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From Wordle to Crosswords: How Word Games Are Making a Modern Comeback

By Amina Birdi

 A look into the, perhaps unforeseen, rise in popularity for word games and crossword puzzles, and yet newspapers are still on the decline? 

With Wordle past its 900th daily puzzle, and an ever-increasing number of similar games at our fingertips, it seems word games and puzzles are back in fashion. Crosswords, which have been a feature of newspapers for over a century, are now experiencing a revival among young people online despite the declining sales of print newspapers.

Though online word games such as Words with Friends have enjoyed moderately sized player bases for years, this trend began with Wordle’s unexpected explosion in popularity in late 2021. Originally created by software engineer Josh Wardle, with the help of his partner Palak Shah in reviewing the word list, Wordle is a simple word-guessing game similar to the board game Mastermind. The player guesses various five-letter words, and the letters are then colour coded to show which are correct and in the right position. It went viral soon after publication in October 2021 as players began sharing scores on social media, and was quickly purchased by the New York Times (NYT). Despite fears around losing the game to a paywall, it remains free to access alongside the ‘Mini’ crossword and other new games.

It is unclear precisely how many people still play Wordle, but in April 2023 the head of games at the NYT stated that there were still tens of millions of players per week. The NYT is also regularly adding new games such as Connections and Letter Boxd to renew interest. So why have online word games become so ubiquitous while the physical newspapers that originally popularised these games are becoming less and less popular, especially among younger people?

Word games offer entertainment and relaxation, but some research suggests that they can also have health benefits. A 2023 study of older people in Australia found that crosswords and puzzles, along with other activities such as playing chess, are associated with a reduced risk of dementia. Additionally, games like La Palabra del Día – Spanish Wordle – can also be a great language learning tool, not only teaching new words but also encouraging us to think more about synonyms, different verb forms and other important aspects of improving at a language.

Unlike many other online games and social media platforms that are designed to take up as much of our time and attention as possible, crosswords and similar games usually have only one puzzle per day. The NYT Wordle, Connections and Mini usually take no longer than five minutes to play, so are well suited to a quick bit of entertainment during breakfast or between lectures. (The Mini typically has around eight clues, and the objective is to solve it as fast as possible.) Other games such as the Guardian quick crossword take slightly longer to solve a full crossword puzzle, but still don’t demand hours of time from students’ busy schedules. 

Of course, word games can still consume huge amounts of our time, especially with so many options available  There are even a handful of TikTok accounts and YouTube channels dedicated to breaking down and explaining cryptic crossword clues, or simply watching others solve puzzles. This helps make the games feel more accessible and can encourage people to give them a go, when crosswords are sometimes viewed as nerdy and difficult, and cryptics, in particular, are seen as impenetrable.

The social aspect of these games is also a significant part of their charm. A simple, instantly recognisable emoji format allows players to share their Connections and Wordle scores to friends and on social media without spoiling the game for others. For some people, it has become a long-standing daily routine to complete the puzzles then send the scores with friends or family. In 2022, a woman was even saved from a hostage situation by Wordle’s score sharing mechanism, as her daughter became suspicious when she did not text her score when she was locked in a basement. Furthermore, solving puzzles together and finding out other people’s strategies or favourite WORDLE starting words is a fun and light-hearted way to spend time with friends or get to know someone. 

For a relatively simple game, WORDLE has inspired a huge amount of creativity, with the online community constantly producing new and inventive spin-offs. Dordle, ‘Quordle’ and ‘Sedecordle’ games involve guessing multiple words in parallel, in ‘Antiwordle’ the player tries to avoid guessing the word for as long as possible, and there are even many ‘Heardle’ games, where players attempt to recognise a song from a certain decade, genre or artist after hearing the shortest possible clip. These word games are endlessly adaptable, letting us tailor them to our current tastes and interests and create something new and exciting, while keeping the original enriching and relaxing puzzle aspect of the game. So perhaps word games have endured because they are adaptable enough to remain fresh and interesting while still maintaining their original charm, and they can be as educational or social as we want to make them.  


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