Josh Wardle is the inventor of a free online word game you just might be familiar with. (If you change one letter in his last name, you’ll get the name of the game.) Back in October, the Brooklyn-based software engineer released Wordle to the world with a simple, elegant interface for guessing a five-letter word every day. And in December, the game went viral when he added a way to share results in the form of little colored blocks, which you may have seen all over your social media feeds. It’s the Little Word Game That Could, with millions of people now playing it around the world. On this week’s episode of Spectacular Vernacular, the Slate podcast that explores and plays with language, hosts Nicole Holliday and Ben Zimmer asked Wardle why he thinks the game suddenly took off, what changes he might have in store, and whether he’s seen the backlash from his fellow Brits. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nicole Holliday: So, Josh, you’re an artist, product manager, and engineer who’s worked at Reddit among other places. What inspired you to create this game? Was it just a pandemic project, like so many of us have been dabbling in these days? What happened?
Josh Wardle: The goal with Wordle actually was to create a word game for my partner to play. She and I got really into the New York Times crossword, and she plays a lot of Spelling Bee as well.
Holliday: Oh, we’re big fans of Spelling Bee here.
Oh, big fans of the bee, OK. It’s a bit too much for me, to be honest. Wordle’s a bit simpler, more my speed. But yeah, I wanted to try making a game that she and I would enjoy playing together, and Wordle was a result of that. I’d actually created a prototype of it back in 2013, and the mechanics were the same. Some of the big differences were it was endless play. As soon as you finish one puzzle, you could move on to the next one, which Wordle doesn’t do. You can only play Wordle once a day and it’s the same word for everyone.
And then another big thing with that original prototype was I didn’t use any word-list filtering. I just dumped every five-letter word in the English language from whatever dictionary I found online. And so there were some very obscure words in the English language that I have never heard of. So you would often end up more like brute-forcing or using your knowledge about how a word might be constructed. So it was a very different game, and I shared it with a few friends, and everyone was like, “Yeah, maybe there’s something here, but you play it for a bit and you put it down and never come back to it.”
So when I decided that I wanted to create a game for my partner, I brought it back up and I made some changes more in line with games like the crossword and Spelling Bee, and those changes have really led to its success, I think.
[Read: What Is Wordle, the Word Game People Can’t Stop Playing?]
Ben Zimmer: I can see how it was inspired by some long-standing games. People might know about Jotto, which was this pencil and paper game created back in the ’50s. And then, at least in the U.S., I’m not sure about elsewhere, there was a game show called Lingo in the ’80s, and that got revived a little later on by the Game Show Network. So those games all involve guessing words by trying out other words and finding out which letters match, but Wordle really seemed to bring something new to the table. I mean, there’s just something really pleasing about the design and the function that elevates it. What do you think makes it work? Is it just you keep things so simple in terms of the gameplay? Do you think that that’s the thing that’s the key to the success of this game?
That’s a really good question. I used to work in Silicon Valley, and I’m aware of the things that, especially with games, you’re meant to do with people’s attention. You’re trying to capture as much of people’s attention as you can. So that involves things like endless play, or sending them push notifications, or asking them for sign-up information.
And philosophically, I enjoy doing the opposite of all those things, doing all the things that you are not meant to do, which I think has bizarrely had this effect where the game feels really human and just enjoyable. And that really resonates with where we’re at right now in the world and with COVID, and then also we’re trying to figure out, what is tech? What has tech become? I think that really resonates with people, and no ads—well, no monetization. People ask me a lot about these things, and it was like, I was literally just making a game for my partner, and I made some decisions that we would like.
I think there are some subtle things that I think Wordle does do quite well. One is it will change the keyboard to reflect your states in the game, which was something that I came up with, because I find it hard to move back and forward between the keyboard. And I think that is a very subtle feature, but I think changes the game a lot. It really helps you play the game. And with all these word games, it’s up to the creator how much help you want to give the solver. And that just felt like a really nice, simple way to ease people on. And I think a lot of people who don’t normally play word games are enjoying Wordle because of things like that.
Holliday: Another key to Wordle success online has been the ability to share results. When I first started seeing the colored boxes showing in people’s Twitter feeds, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It happened very early for me because I know a lot of linguists, and linguists were very excited about this. And I was like, “What are these mystery squares?” in December. And there wasn’t a hashtag or URL, just the name Wordle with a score. And then the yellow and green emoji squares. Did you design it that way to give the game a mysterious element and intrigue people, or what’s the idea behind that?
The first thing I have to point out is that I did not come up with the emoji grid. Wordle, as I built it, got picked up in a New York Times newsletter, and people started playing it, and there was no share grid. And for some reason that I don’t fully understand, the game got big in New Zealand, and New Zealand Twitter was playing a lot of the game, and someone out there who I don’t know—she’s called Elizabeth S, and I only know her on Twitter—came up with the emoji grid as a spoiler-free way of sharing her results with other people. (There are slight spoilers if you really want to be pedantic about it, but not really.) Previously, people were just saying, “Wordle in three,” and then she added this visual component that tells a story. So I saw other people start doing it and then manually typing out the emoji grid, going back and forth and referencing it. So I’m like, I can make this, I can just pull this into the game. And obviously that’s had a huge impact in helping it go viral.
Not including a link was, again, one of those things that’s the opposite of what you’re meant to do. If your goal is growth, then you should definitely include a link to your thing. And so originally I had a link, but when you share it on Twitter, it tries to show a big preview of the thing. And I was like, it feels spammy. It feels like I want them to share it because I get something. Just removing it made all that simpler. They were sharing for themselves.
Holliday: My partner started playing after me, and we didn’t talk about it. I just saw him start posting his results. And I was like, “Oh, my God. Now we have to talk about this.” And I sent him my results one day, and he was like, “What the heck did you guess in the third round that you didn’t get the answer?” And it was the day where the answer was drink. And I was like, “Oh, this is a British game.” So I guessed prink. And he was like, “What is that word? Why did you miss drink?” But he saw that I had everything but the first letter and just went the wrong way. So it made it more fun for us to talk about the experience of Wordle that day.
Amazing. So, although it gets seen a lot on Twitter, most people, I think, aren’t sharing their results on Twitter. They’re sharing them with friends and family in group chats and things like that. I get a ton of emails, and I got one yesterday from someone saying they have a teenage son, and they’re finding it hard to connect with him, but Wordle is something the father and the son do together each day. And I was just like, “Oh, my word, that’s amazing.” Having it be able to be shared in with friends and family is just a really low effort way of checking in and letting people know you care about them. And there’s something new to discuss each day if you want to.
Zimmer: Since Wordle went viral, it has inspired a seemingly endless array of spoofs and knockoffs. And some of those word clones are pretty creative, I’ve got to say. I’ve seen Sweardle, where the answers are all swearwords. And then there’s Queerdle, which puts a gay spin on the game. And then there’s Absurdle, which is an adversarial game that tries to make you guess for as long as possible. I’m just curious what you make of all of these homages. And do you have any favorites of these Wordle clones that you’ve seen?
I love them. As someone who creates stuff, to see people so inspired by something that you created that they want to riff on it, that’s amazing. That makes me feel so good. One that you didn’t mention that I’ve really enjoyed is Letterle—
Zimmer: Oh, I saw that.
It’s just one letter each day. You’ve got 26 guesses. You have to guess which letter it is, and it produces an emoji grid for you, but it’s just like a long string of all your misses. And then the final green. I thought that was quite good satire.
Holliday: Now that Wordle is being played by millions, we’re seeing some people get cranky about it, of course. We’ve heard about similar reactions. We interviewed Sam Ezersky about the Spelling Bee, and that’s a game where people love to complain about which words are included and acceptable and which ones aren’t. There was a bit of a tizzy among the British players of Wordle when the answer one day was favor spelled the American way without a U, so it would be five letters. Do you pay attention to any of that? Or you just happy people are playing?
So the word list is another one of those things that I think I put a fair amount of effort into—actually my partner and I, we collaborated on it. Like I said, the first time I made the game, it just used every five-letter word. And I think it wasn’t very fun because—try and think about it—if the first time you play Wordle, the answer is a word you’d never heard of, I think you would feel cheated. And so we put a fair amount of effort into filtering. There are around, I don’t know, 13,000 five-letter words. And we put a fair amount of effort into filtering those down into a subset of around 2,500 solution words that can be the solution any day. And the way we did that actually was I built another game before this one, which took all 13,000 five-letter words and displayed a word and displayed three buttons: “I know this word,” “I don’t know this word,” and “I maybe know this word.” And my partner, she just wanted a mindless game. She was going through some tough times. She just wanted something she could sit down and mindlessly do. So she categorized all 13,000 words.
And then because I’m making the game for her, it’s very focused on what she knows and doesn’t know. And then we took that and revised it a bit further. So I was chatting with her this morning actually about, “How do you feel about the favor thing?” And she was like, “I’m American. You made the game for me.”
Holliday: It’s a love story at the end of the day.
Yeah. But because I made the game for her and me, I don’t actually know what the word is going to be tomorrow, because if I did, I wouldn’t be able to play the game. So we filtered all those words down. I randomized them, and that’s it. I don’t look at them. So I live in fear that tomorrow is going to be something heinous and it’s going to really upset someone, or maybe a really bad word, or just an obscure word, slipped through the filtering somehow.
We had massé—it’s a type of billiards shot I’d never heard of. That slipped through our filtering somehow. And that was in the early days. The New Zealand contingent got very upset, which I totally understand.
Zimmer: It’s also really fascinating to see how people take different approaches to playing. Some people use a different starting word every day, and some are these computationally minded people out there who are trying to figure out the optimal gameplay, starting with words that do the best job at narrowing down the guesses. And of course you give us personal stats so we can all obsess over those. I know I do. Are you also keeping track of the player stats behind the scenes? And have you noticed any interesting results from that?
[Read: The Two Best Ways to Win at Wordle]
What I’m collecting is, when you finish it in three, I know that someone somewhere finished it in three. I don’t know anything else about you. But I haven’t done anything with that data, because I’ve been far too busy. I have a full-time job and stuff. But the idea was maybe after each day I could share how the previous day had gone for everyone, and you could put yourself against people globally. But I’m wary about that stuff, because it makes it more competitive, or makes it more competitive with other people versus competitive with yourself. I’m fine with people competing with their friends and family, but if there was a global leaderboard, I don’t know. I’d worry about people’s motivations there. So maybe I’ll do something in the future, but no immediate plans.