On March 23, Sam Ezersky took to Twitter and posted an update that would strike terror in the hearts of his 22,000 followers.
“No no no … there couldn’t possibly be a Spelling Bee scheduled with a Z as the center letter … right?”
Ezersky, 26, is the editor of Spelling Bee, the other popular, daily online word game hosted by the New York Times. The game, introduced in 2018 as a breezier, more accessible accompaniment to the Times crosswords, presents seven letters arranged in a honeycomb shape. As with Boggle or Bananagrams, the objective is to make as many words out of those letters as possible, always using the letter at the honeycomb’s center. So compared with others, a z-centered puzzle would be — forgiveness, please — a doozy. I play Spelling Bee most days, and I gasped “Oh, Lord” audibly when I read the tweet on a crowded commuter train.
The replies were a mix of faux outrage, trepidation, cheeky wordplay, and a palpable sense of “game on.” “No! Bad Sam! No!” tweeted one user. “So you’re building a buzz, is what you’re saying,” quipped another. “I’ve been waiting! Also X sometime,” one requested.
Such online chatter is integral to the Spelling Bee experience. That’s doubly true when it comes to Wordle, the guess-a-word game created by Brooklyn software developer Josh Wardle in 2021. The game, which gives players six tries to solve for a five-letter word each day, quickly grew from 90 daily users to about 2 million before it was acquired by the Times in February 2022. According to a May earnings report, the game has been responsible for drawing “tens of millions” of new users to the Times in the months since. People post their Wordle scores as routinely as they chat about weather; my office has a Slack channel dedicated to it. The day’s puzzle trends frequently on Twitter, especially if the answer is difficult. There have been bootleg variations riffing on everything from geography to Taylor Swift lyrics, thinkpieces and memes dedicated to the phenomenon, even knitting patterns appropriating its yellow-and-green square design. Celia Pearce, a professor of game design at Northeastern University, calls Wordle the “binge-streaming” of the game world; in the manner of a beloved TV show, people are proudly obsessed with discussing it.
Wordle might be the most extreme example, but it’s part of an explosion of word games that have flourished on mobile devices, reaching new heights of popularity and cultural relevance. Words With Friends, an app-based Scrabble knockoff, became a phenomenon in the early aughts. Wordscapes, an app-based puzzle game released in 2017, is routinely among the top-selling games for Apple and Android devices. The vast online universe of word-related games ranges from PuzzleJuice (a mashup of Tetris and a word search) to Letter Boxed (another Times game, in which the object is to use up all given letters to create words in the fewest turns) and Word Crush (Candy Crush, with letters).
Word play, in analog form, has been around forever. Crosswords have been a staple in newspapers since an initial craze in the 1900s; Scrabble, whose layout was inspired by those early newspaper crosswords, is 84 years old. But as versions of those games migrated to smartphone apps, their social dimensions broadened dramatically. What were once solitary pursuits, or discrete events experienced among a handful of people, have now become community sharing points. Even crosswords, traditionally a personal challenge, are suddenly shared games: On apps, players can compete against each other to solve a given puzzle fastest; people who want to improve their skills can watch other crossword solvers on the social gaming platform Twitch.
“Our job was making toilet games. There’s the time limit, and if you can play it before you’re done, it’s a good game. Wordle has that characteristic.”Paul Bettner, co-creator of Words With Friends
That sense of community is what word games foster especially well. Many editors and designers of word-based games say the social aspect is as important as the puzzle itself. They attribute part of the games’ popularity to a desire to share in something positive in a time when so little of what we collectively experience is hopeful. (Ezersky notes that Spelling Bee’s popularity soared in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.) And their appeal goes even deeper, developers and language experts say. Thanks to their ease of use, word games can facilitate conversations across demographics and generations. They can even create a lighthearted space for discourse about inclusivity, multiculturalism, and the evolution of language. It’s hard to converse in a straightforward way sometimes — but in their own small way, these games can make talking to each other easier.
When Wordle started to blow up, Paul Bettner — the co-creator, with his brother, of Words With Friends — couldn’t help but chuckle. “It was very déjà vu, I’ll tell you that,” he says.
Looking back, the frenzy around that game at its peak feels like a warmup for the Wordle craze. Musician John Mayer tweeted about it. Alec Baldwin caused a tabloid news frenzy when he got kicked off a flight for refusing to stop playing the game and turn off his phone. Hasbro manufactured a physical board game. The Bettners sold Words With Friends and the rest of their startup, Newtoy, to gaming company Zynga for $180 million in 2010; today, there are more than 200 million registered Words With Friends accounts.
Bettner says they would never have had that much success with a game that didn’t focus on words. He would know; they tried. Their company’s initial goal, Bettner says, was simply to create a hit game for the then-new iPhone. “We came up with this idea of replicating the feeling of sitting around a table, playing board games with our family,” he remembers. They put together a list of classic turn-based games to reinterpret for mobile, aiming to mimic the asynchronous-yet-intimate feeling of text messaging. They tried Pictionary, chess, and simple matching games.
“Every one of those games that wasn’t a word game was fundamentally less compelling,” he says. “We actually did chess first, and it was like this little blip. Then we did Words with Friends and it exploded.”
Why? First, Bettner says, the word game had essentially no learning curve. For non-gamers, playing on a console like Xbox or PlayStation felt like “learning a new musical instrument,” he says. But with Words With Friends, if you could tap on a screen, you already knew how to play. Second, and more crucially, he argues, Words With Friends allowed players’ personalities to come through over mobile gameplay in a way that other games didn’t.
“When you got that move from this other person in your life, you could feel them in the move. It was just enough to make it a social experience and not like you could have been playing a bot,” he says. “If you got a chess move, you’re like, ‘okay, whatever.’ But when you got that Words with Friends ping, it was like, ‘I can’t wait to see what my friend did. What word did they make?’”
Wordle, Bettner says, takes that personal connection to the next level. The game’s big sticky factor, he notes, is the “share” function, which lets players post their journeys toward finding that day’s word, via text or on social media, without actually giving away the answer. “You have the feeling of, ‘this is like my thumbprint that I’m putting out,’ that it took four tries or five tries or whatever,” he says.
Joel Fagliano, a puzzle editor at the Times who oversees the daily Mini crossword, says that personal dimension is elemental to the paper’s entire slate of word games. Under the paper’s “Wordplay” section, puzzlemakers and editors host daily forums, write puzzle-related columns, and encourage players to share their own experiences — a feature that, he says, is best suited to word games. “You can’t really talk about a Sudoku with someone else. Like, ‘Oh, that nine was crazy,’” he says. “It doesn’t work that way. Whereas the crossword clues evoke memories, stories, reactions — I hated this, I loved this.”
Rachel Fabi, who constructs crosswords and writes a thrice-weekly column about them for the Times, says her column has a hundred or so dedicated commenters who “very fiercely engage” with each other every day. While the commentary is robust, she says, it pales in comparison to the chatter generated by Ezersky and the daily Spelling Bee forums.
“People get a lot angrier at Sam than they do at the crosswords,” she says.
But “anger” is a relative term. For the most part — in contrast to much of the internet — there’s a lighthearted quality to the complaints. Indeed, as with Wordle, the discourse around Spelling Bee arguably is as much fun as the gameplay itself. Ezersky hand-curates the list of acceptable words for each day’s puzzle, and the “hive mind,” as he calls the Bee community, loves to argue with him about words he did or did not include, gripe about especially hard pangrams (top-point-getting words that contain all seven letters), and post screen shots of silly, obviously unacceptable finds like “badonkadonk,” “Gogurt,” and “Chewbacca.”
“I truly hoped that if the whole beehive typed Jumanji into the Spelling Bee today at the same time, we would escape this parallel universe,” tweeted one player in January, namechecking the 1995 Robin Williams movie and its recent remakes, “but alas, it was not to bee.”
The game has even reached the big leagues, so to speak. Ezersky is a big Baltimore Orioles fan, and at the start of the MLB season, Kevin Brown, the Orioles’ TV play-by-play announcer and a Spelling Bee player, tweeted a promise to include the daily pangrams into each of his broadcasts, starting with “vegetable” on Opening Day.
Ezersky says the online conversations around Spelling Bee started early on, and he knew the game was becoming a success when celebrities started tweeting about it. In early 2020, he neglected to include the word “clickbait” on a list. Among the many, many people who complained was comedian Steve Martin. “He’s like, ‘New York Times, you got to get out more,’” Ezersky remembers. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God, Steve Martin’s playing my Spelling Bee.’”
Much of the Spelling Bee chatter centers on what words the game will accept or not. Rather than use a set dictionary as the standard, Ezersky tries to limit the daily list to “everyday” words that most of the public would recognize. It makes for a better game — if the entire English language were in play, he argues, the game would be all but impossible to beat.
But that creates a lot of gray area, because everyone’s personal lexicon is different. A niche medical device might be an everyday word for a surgery technician, but unheard of for most players; elote, grilled Mexican corn, might rise to the level of a common word in San Antonio, but not in Minneapolis. “I had no idea starting out that this was going to be such a point of contention,” Ezersky says. “Everybody has their own bugaboos with the word list.” His own father texts him his personal complaints about the word list almost daily.
But unfamiliar words are also a gentle opportunity for education, or even the sharing of cultures. Bob De Schutter, a Northeastern University professor and game designer who is a non-native English speaker, keeps a log of the new words he has learned from Wordle. “Pilaf, a rice dish — I had never heard of that in Europe,” he says. “Bimah, B-I-M-A-H [a podium in a synagogue], is a word I guessed at some point that I had no idea existed.”
The argument over what counts as a “word” is part of the fun of word games writ large; Scrabble has always had a set protocol for players to challenge each other’s words. But the “word or not?” question is all the more interesting for the current crop of English-language word games, because English itself is changing and expanding more rapidly than ever, says Peter Sokolowski, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster.
“It used to be that informal language was not well represented in our dictionaries. The true slang really wasn’t there,” he says. That’s because slang was mostly spoken, he says, and dictionaries require written evidence to justify the inclusion of a new word.
But social media and texting constitute written media, he says. “So now we have this phenomenon where we see the informal language before we hear it — we have arguments about how to pronounce ‘GIF,’ for example. That’s turning language upside down and driving the creation of new vocabulary.”
“You can’t really talk about a Sudoku with someone else. Like, ‘Oh, that nine was crazy.’”Joel Fagliano, New York Times puzzle editor
That, in turn, makes Spelling Bee and its fellow word games even richer debate fodder on social media, in forums, and even in dedicated podcasts. It’s also had an impact on how the puzzles themselves are constructed. Fagliano says that in the online era, crossword puzzle clues have evolved to be less reliant on arcane trivia that might cater to a certain type of solver’s knowledge base, and more on clues that might have a verbal trick to them, or draw on a broader range of pop culture references.
“Historically, [there have been] things you just need to know in order to do a crossword,” he says. “You need to know a word like étui, or that Elvis Presley’s middle name is Aaron. That’s the sort of obscurity that we’re trying to reduce.”
The goal, Fagliano and other game designers say, is to be accessible to as broad a range of players as possible: easy to learn, hard to master. By definition, that makes these games appealing to people who might not traditionally have turned to multiplayer gaming. When Words With Friends emerged, Pearce says, there weren’t many casual multiplayer games available on mobile phones.
“If you wanted to play with other people, you had to go to some fantasy, Tolkien-esque thing and play for many, many hours,” she says. “Adult people who have children or are taking care of their parents or have multiple jobs do not have time … For them, these kind of bite-size niblets are a much more viable way to play, and having them on your phone makes them a lot more accessible.” (In terms of facilitating casual play, Bettner puts the idea more bluntly: “Our job was making toilet games. There’s the time limit, and if you can play it before you’re done, then it’s a good game. Wordle has that characteristic.”)
Wordle, in fact, has ridden that low barrier to entry to such ubiquity that even people’s reasons for not playing are ripe for conversation. Sokolowski has never solved a Wordle, and told me almost apologetically that he’s discovered through Wordle’s attendant frenzy that many in the dictionary business “just don’t” play word games. Pearce, active in the indie gaming design community, prefers the more obscure, weirder Puzzle Juice. Fagliano, to his great disappointment, can’t play anymore — when the Times acquired Wordle, he was charged with helping edit the six-year-long list of daily answers that came with it, effectively spoiling the game for himself in perpetuity.
Wordle’s broad appeal presents an opportunity for the gaming industry writ large — especially now that mobile phones have overtaken computers and consoles as the fastest-growing gaming platforms. Pearce says many game designers are now tapping into an older demographic that the industry has long overlooked. She notes that her father’s wife, in her 70s, has never touched a PlayStation or an Xbox, but plays games on her phone all the time.
“This is an audience that is almost entirely ignored by the video game industry,” Pearce says. “It is the largest demographic. It has the most disposable income and the most free time. So, they’re missing a huge market.”
Intentionally or not, she adds, the most popular online games have a more accessible design as well — including the most beloved word games. “All of these games have very giant letters, super easy to see. It’s kind of a weird ableist thing that people don’t realize: When you get to a certain age, you just can’t see tiny things anymore. My students never think about it. I was teaching mobile game design several years ago, and I kept saying, ‘You guys need to make these fonts bigger.’”
De Schutter, who has collaborated with AARP to research older gamers, has thought a lot about how he and other game designers can incorporate learnings about that group. “When I started interviewing 50-plus-year-olds, I found that many are looking for more than the cheap thrills that you often find with games,” he says. “They wanted games that were eudaimonic” — a Greek term for a type of contentment that’s achieved through having a meaningful purpose.
“I think what we’re going to see is games that aren’t just about dexterity and reaction speed — whether it’s making a tactical game more turn-based or having ways to slow things down,” he continues. “Because once you’re past 25, your reaction speeds drop. So [you want] more problem solving, language, skills that require a little bit more thought.”
Word games meet those needs, but have an emotional payoff, too, he thinks — something that enhances their broad appeal. “You can be working your butt off or have a very frustrating day or whatever and you do a little Wordle, and you feel good about yourself. I think Wordle has a lot of longevity to it. I could still see people 10 years down the road [playing] Wordle. It’s just super fun, and it’s something that everybody can play.”
To that end, rich stories of personal connection have stemmed from many of the most prevalent word games. During the height of the pandemic, when international travel was all but impossible, Ezersky received a message from one U.S-based fan thanking him because Spelling Bee had helped her feel close with her parents in India. During Words With Friends’ heyday, there were more than a few reports of couples getting married after meeting through the game’s “random opponent” feature, which matches strangers together for matchups. Wordle has even been credited with saving lives. This past February, a California woman called the police to check on her 80-year-old mother in Illinois when, uncharacteristically, she failed to text her daily Wordle score; it turned out the mother was being held hostage by a mentally disturbed stranger in her own home.
My own play hasn’t yielded anything so dramatic, but it’s a good excuse to nudge the people I love, a small way to let them know I’m thinking about them. My mom and I text each other our Wordle scores. My childhood best friend, Jessica, and I message each other screen shots of rejected Spelling Bee words whenever they make us laugh (most of those shouldn’t be printed here).
And with the rest of the Hive Mind, we both eagerly awaited the “Z” Spelling Bee, which finally came out on April 6. I got one panagram, “razoring,” but missed the other, “organizing.” There was no “P” in the puzzle, so “pizza” didn’t make an appearance, but don’t think I didn’t try “zaza.” Alas, it wasn’t a word.