Are the people angry with the New York Times for ‘ruining’ Wordle okay?

Misplaced fury at viral game’s new owners is a pandemic side-effect few saw coming

Are the people angry with the New York Times for "ruining" Wordle okay?

Since the news group acquired the once-a-day online word game from creator Josh Wardle in a "low seven-figure" deal, anticipatory grievances that this marked an end to all our fun began to spread; its tone veering from comic despair to what seems like genuine annoyance, even fury.

The Old Gray Lady has been newly reinvented as the Big Bad of fleeting online amusement for people who seem to really care if it takes them four attempts instead of three to crack a five-letter word, and have a worrying tendency to report five or the maximum six tries in language that might otherwise be used to describe a near-death experience.

If, for some unconscionable reason, a Wordle fail occurs, palpable ire is now trained on faceless Manhattan puzzle supremos, charged with inflicting the greatest miscarriage of justice on the public since Mr Blobby beat Take That to the Christmas number one, and that one was actually the public’s fault.


Imagine the sort of four-letter word you’re not allowed use in Wordle, make it plural, and that’s the gist of the anti-NYT feeling.

The faceless Manhattan puzzle supremos have yet to even lumber Wordle with advertising or take it behind a pesky paywall in a nefarious bid to reach its new subscriber target of 15 million, but the narrative is already thriving that the company has mucked up the game by intentionally making it harder, choosing words that are too obscure or, conversely, too basic and just generally being New York Times-y about it.

It’s not true. The solutions are still chosen from the original word list devised by Wardle and his girlfriend Palak Shah. The NYT has not added any to deliberately fox players, it has only removed a clutch of answers it felt were offensive or related to offensive topics (“wench”, “slave”, “lynch”) and about two-dozen possible guesses, including some toughies.

And yet the suggestive power of its old-school intellectual font combined with a run of bad luck for some players has been enough to foster the nerdiest and lowest-level of conspiracy theories.

This can’t, deep down, be about a word game, can it? Some other fragility is behind this Wordle-weariness, right?

Hmm, let’s see, what intense, long-running crisis could have provided the perfect petri-dish conditions to cultivate a brittle public? Could it, by any chance, be a five-letter word beginning with C?

Treat culture

The joy of Wordle is that it brought novelty and a sense of achievement – two things in short supply for many during the pandemic – into our stalled lives. Playing it became part of the array of treats and indulgences that we armoured ourselves with in deserved self-compensation for the unsustainable level of Covid-stress we have been living with for almost two years.

If we make a stupid mistake on it, it’s ultimately inconsequential, no matter how much wailing we are prone to in the recrimination-filled aftermath.

For some, the pleasure lies in showing Twitter followers how they fared, using the spoiler-free sharing function – harmless connections to make in a world of harmful ones. For others, elevating the game to the important position of first thing they do each morning – postponing encounters with dismal threads about virus mutations – is the real tonic.

So when I ask if the people angry with the New York Times for “ruining” Wordle are okay, I don’t mean this facetiously. I think the answer is no, at least to the extent that none of us are.

We’re primed to expect everything will go wrong, because each miserable wave of the pandemic has reinforced the feeling that this is rational. Wordle, which is easier than it first appears, gave us a rare winning streak. How dare the New York Times take our toy away?

Luckily, nobody needs to be Wordle-dependent for kicks. Since this craze took off in the dead period between Christmas and New Year, web browsers have abounded with games inspired by its success, from straight-up clones to Worldle (geography), Nerdle (maths) and the brain-frying crack-cocaine of Wordle-esque games, Quordle.

If you haven’t already tried Quordle, please read my remaining paragraphs, feed any nearby kids, take out the bins and settle all your financial affairs, in that order, before doing so.

As somebody who spent two whole winters lapping up cheap compliments like "impressive!" and "nice!" from the Wordscapes app (owned by aptly named casual mobile game developer PeopleFun) and always has at least four moves to make in the Scrabble-derived Words with Friends (part of the Zynga empire), I'm regularly served all manner of surreal advertisements between moves or rounds.

These ads, often for mobile games on the fringes of bad taste, make me wonder if I should just let those apps track me on my phone after all – my search history can hardly lead to anything odder popping up on my screen.

Seeing them also confirms that I am part of a casual mobile game economy that has been on total fire throughout the whole pandemic, and not just in this hesitant, extended endgame phase that has delivered Wordle mania.

Red-hot market

It is no accident that the wider gaming market, having notched up multiple hits in the Covid years, also got off to a blistering start to 2022 on the merger and acquisitions front.

The two deals that stand out are Microsoft offering $68.7 billion (€60.6bn) for video games giant Activision Blizzard, and Take-Two Interactive bidding $12.7 billion for Zynga, probably the best known casual games publisher and the company responsible for the Great Farmville Invasion of Facebook.

This is a red-hot sector in which Meta is quietly gaining traction, newbie Netflix fancies its chances and everybody is waiting to see what the likes of Sony and Amazon will do.

The NYT’s outlay on the humble Wordle is small change in a business rattling with money. And yet the explosion of the game exemplifies a fact that the industry knows will help it rake in even higher revenues: that millions of people who would never consider themselves “gamers” are precisely that. If they weren’t before the pandemic, they certainly are now.

The Wordle-weary NYT-haters groan “this is why we can’t have nice things”. But this is more pandemic talk. Nice things are everywhere, as long as enough of us pay for them.