A couple of hours after the New York Times announced on Monday that it had acquired the online word game known as Wordle, its inventor was still looking for the right word—this time, for his emotions.
“My biggest sense, actually, right now, isn’t joy. It’s relief,” Josh Wardle, who was paid “in the low seven figures” for the daily puzzle, told me by phone. It was our second conversation in as many days.
In the front seat of a running car the the day before (we were to talk in a park, but it was 25° F) Wardle had betrayed no hint of any impending windfall. In fact, much of the conversation was about how his invention—a simple game that gives a player six chances to guess a five-letter word—demonstrated that the internet could be about something other than money.
“I made something,” he explained, “that I would like to exist on the internet.”
Other people liked it too. One way to measure the popularity of Wordle is the number of people playing it each day. On Nov 1, there were 90. By the end of December, there were 300,000. During the month of January, the number swelled beyond 10 million, that kind of acceleration that creates its own weather. The opening sketch of the Jan. 22 Saturday Night Live featured an impersonation of former President Donald Trump playing Wordle.
But when we met, Wardle had not wanted his photo taken, and was clearly worn down by the attention tsunami that a few days earlier had swept across the Great Plains to engulf a Canadian industrial equipment salesman with the same name: “Regina man mistaken for inventor of Wordle fielding flood of emails, CNN interview request” was the headline on a CBC story. “I think if I was actually the creator,” the Canadian Josh Wardle observed to a reporter, “I’d be quite exhausted.”
He was. “My inbox is destroyed,” Wardle said slowly, staring through the windshield.
He grew up on an organic livestock farm in southern Wales, and came to the States for an MFA in digital art at the University of Oregon, then found work in Silicon Valley. While at Reddit, he created a couple of projects that, by inviting people to take part in something entirely new, doubled as case studies in a question that lately pre-occupies much of the world: How does the design of a site steer the behavior of the people coming to it?
Wordle provides one answer. It was fashioned for an audience of one: his partner, Palak Shah, because she likes word games. It went out into the larger world almost as a whim, without any of the things that could generate money—like ads, or “push” notifications to encourage you to hurry back or linger. You can play only once a day, and that play benefits only you, or whoever you want to talk about it with. Far from producing income, the game (at least until Jan. 31) was actually costing Wardle money, the roughly $100 a month required to keep it online. He seemed fine with that. And it seemed the most interesting aspect of what he was doing.
“That was never the goal, really, to make money,” he said in the car. “The goal was to make a game that my partner would enjoy playing. What’s interesting is, people ask me all the time about the monetization stuff. Like, ‘You could put ads on it, You could do premium.’ And I don’t know, maybe I’m an idiot. None of that really appeals to me. I think because I started with the intention of not doing it, it’s been easy to say no. If I’d been trying to make a viral game I think it would be very different.”
Those versions are all over the web, now thick with knock-offs. Wordle has existed in a different space, one generated by the delight of the people playing it. The source of that delight was, like the target word, not obvious but within reach. There had been other games based on five letters. Wordle’s appeal lay in a design that reflected the simplicity, or maybe purity of its intention.
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For a game played by one person, it has encouraged a fair amount of community, which is the part Wardle says has moved him. (“It has been incredible to watch a game bring so much joy to so many,” he said in a statement posted on Twitter after the sale.) For some reason, it first caught on in New Zealand, a small country where Twitter is a more intimate thing. It was a player there who came up with a way of sharing how well you did on a puzzle without revealing the target word. Wardle thanked her, turned it into a bit of code, and passed it on.
The game didn’t even have an app. When people searched for Wordle where apps are sold, they found one created by someone else, Steve Cravotta, who had used the name for a different game. When Cravaotta noticed the spike in purchases, rather than pocketing the money, he offered it to Wardle, who didn’t feel right about taking it either. Together, they decided it should go to Boost! West Oakland, a tutoring nonprofit where Shah had volunteered.
“I built a prototype of Wordle in, like, 2013,” Wardle says. “There were a couple of things wrong with it. You loaded up the game, and it picked a random word from the 13,000 that are five letters long. And it turns out in the English language, there are a lot of really, really out there words. And so that game was different. Like, brute force, you were trying a lot of guesses that weren’t words, which didn’t feel good to me.”
Shah actually winnowed he 13,000 down to the fraction regarded as commonly used. And in January 2021, during the long COVID-19 winter, Wardle revisited the project. Shah had been playing a lot of Spelling Bee, the New York Times word game. As a couple, they moved on to the Times crossword, and cryptic crosswords, where the clues are also puzzles. “So we were just playing a lot of word games,” he says. And it was like, Can I make a word game that she would enjoy that we would enjoy playing together?”
For a few months, they kept it to themselves and their families, then opened it to the public at powerlanguage.co.uk, a domain with an auspicious air.
“It’s my alias that I use online,” Wardle explains. “It comes from me and my friend fooling around in his backyard. We were young and dumb and the neighbor came over and shouted at us. What I thought he said was, “Don’t use that power language.” I think it was because we were swearing. Turns out in retrospect, I’m pretty sure he was saying “foul language.” I misheard it as “power language,” but I was so captivated by the idea that swearing would be called power language—the idea that it had this power—that I got caught up in it in a way that you do when you’re a teenager, these dumb things. So I bought a domain name. And, hey, if you’re going to release a game that goes viral, don’t put it on a website called powerlanguage dot co dot U.K. forward slash Wordle. I’ll tell you that for free. Everyone has to Google ‘wordle’ every day because no one can remember what the domain is.”
His Twitter handle, on the other hand, is @powerlanguish.
“That’s just, ‘powerlanguage’ was taken,” he says. “And I like words. And I thought, like power language, it kind of seems enigmatic and compelling, again, in a way that I probably wouldn’t choose now. But here we are.”
And where is that?
At the conclusion of an intriguing experiment. Wardle has escaped a juggernaut by surrendering his invention to the commercial side of the web. He speaks respectfully of the Times‘ approach to puzzles (its news release noted that it brought the world the Times crossword in 1942), and said that the company would keep Wordle in front of its paywall. The Times, however, added the word “initially” to that promise, because even though in SEC filings the company’s stated mission is to operate “as an independent newspaper, entirely fearless, free of ulterior influence and unselfishly devoted to the public welfare,” it needs money to do that. Its Games subscription has 1 million digital subscribers, paying $5 a month, or $40 a year.
This frees Wardle to concentrate on his day job as a software engineer—and return to the other internet, the edges of which glimmers from his home page and Twitter feed. It seems lighter and more airy than the one where we spend so much of our lives. Cartoon people frolic, and artists invent games for their sweethearts. At times, however, one web touches the other. You can witness this phenomenon in the YouTube video on Wardle’s site, which shows a talk he gave about some of his projects at Reddit.
The most fascinating was called simply Place. It was a blank canvas visitors were invited to fill, one pixel of color at a time. But people had to take turns. If you laid down a tile, you had to wait five minutes before you could lay down another one. The first image that took shape looked like a drawing from a bathroom wall. It was a phallus. Wardle began to despair. “One of the issues we face is around collaboration,” he says in the YouTube after-action report. “A small group of toxic people can ruin the experience for the many.”
Then he realized that the people arriving at Place were being shown only what had already been started. He tweaked the code to bring newcomers to a stretch of virgin canvas, where they could start fresh. And they did. Three days later, after a million people had placed 16 million tiles, Place ended up as a striking mosaic.
Staring out the windshield, Wardle explains:
“So previously, when everyone was standing in the center of the canvas, they’d see this big phallic thing emerging, and they would contribute to it. When we started them in a blank area of the canvas, I think it maybe challenged them to think about what they would like to create, right, it wasn’t just ‘add to the first thing that was there.’
“And I’m, like, wary of trying to extrapolate that out to make a statement about what tech companies should or shouldn’t be doing, right? It was an art project on the internet. But I think for me personally, it was like really useful to think about what responsibility you have when you create a space for people interact. You actually make a ton of decisions that impact the way that they interact with one another. And humans interacting is very, very complicated. Humans are very, very complicated.”
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