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Wordle up: Online word game is viral brain teaser

Mary Briggs calls herself a “wordy.”

“I just love words,” said Briggs, of North Huntingdon. “I have always been an avid reader because my parents constantly read to me when I was a child. When I get up every morning, I make coffee and read several newspapers, then I do a crossword puzzle, and recently I’ve been doing Wordle.”

Wordle?

It’s a game that’s trending on social media. You know, the one where when you scroll through your feed you see a box with grey, yellow and green squares? Yes, that one.

How it works is players open Wordle in their browser — on a smartphone, iPad, computer or smart TV — and think of a five-letter word. Some liken it to the Mastermind board game from the 1970s. Users start with a blank slate.

They hit “enter.” The game will highlight correct letters, letters in the proper spot and letters that aren’t in the word at all.

There are six chances to get the correct word. One new five-letter word is released daily.

The game was created by Josh Wardle, a New York resident who is an engineer at Brooklyn art collective Mschf, according to an interview he did with TechCrunch+, a membership website that helps startups.

Wardle, a native of Wales, built Wordle last year for his partner, a word puzzle enthusiast. He then shared it.

TechCrunch said over a two-week period, the game grew from fewer than 1,000 to two million players.

“What I built (at the start) is the game that everyone is playing today,” Wardle told TechCrunch. “It was definitely not the intention when I started.”

It continues to grow in popularity — maybe because it attracts people who like puzzles, said Gayle Rogers, professor and chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s English department.

“I saw Wordle on social media, and I got curious,” Rogers said. “I am a fan of crossword puzzles. This is a version of that. With a crossword puzzle, there are clues, but the innovative part of this is you have to produce your own clues, and I think that is what is driving this.”

Rogers said words such as “tears” or “learn” or “trace” are a good place to begin. The game is similar to solving the final puzzle on the game show Wheel of Fortune. Those words give contestants the same consonants “RSTLN” and a vowel “E” to start.

Rogers, who suggests using common letters, and not a “Z” or an “X,” is glad to see people spending time on words and language.

“There are endless combinations, and that makes a person’s brain work in a very different way,” he said. “It’s a strategy game, and it’s also about instant gratification.”

Crossword puzzles take more time, so people enjoy Wordle because it only takes a few minutes. And with it being one word a day, players have to wait until tomorrow — so they aren’t devoting hours to it like other games on the Internet, Rogers said.

That quickness is a reason Briggs likes it. She said she is known to some as a member of the “grammar police,” because of her interest in the root of a word, having studied other languages.

Numbers games don’t interest her.

“I just want to have fun with it,” said Briggs, who co-owns You Are Here in Jeannette, a gallery that showcases art that reflects the community. “I don’t get into strategies.”

Briggs first saw Wordle on Facebook.

She said there aren’t a lot of instructions, so players have to figure it out. One tip is players can use double letters in a word.

Briggs usually begins with a few vowels because that helps with the placement of the consonants.

“It’s a challenge,” said Briggs, who also plays the game Words With Friends. “I like this because it is like a community. People can share their Wordle puzzle score on social media.”

Some people think they need to download an app to play. Wordle doesn’t require one. However, there is an app by that same name created by Steven Cravotta, an Atlanta native who lives in Santa Monica, Calif.

Five years ago, he launched a game where it gave a player five letters to make a word. There was a time limit. He hadn’t upgraded the app in years, but noticed recently it was being downloaded.

His app is free, but like other apps, it can make money via advertising, selling merchandise and in-app purchases.

“I logged onto my dashboard and saw an insane amount of traffic,” Cravotta said. “I figured it out when I googled ‘Wordle.’ So I reached out to Josh.”

Cravotta and Wardle talked and agreed to donate any profits to Boost Oakland, a no-cost tutoring and mentoring program for K-6 students in West Oakland, Calif. Since its inception in 1997, the program has served more than 2,000 students.

“Because it’s a word game, we thought it would be great to donate to a charity that focuses on literacy and youth,” said Cravotta, who also created Puff Count, an app to help people stop vaping.

Lauren Mabry of O’Hara initially thought she needed to download an app. She eventually found the link in a friend’s comment section on Facebook.

“It sparked my curiosity,” said Mabry, who plays on her smartphone. “I am really enjoying playing it. I am not sure how long I will play it, but I did send the link to other people to get them to play. My family has always loved playing word games from puzzles to Scrabble. I think brain exercises are important.”

Mabry said it is true that something such as a simple, random thing can become popular via social media as more people share it.

Rogers said being able to post a finished Wordle puzzle creates a competitive element. He said he might consider discussing the game as a topic in a class that deals with elements of language composing called digital media.

“As an English professor, I think about language as media for communication,” said Rogers, whose most recent book is Speculation: A Cultural History from Aristotle to AI. “When doing Wordle, it is also important to think about the placement of letters from what you know of the English language. There are constant vowel and consonant patterns. Not many words end in a K. It’s a process of elimination to narrow it down. If I am stumped, I will put my phone down and walk around to try and refresh my brain.”

Wordle uses a high level of cognitive function, according to Andrea Adolph of Harrison, who is director of academic affairs and associate professor of English and women’s gender, and sexuality studies at Penn State New Kensington.

“I was intrigued when I first saw it,” Adolph said. “I don’t play a lot of things, but I tend to like puzzle games and word games.”

She said Wordle posts are so ambiguous, which is one of the reasons she wanted to find out more. Adolph said she got her best score on Monday. She usually starts with two vowels and doesn’t typically use a word with a “B, P or N.”

“Then, I troubleshoot from there,” she said.

It’s not just word people who are playing Wordle.

Kurt Lindboom-Broberg, of Squirrel Hill, a lecturer in anatomy and physiology at Penn State New Kensington, is hooked. With his interest in science, he uses a technical approach and starts with a word with an E because it’s the most common letter in the English language.

He makes sure he doesn’t reuse a letter that the game tells him isn’t in the word, because then that’s a wasted opportunity.

With Wordle, a bigger picture is the importance of the “share” button. Being able to let others know about the game and by posting their results, it attracts more players.

He also said receiving an “immediate” result is satisfying and fits into part of what’s making the game go viral.

He said that one day last week, half of his social feed was filled with Wordle posts.

“They were really cryptic, so I had to find out what it all meant,” he said. “I appreciate words, even though they are not my specialty. The game has been a learning process.”

He said it’s something he can play alone or with his wife. He doesn’t have to spend a lot of time doing it, which seems like the antithesis of what other games do where one can spend hours playing.

“I don’t feel bad playing all day or spending my entire lunch hour playing a game,” he said. “Waiting for the new word of the day is part of the fun, too. Wordle makes me want to come back tomorrow and play again.” – The Tribune-Review, Greensburg/Tribune News Service

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