What Our Brains Do When We Play Wordle

A Tufts psychologist explains the appeal of the simple word game that took social media by storm

Get out of the way, Words with Friends, Boggle, and even that old pen-and-paper staple Hangman. The surprise word nerd game of the season is a web-based puzzle called Wordle, with a simple premise: Players have six tries to guess a daily five-letter word.

After each guess, the game provides instant feedback in the form of colored tiles, and players can post an image to social media, showing the pattern of their guesses without revealing the word. This clever, spoiler-free feature—part humble brag, part gauntlet throw-down—has contributed to Wordle’s rise to viral stardom (and explains why your Facebook or Twitter feeds are cluttered with mysterious multicolored grids).

Tufts Now caught up with Holly Taylor, professor of psychology and mechanical engineering. This term, she’s teaching a course titled Cognition of Games People Play. Taylor is an avid gamer herself and, as it turns out, growing up she played a similar Wordle-like word guessing game that her family invented to kill time during long car rides.

Tufts Now: What explains the popularity of Wordle?

Holly Taylor: I think there are a couple things that help explain how it’s caught on. One is it’s super easy and intuitive to learn how to play. People can just jump in. Another thing is that it has a high success rate. But it’s not a guaranteed success rate. In memory research, this is called the “degree of desirable difficulty.” This game hits that degree of desirable difficulty.

How does sharing your score contribute to Wordle’s popularity?

While it’s not the same as a head-to-head competition, for people for whom that comparative aspect in games is important, it’s an element that you can connect with, with other people.

What is happening cognitively, when you’re trying to solve a language-based puzzle like Wordle?

The Baddeley and Hitch theory of working memory suggests that working memory is what you’re thinking about, right now. It’s got a limited capacity, and there are different components to it. There’s a language-related component, there’s a visual-spatial component, and then there’s what’s called the central executive, which is the component that helps you integrate across the visual, the linguistic, and visual-spatial components. Wordle really does engage all three of those.

In Wordle, you might confirm the first, second, or fifth letter, for example, but the others are still unknown. What’s happening in our brains when we’re searching for words in this way?

The way that we search memory for words is we tend to search more easily based on the first letter. We search faster for words where “R” is the first letter versus a word where “R” is the second letter. It’s an access issue, a function of the way language is organized in memory.

Unlike playing Candy Crush or Tetris on your smartphone, you can’t play Wordle for hours at a time. There’s only one word a day. If it’s not addictive, then what is it—habit-forming?

That’s another thing that is contributing to its viral nature. You can get it done quickly. But it gives you this quick mental challenge. I think people like that it can be a routine. It gives you this scheduled thing that’s not destructive to your productivity. Every once in a while, you can get lucky and get a hole in one.

Ethan Gilsdorf is a freelance writer based in Providence.  He can be reached at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com and ethangilsdorf.com.

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