If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything it’s that, given large stretches of time confined mostly inside our homes, we will eventually experience the desire to do something besides binge-watch television. Many people have long been daily devotees of crossword puzzles and games, but others turned to them as a comforting distraction from a newly unpredictable world. In lockdown, suddenly every night could be game night. But as the pandemic stretched on and evolved, and we started to move outside our homes a little more, it seemed like our fascination with puzzles and games was beginning to wane once more.
Then, last October, Wordle appeared on the internet, about as quietly as anything can nowadays. This daily word game became a viral puzzle phenomenon a couple of months later when the game’s creator, Josh Wardle, added a feature that allowed players to share their results without spoilers. The now-ubiquitous array of gray, yellow, and green squares began popping up all over Twitter along with bemused tweets asking what it was all about. Some have pointed out Wordle’s similarities to the board game Mastermind (itself a craze in the 1970s), a British game show called Lingo, and even a game-within-a-game in Fallout 3, but it’s hardly the first puzzle to build on its predecessors. Yet, Wordle’s simple, free, browser-based interface is an outlier in the world of gaming apps. A large part of this particular game’s popularity is the way that it creates a feeling of camaraderie. Together, we ride the high of guessing the word in two or three tries one day, but despair the next when we get our comeuppance if it takes five or six attempts. Or, worse still, we experience the ultimate letdown of not solving a Wordle and having to wait a whole day for the next six rows of empty squares.
Word games, puzzles, and board games may have regained popularity during the pandemic, but all have brought us together many times before. In Wordle’s case, the simplicity of it reminds us of the goodness of our shared humanity, even as we continue living with a global pandemic. Join me on a journey across history and down a rabbit hole of stories about the magic of puzzles and games.
Inside Japan’s Puzzle Palace (Martin Fackler, The New York Times, March 2007)
The first puzzle craze that I vividly remember is Sudoku. A number puzzle, it became popular in America around 2005, just before smartphones and apps took over. I began to notice Sudoku paperbacks taking up space at bookstores and on newsstands right next to the crossword puzzles, word search games, and other old reliables. Suddenly everybody was taking pencil to paper, trying to fill in nine-by-nine grids with the numbers one through nine without repeating any of them in a row, column, or square. Thinking back, it’s almost baffling that a puzzle like this took off, but the element of unpredictability is precisely what makes puzzles so fun. Maki Kaji, the former president of Nikoli, a Japanese puzzle publishing company, first popularized Sudoku in Japan and talks about the puzzle phenomenon in this 2007 interview. Kaji died in 2021, but his legacy can be found in the “democratization of puzzle invention” where anybody might capture our collective curiosity.
Sudoku’s popularity in the United States caught Mr. Kaji by such surprise that he did not try to get the trademark there until it was too late. As a result, Nikoli receives no royalties from sudoku-related sales overseas by other publishers. In hindsight, though, he now thinks that oversight was a brilliant mistake. The fact that no one controlled sudoku’s intellectual property rights let the game’s popularity grow unfettered, Mr. Kaji says. Nikoli does not plan to trademark other new games, either, in hopes this will also help them take off.
Puzzle Trouble: Women and Crosswords in the Age of Autofill (Anna Shechtman, The American Reader, August 2014)
Constructor Ben Tausig also explored the gender issue for The Hairpin in 2013: “The Crossword Puzzle: Where’d the Women Go?”
Anna Shechtman constructs crossword puzzles for The New Yorker, but in 2014 she was just getting her start working as an assistant to the puzzle titan himself, Will Shortz (puzzle editor for The New York Times), at his American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. There is still a gender disparity behind the grid, with more men than women constructing puzzles. Shechtman is currently writing a book that explores the history of women and crosswords alongside her own experiences as a cruciverbalist, or “a person skillful in creating or solving crossword puzzles.” After all, a woman, Margaret Farrar, was the first crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times. The paper’s current — and first — Editorial Director for Games, Everdeen Mason, is also a woman. Shechtman’s account for The American Reader gave me a new appreciation for everything that goes into constructing and solving crossword puzzles, and I’m really looking forward to reading her book.
A “pastime of privilege,” puzzle-making requires very specialized skills and offers very little compensation. In this sense, it’s remarkably well suited to the brogrammer culture skewered on shows like HBO’s Silicon Valley—spaces buzzing with mental agility and free-floating virginity. It’s not that women aren’t up to the challenge of tech-based constructing (Bennett and Reynaldo also use software to make crosswords), but the decline in female puzzle-makers may be a symptom of the aesthetics of tech culture, not the technology itself.
Game On: Why We Are Playing Board Games More Than Ever (Lennlee Keep, PBS Independent Lens, August 2019)
One of my favorite games is Carcassonne, a Eurogame involving tiles that are used to map out a landscape and a curious little game piece called a meeple. Eurogames differ from their American counterparts since gameplay is often based on constructing the board from individual pieces, with a player’s final score as the objective, rather than eliminating players to arrive at a winner. Role-play and strategy games like Dungeons & Dragons have also experienced a surge in popularity in recent years. Lennlee Keep’s delightful essay explores a variety of board games and what keeps us in their thrall.
For the first time, I had something that my big brother needed. I’d never felt so powerful. The cards were stacked in my favor and I knew what I wanted: his allowance, and not just a dime or a quarter, I wanted the entire dollar. It was agreed that I would play a minimum of two hours per day and his allowance was mine. There were “no take-backs.”
A Brief History of Word Games (Adrienne Raphel, The Paris Review, March 2020)
You might be surprised to learn that the crossword puzzle wasn’t invented until 1913. I was even more shocked to learn that the word search puzzle first appeared in 1968. I love a good word search, and I’ve been known to complete the crossword puzzle in the back of People magazine a time or two. Yes, both of those are very low stakes as far as word puzzles go, but there’s the crux of Wordle’s genius. Aficionados of the notoriously challenging New York Times crossword puzzle aren’t at any more of an advantage than the rest of us when faced with the utter blankness of the Wordle world. In her post for The Paris Review blog, Adrienne Raphel gives us a peek into the deeper historical origins of crossword clues and the riddles that keep us guessing. She also wrote a book about cruciverbalists.
The ancient Romans loved word puzzles, beginning with their city’s name: the inverse of ROMA, to the delight of all Latin lovers, is AMOR. The first known word square, the so-called Sator Square, was found in the ruins of Pompeii. The Sator Square (or the Rotas Square, depending on which way you read it; word order doesn’t matter in Latin) is a five-by-five, five-word Latin palindrome: SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS (“the farmer Arepo works a plow”).
What’s Behind the Pandemic Puzzle Craze? (Rebecca Bodenheimer, JSTOR Daily, December 2020)
In 2020, sales of jigsaw puzzles went up by as much as 400% after people began reaching for nondigital distractions to pass the time. Now that we’re almost three years into the pandemic and the world has opened up, we’re spending less time doing puzzles and more time revisiting previous pastimes. People couldn’t resist posting photos of their puzzles-in-progress on social media, though, and I miss seeing those bespoke glimpses of what people were up to. Bodenheimer’s JSTOR Daily post is a puzzle in itself, with links to further reading about the fascinating history of puzzle popularity.
A 2018 poll conducted on behalf of game company, Ravensburger, found that 59% of people surveyed found puzzling to be relaxing, and 47% felt it relieved stress. In other words, for many, puzzling has a calming effect. Unlike actual meditation, whose goal is to quiet the mind and be fully present in the body, working on puzzles involves active brain work, sometimes even strategy. Puzzling is engrossing because it taps into an ambition to challenge oneself and finish a project in order to feel a sense of accomplishment.
The Surprisingly Messy Culture Wars Within The New York Times Crossword Puzzle (Hallie Lieberman, Kotaku, January 2022)
Crossword puzzles are intrinsically tied to the language and culture surrounding their construction. Words that are now recognized as offensive or problematic are rejected by editors in the effort to keep the game both inclusive and fun. The New York Times created a diversity panel in 2019 to review its crossword puzzles and announced its Diverse Crossword Constructor Fellowship last month. Hallie Lieberman brings together some of the most well-known crossword constructors to share their thoughts on improving the game.
During the pandemic, [the crossword community has had] the same type of reckoning that we’ve had in the rest of American society…where we’re looking at representation, we’re looking at inclusion,” said Rebecca Neipris co-host of the Crossnerds podcast. “Hundreds of thousands of people are consuming this thing on a daily basis and paying for it. So you also have this responsibility to at least be aware of what it is that you’re feeding those people.
Wordle Founder Josh Wardle on Going Viral and What Comes Next (Ingrid Lunden and Amanda Silberling, TechCrunch, January 2022)
Spoiler alert: Sejal Dua hacks her way through Wordle at Towards Data Science.
As I was compiling this reading list, the news broke that The New York Times purchased Wordle. The acquisition makes sense considering the popularity of its crossword puzzle and Spelling Bee, a seven-letter word game that also gained popularity earlier in the pandemic. Although the Times stated that Wordle will “initially remain free,” you can go ahead and grab the game’s source code for yourself if you want to keep it that way. I can only imagine what it would be like to create a word game for personal enjoyment and then have to navigate it suddenly going viral. In this interview from a few weeks ago, Josh Wardle discusses his creative process and offers his thoughts about Wordle’s success.
With Wordle, actually, I kind of deliberately did what you’re not meant to do if growth is your goal. And bizarrely, I think, those things have led to growth. But obviously, a ton of it is luck, and being in the right place at the right time. I think people have an appetite for things that transparently don’t want anything from you. I think people quite like it that way, you know?
It’s hard for some families to see each other because of COVID, and sometimes it’s hard to come up with a topic of conversation. But Wordle is just such a low-effort way to check in, and sometimes you just post your result, sometimes you can respond to others’, but it’s this really comforting way of letting other people know that you’re thinking about them. It’s a shared experience.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands