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What is Wordle? Only 2022's hottest Covid puzzle trend

How Josh Wardle's 30 boxes became a social media phenomenon.
Illustration of a happy Wordle game being kissed.
Wordle's simplicity disguises a surprisingly stimulating exercise.Cari Vander Yacht for NBC News

Wordle! One word, five letters, six tries, once a day. If you’re on Facebook, Twitter or really any kind of social media, you’ve almost certainly seen these white, yellow and green boxed letters, almost always posted without commentary. For a game, the rules are simple enough to understand. But that simplicity disguises a surprisingly stimulating exercise: Letter elimination is as important as (and sometimes more than) actual correct guesses. And it’s one of 2022’s hottest fads.

For a game, the rules are simple enough to understand. But that simplicity disguises a surprisingly stimulating exercise.

The game is available free on a website (there is no app to download). There are imitators who tried to make monetized versions to sell on Apple and Google Play. (They were shut down after thousands reported them.) There are unofficial spinoffs like Absurdle and math editions like Primel. It’s already a meme on social media. Twitter even had to go so far as to ban The Wordlinator, a bot that figured out the (actually quite simple) code and threatened to spoil the fun.

But what is it about this simple black screen with 30 empty boxes that has enticed millions of players globally?

Perhaps it’s the color block motif that provides a letter-less way of sharing your results. (Josh Wardle, the inventor, released the game back in October, but it didn’t go viral until he added that update, inspired by one of the game’s users.) This letter-less way of posting your results allows people to talk about the game without spoiling it for others — only people who have played the game that day understand what they’re looking at. It’s speaking in a code that only other players can understand, a universal language of white, yellow and green.

That universality (at least for English speakers) is key. As we round into Year Three of the pandemic, we have become desperate for communal experiences. The media landscape splintered long ago, with the proliferations of cable channels and then streaming services and the siloing of radio stations. And now millions of us work from home, without even casual interactions at the water cooler to sustain our social appetites. Throw in dozens of news sources insisting we are all further apart in values than ever before, and it starts to feel mighty lonely staring at a blue screen all day.

Perhaps it's how easy it is to join in. It’s like the sourdough starter craze in April 2020, without the homebound connotations. It doesn't take a genius to play, it's not complex like a crossword, and it makes us feel safely together even as we're upping our mask games and testing ourselves at every cough. Is posting a small block of colored emojis actually being social? We’ll take it.

In the Discord channel where I post my daily results over breakfast, there are people who proudly discuss their strategies and how to pick popular consonants. Is using “ADIEU” (which sorts most of the vowels in one go) better than “TEARS” (which contains some of the most popular letters in English) or “HORNS” (which hits a lot of popular two-consonant combos)? Then there are people who insist “vibes” should guide you — the words you “feel” in the moment. Everyone can agree that double letters are a typographical abomination, while the Brits, the Canadians, the Australians and the New Zealanders grump about our Americanized spellings.

But most of all, Wordle feels like the perfect game for a collective, and perhaps global, sense of burnout. So many of us simply don’t have the time or the energy to pour into a new hobby as we wait for the dreaded announcement that schools are closed once again or that plans have been dashed at the last minute because of positive cases. After all, it's only once a day, and then you forget all about it until tomorrow. It's not an endless road, like “Two Dots,” or a money suck, like “Candy Crush.” It’s just all of us, playing the same word, in our homes, on our phones, trying to best ourselves and our scores as much as we are one another. No matter who you are, every Wordle player can agree that the word “KNOLL” is outrageous. And if you didn’t succeed in six tries this time? Don’t fret! There will be another fresh puzzle again tomorrow.