Last year, Josh Wardle, a Brooklyn software engineer created Wordle, a guessing game for his partner Palak Shah. It’s a simple game loosely based on a combination of the New York Times Spelling Bee and Mastermind, the guess the colour game.
To play you guess a five letter word in the first row. Each letter is colour coded as a clue. A grey letter is not in the word in any position. A yellow letter is in the word but not in that position and a green letter is in the correct position. Based on those clues you guess another word in the next row. You ‘win’ when you get five green letters. After you finish, your stats appear. The game keeps track of how many times you get the word and how many rows it takes you. There is no time limit but once you press ‘enter’ on a row it is locked in for the day. Only one wordle puzzle is released every 24 hours so think carefully before hitting that key – there are no do-overs. No matter how much you love Wordle you can’t binge it. But helpfully a timer counts down how long you need to wait for the next puzzle after you finish.
In many ways Wordle is like a newspaper crossword that you can keep open in a tab and come back to throughout the day. Unlike a crossword (for most people), it is incredibly addictive. Wardle’s family and friends were enjoying the daily puzzles he posted so much that in October he posted it on a public website.
By 1 November there were 90 people playing Wordle every day. In mid-December, after noticing people were sharing their Wordle results on Twitter, Wardle added a feature which allowed people to, ahem, show-off, without spoiling the puzzle for others, by sharing their coloured clue grid and the number of rows they took to solve the puzzle.
Wordle 212 3/6
— Steve Martin (@SteveMartinToGo) January 17, 2022
The sharing lit a fuse under Wordle. At the beginning of January there were 300,000 daily players. Today there are over 2.7 million and doubtless by the time you read this there will be millions more.
Wordle is addictive because it stimulates dopamine. We need to focus hard if we are to have a hope of solving the puzzle. That is enough to get the dopamine flowing, but layer on the uncertainty of not knowing if we will get it out (5-10% of us don’t on any given day) and the anticipation of the once-a-day release of new puzzle and you have a genuine dopamine supercharger. It is not so hard that we don’t stand a chance, but it is not so easy that we can do it without focused attention. It is right in the sweet spot for getting us to focus without giving up.
Throw in the oxytocin fuelled dopamine hit we get from modestly telling the world about our prowess and you have the secret sauce for next level addictive power.
One of the most effective ways to break an addiction is to identify habits which have dopamine generating rewards at their core then switch out the dopamine generator for something less harmful.
If you are in the habit of buying a muffin every time you get a coffee, the dopamine generated by the sugar hit from the muffin is the glue keeping you in that habit loop. Switching the muffin to Wordle will replace the muffin dopamine hit and help break your sugar addiction.
If you are in the habit of having a cigarette every morning at 10am, switching the cigarette to something just as pleasurable but without the smoke will help you break the addiction. Instead of the cigarette, reach for your Wordle page when the craving strikes. Your brain will still get its dopamine hit but without all the lung disease and cancer and stuff.
Of course Wordle is not the only way to force yourself to get a dopamine hit from focused thinking but it is handy, pitched at just the right difficulty for most of us and it refuses to allow us to become full-blown addicts by limiting us to just one hit a day. Give it a try.