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Wordle: The simple pleasure of a gift

Wordle has gifted its players with a sense of imagined community in a time where it is hard to stay connected.

Art by Melody Wong.

For a significant part of the past two years, there have been rules on how many people you can hang out with and where you are allowed to go. It’s almost as if we have been locked out of our ability to connect with others. And in times as stressful as these, we long for something less overwhelming. We are drawn back to the basics. 

That’s how Wordle appeared. 

To me, Wordle is the embodiment of simplicity. Its clean design and lack of ads heightens the simplicity of its gameplay; green if a letter is in the right spot, yellow if misplaced, and grey if irrelevant. The five-letter daily word also adds to the accessibility of the game; daily words are drawn from common words instead of long-winded, technical jargon. Rather than a brain challenge, Wordle is a game that gives your mind a daily (much-needed) warm-up. 

Like many other crossword games, Wordle is meant to be solved independently. But with the introduction of the sharing function, it has gifted its players a sense of imagined community in a time where it is hard to stay connected. In return, the players have reciprocated this gift by keeping the community spoiler-free. Whilst people may use its sharing function to brag — “I finished today’s Wordle within two tries!” — you’ll rarely see people actually sharing the answer of the day. This community norm of shared respect between members has shaped the game into one of the most appealing communities globally, which is part of Wordle’s charm. 

The other part has to be Wordle’s backstory. The creator, Josh Wardle, developed it as a gift to his partner. In an interview with the New York Times, Wardle said: “I wanted to come up with a game that [my partner] would enjoy.” Thus, this notion of the ‘gift’ is embedded in Wordle’s origin. 

It is also embedded in the social and labour interactions of the community. Wordle can be analysed through the lens of a gift economy – a system that includes the acts of reciprocation, of gifting and receiving gifts. In Wordle’s case, the community gives back in various ways; some gave the creator constructive suggestions regarding the sharing function, and some created alternative versions of the game in different languages. This gift-giving exchange between users and the creator duo carries on, resembling what Tisha Turk calls the “circular giving” characteristics of a gift economy in her article ‘Fan work: Labor, worth, and participation in fandom’s gift economy’. Interactions are premised on social relations of trust and mutual respect between online community members. 

But a gift economy system falls apart when a price tag is attached to that trust and mutual respect.

Wordle was recently sold to the New York Times at a price in the “low seven digits“. Despite the creator’s firm refusal to monetise the game, the decision has attracted ire from the community. For example, a Twitter user commented that “The NYT took one nice and simple thing that a lot of people really liked … and implied that they’ll stick it behind a paywall.” This raises the question: is there still a place for the value of gifts in our capitalist, profit-driven world? 

It’s hard to predict what will happen to Wordle. What once began as a relatively small game that came at the height of yet more lockdowns has become a global phenomenon that major brands have sought to monopolise. But to me, the appeal of Wordle will always lie in its essence; a reminder of the simple pleasure of a gift.

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