Wordle shows that the American dream is alive and well

Like many, I've been playing the popular online word-guessing game Wordle.  It's a nice little break from work and provides some low-key competition among family.

Perhaps more interesting than the game itself is the story behind the game.  In fact, its viral success is striking evidence that the American dream is alive and well.

The game's humble origin story, its grassroots audience, and the $1 million+ for which it was acquired by the New York Times all suggest that our free market still rewards ingenuity and hard work — regardless of where it comes from.

For those who aren't familiar with Wordle, it's a short single-player game in which you get six chances to guess a five-letter word.  The game uses a 5x6 grid where each cell (or box) represents a letter space.  After a guess, the used boxes change colors to indicate a correct letter (green), an incorrect letter (gray), or a correct letter in the wrong space (yellow).  Once you get five cells in a row to turn green, you've guessed the word.

That's the game in a nutshell.  If you try it out, you'll find there isn't much else to it.  And yet, it has amassed millions of daily users in just a few short months after its release.  The real question is, how?

One reason for the game's success is that it limits players to guessing only one word per day.  This feature takes a lot of pressure off the user.  At most, they're giving up only a few minutes a day to play.  Plus the game is free and has zero ads or frills whatsoever.  It's just fun.

But perhaps what contributes to the game's success most is that everyone gets to solve the same word every day.  In an interview with TechCrunch, Josh Wardle, the man who created the game and named it after a play on his name, said this:

One thing that is interesting to reflect on, though, is that Wordle could be one a day, but if everybody was getting a different word on that day — if the word was random but you could still only play one — it wouldn't have caught on the way it has. Right? It's something about the fact that it's one puzzle, and everybody is solving it.

In other words, the fact that everyone is working on the same word together is what makes Wordle so attractive.  There's a communal dimension to it — one that's especially nice in these times of social distancing.  But that's not all.

Wordle has even more appeal when you learn about its humble origin.  Mr. Wardle initially created the game only for himself and his girlfriend, Palak Shah, to play.  Both were fans of the NYT crosswords and spelling bee games, and Wordle was a fun addition.  Shah even helped Wardle narrow down 12,000 five-letter English words to 2,500 commonly known ones so you don't get stumped on obscure words no one has heard of.

After initially playing the game only with Shah and family, Wardle released it to the public in October last year.  The game then went from having 90 players on November 1 to 300,000 by mid-November.  Then, on January 31 of this year, the New York Times bought Wordle for an undisclosed number "in the low seven figures," making Wardle an instant millionaire.

Now, some might criticize Wardle for being a corporate sellout.  After all, the game became wildly popular precisely because it was unabashedly simple and free.  And there are worries now that the NYT will put Wordle behind a paywall after the giant newspaper stated that the game will only remain free to new and existing players "initially."

But shouldn't Wardle be rewarded for creating something that so many people genuinely love?  Though he never expected the game's massive breakthrough or to even capitalize on it, Wardle deserves whatever the free market will reward him.

The story behind Wordle just goes to show that anyone can rise to the top.  Whether you sell your own business or work hard at one, success can be yours.  That's the beauty of the American dream, that "ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved."  It does not discriminate based on someone's background, reputation, or any other credential.

Josh Wardle grew up on an organic livestock farm in a small Welsh village called Llanddewi Rhydderch.  He earned a media arts degree at Royal Holloway, University of London before moving to the U.S. to get a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Digital Art at the University of Oregon.  He has since worked as a software engineer at Reddit and Pinterest and now lives in New York.

If that's not a modern example of the American dream in action, I don't know what is.

Image: Wordle — New York Times.

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