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The Wordle craze won’t last forever. Have fun while it lasts

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Brian Heffernan
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St. Louis Public Radio
Wordle requires people to guess the correct five-letter word in six tries or fewer.

The online game Wordle has exploded in popularity as people around the world seek to guess the correct five-letter word within six tries each day — and clog social media feeds sharing their results.

But, has Wordle peaked? Ian Bogost thinks so.

It’s not just that so many people seem to be playing it, but the kiss of death for any trend is widespread adoption. It’s also that what began as a software engineer’s gift to his partner has become big business. The New York Times acquired the game last week, reportedly paying in the low seven figures.

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Ian Bogost
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Ian Bogost is the director of Film & Media Studies at Washington University. He's also a contributing editor for the Atlantic.

Since the purchase, Bogost explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, “it's felt as though that saturation point has been reached. And we need almost, like, constant reinvigoration around these sort of attention experiences that we have.”

He compared the game to the New York Times’ Spelling Bee, which “erupted” in the early part of the pandemic. “And now people are a little bit irritated with [it] and they're constantly complaining that it isn't recognizing the words they're using, or what have you,” he said.

A video game designer who has written extensively about games and the role they play in life, Bogost recently moved to St. Louis to take a job as professor and the director of Film and Media Studies at Washington University.

In a recent essay for the Atlantic, Bogost called Wordle a “seductive delight.” He said Wordle’s key is that it feels new, even though it fits neatly in a long tradition. “There’s a century-plus long history of what you might call trial-and-error code-breaking games,” Bogost explained.

A 19th-century game called Bulls and Cows is a Wordle-like game that uses numbers. A word game called Jotto from the 1950s became popular as a TV game show in the late 1980s called Lingo. Other iterations include the 1970s board game Mastermind.

“It's kind of in the water, and that makes it easier for people to become drawn in,” Bogost said. “What you really want is you want something that you've seen before, but that gives you a new take on it.”

Another reason for Wordle’s success is its simplicity. The limited number of possible solutions makes the game relatively easy, and that makes the people who play it feel smart. Plus, since there’s only one puzzle per day, Wordle doesn’t demand your attention in the ways so much else does.

Listen: The Wordle craze is fun

“It’s actually a huge relief,” Bogost said. And so many of the online games we play demand our attention and money. Wordle doesn’t.

As it’s designed now, Wordle is a finite game. There are nearly 2,300 five-letter English words in the puzzle. That means the daily word puzzles could go on without repetition for about another six years — unless, of course, the game changes.

But while Wordle will surely, eventually run its course, its pleasures feel much less temporal. Bogost compares the joys of cracking the daily Wordle to what people used to get solving the crossword puzzle in the newspaper.

“That idea of warming up for the day by being able to solve something,” he said. “All the news is bad; everything's out of control. But here’s something you can solve that gives you comfort.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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