Wendy Grossman on Wordle, new owners and the genesis of a conspiracy theory.
The autumn of 2021 saw a craze for a new word game. Wordle - a play on the last name of its creator, Josh Wardle - is just challenging enough to be interesting, but simple enough to demand only a few minutes.
If you haven't played it, Wordle offers you six chances to guess a five-letter word. For each guess, the game shows you which letters you've placed correctly, which appear in the word but are wrongly placed, and which are not present. You refine your guess until you either run out of chances or hit on the right word.
Some of my friends like to choose a new random word every day. I, however, read Sherlock Holmes as a child, and based on the short story "The Dancing Men", immediately tried to come up with the best options for using as many of ETAOIN SHRDLU in the initial guess as possible.
The thing got picked up all over Twitter, fuelled by the game's emoji-generation feature, which let people post little graphical images showing their results without disclosing the guesses or solution. (Soon after, we also saw complaints that people should stop doing this because the emojis were inaccessible to screen readers.) Twitter means journalists, and journalists seeing Twitter trends mean media coverage. Media coverage led to the game's purchase by the New York Times for a million or few.
Almost immediately, the suspicions flew. Was the Times going to start charging for the game, as the paper does for many of its others? (Maybe eventually.) Was it going to overlay it with ads? (Not so far.) Would the paper shut down the many clones that had sprung up during its first months of popularity? Because the software that makes Wordle is open source and can therefore be freely copied and modified, there are also variants, including a two-word version, Duordle; an airport code version that only frequent flyers can love, Airportle; an insanely hard country shape-guessing version, Worldle; and a version that changes the target word with every guess, Absurdle (at least it gives you extra guesses). Because Wordle-the-original allows only one play per day, there are also collected archives of all the daily games back to the beginning.
The game was released beyond Wardle's family circle in October, and the Times' acquisition was just months later, in January 2022. The first reaction was approval: the Times is known for its crosswords and its daily online Spelling Bee game, which asks you to make as many words as possible from a set of eight letters, one of which must appear in each word. (It is possible to get very grumpy about the limitations of the game's dictionary, which includes some truly bizarre concoctions, and which fails to accept some quite ordinary ones, but I digress.)
However, the Times is a commercial organisation, hence the questions above. Then the conspiracy theories began.
Chief among them was the conviction that the Times had deliberately made the game harder. This is a more or less perfect conspiracy theory: difficult to disprove, the result of highly subjective and suggestible individual judgement, prey to the phantom patterns that plague all randomness, and very vulnerable to coincidental variations in strategies and the vagaries of personally available vocabulary. Plus, it builds on the bedrock of general suspicion, built of long decades of ruined beloved internet spaces - new corporate owners. Word soon went round that the Times had requested the takedown of the best-known Wordle archive; as of March 22, however, there were plenty of places to play previous games.
Shortly after the Times acquisition, USA Today posted a list of the "11 hardest Wordle words to date": it included "WRUNG", "QUERY", and "KNOLL", none of which seem to me particularly "hard". "REBUS", I will allow is not your everyday go-to. Nor, perhaps, is "KNOLL", but that word has had a special place in American life ever since 1963, when a "grassy knoll" in Dallas, Texas became the focus of the first big set of conspiracy theories of my lifetime, those surrounding the assassination of US president John F. Kennedy.
In mid-February, writing at The Verge, Chaim Gartenberg noted recent solutions "ULTRA", "ULCER", and "ALOFT", and set out to analyse the question that was exercising Twitter Wordle players: was the newly corporatised game now more difficult?
Gartenberg found the answer was "no". The full solution set, he noted is a 2,500-word subset of the approximately 12,000 words in the English language. Wardle, in writing the game as a gift for his partner, sought help to develop a list of solutions that included only those she was familiar with. After the acquisition, by viewing the game's code, Gartenberg was able to establish that the Times didn't add any words to the solution set. It *did* remove a few words that the ever-prudish Times considered offensive from the set of valid guesses and also a few it considered too obscure (apparently including "AGORA" and "PUPAL") from the solution set. The Times advised Gartenberg that it would update the list over time to keep the puzzle accessible while removing offensive language. So there you have it. TAPIR, anyone?
Wendy M. Grossman (pelicancrossing.net) is founder and former editor (twice) of The Skeptic Magazine (skeptic.org.uk).