what made me look down my nose at Wordle initially. It felt almost too basic and boring, too unflashy. Even its URL (www.powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle/) felt old-fashioned. The colour coding, The New Yorker said, was reminiscent of the 1970 board game Mastermind. Wordle, as it is, will have to end some day because it only has 2,500 five-letter words in its kitty. It would be poetic if the final word was ADIEU, the one pro users often use as the first guess.
In his new book, Stolen Focus—Why You Can’t Pay Attention, Johann Hari meets Aza Raskin, who invented the “infinite scroll” that freed us from having to click a button to go to the next page on the internet. Raskin thought he was making life easier for everyone. He later realised that infinite scrolling makes us spend, at a conservative estimate, 50% more time on sites like Twitter. He told Hari he felt “sort of dirty” when he thought of all the time we were scrolling mindlessly instead of truly connecting with family and friends or solving climate change or even reading a book. But social media giants are singularly focused on one thing and one thing only, writes Hari—trying to get us to pick up our phones more and scroll longer and longer.
Even The New York Times is gouging out more money by selling games subscriptions separate from the news subscriptions. At the end of 2020, it had 840,000 games subscriptions, up 40% from 2019. Ram Subramaniam, a friend of mine who is still resisting subscribing because he finds it annoying that you have to subscribe separately to different parts of the same newspaper, told me he still plays the truncated version of the Spelling Bee every day. He just tries to get the pangram word of the day in the chances he’s given. Wordle is different. As its creator once said, it just wants about three minutes of my time. And it doesn’t want to sell me something. Or sell me to someone.
It was created by software engineer Josh Wardle for his partner and fellow word-game fan, Palak Shah. “It’s really sweet,” Shah told The New York Times. “This is definitely how Josh shows his love.” And it has a bit of that homespun, handcrafted feel. It’s a flashback to an older love story with words that I had almost forgotten.
When I was a child, I used to pester my sister to play Name Place Animal Thing. She indulged me now and then. Her hesitation was understandable because the game could go on forever and I wanted to play it forever, infinite scrolling before such a thing existed. We also played Hangman in our school exercise books, a word-guessing ancestor of Wordle, and sometimes, on rainy evenings, we brought out the Scrabble board game. It was always a red letter day for me when I snagged the triple word score, akin to the pangram moment on the Spelling Bee. Of course, I wanted to win that Scrabble game but there was truly a pleasure in just playing, something wondrous in seeing the empty board slowly fill up with letters, words crisscrossing, feeding into one another and forming new words in wonderful, unexpected ways.
Early in the morning, I would manoeuvre myself on to the windowsill, draw the curtains behind me, taking care not to wake my sister, and read the dictionary if I had run out of storybooks. It was not an effort to improve my vocabulary. I just enjoyed flipping the dictionary open to a random page and reading unfamiliar words there while listening to the familiar sounds of the city slowly coming to life around me, the crows cawing and the vegetable sellers setting up shop. I loved reading Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky and Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol and making sense out of nonsense words. I made up my own childish word games—turning HEAD into TAIL, one letter at a time (HEAD-HEAL-HELL-HALL-TALL-TAIL). I never gave it a name but I would lie in bed playing that game until I fell asleep, cosily surrounded by words.
Words filled me with wonder. As a boy who was useless at sports, words were my refuge as well, an armour to protect me in the schoolyard. But at some point I became used to them. They became tools, something to manipulate, a way to make a livelihood, score points. From playing with words, I became more preoccupied with wordplay.
Word games like Wordle restore some of that old wonder, not in facility with words but just in words themselves. It reminds me of my nameless game from childhood nights. It reminds me of the transformative power of a single letter.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.