Sunday Scaries

How to take advantage of Wordle’s best brain side-effect

Next time you feel guilty about making time for Wordle — don’t.

Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

What is six letters long and the hottest game about five-letter words? The answer is Wordle: A guessing game developed by software engineer Josh Wardle (you can see what he did there) and recently sold to The New York Times for “an undisclosed price in the low-seven figures.” In November, 90 people played Wordle. By January, there were more than two million Wordlers (not an official term, but it’s what I’m offering) attempting to determine the daily word.

Together, we rejoiced when we saw a green square and felt downcast when met with a line of gray tiles. Some people joked we’ve simply entered into the Wordle stage of the Covid-19 pandemic; much like the sourdough starters phase and the Tiger King phase, Wordle offers respite and distraction from a complicated world.

But unlike bread and big cats, Wordle tickles our brains in familiar and new ways: It’s a game that fosters social connections through simplicity and shareability. All games can do this, hypothetically. We tend to forget their power — until an exceedingly optimized game comes along.

Experts tell me that collective forgetting also plays a role both in our surprise at how Wordle became a phenomenon and how willing people are to play it every day. Games like Wordle can enhance feelings of social connectedness (or the experience of belonging to a group), but they also benefit “our mental health to be socially connected to others,” Rachel Kowert tells me. Because we’re living through a time of disconnection, Kowert says, these moments can feel more acute.

“We need a little escape to rejuvenate and relax our mind.”

Kowert is a research psychologist and the Research Director for Take This, the first mental health nonprofit to serve the gaming industry and the gaming community. She is also “very much on the Wordle bandwagon,” she says.

“It’s not frivolous to take those five minutes of the day to play Wordle,” Kowert says. “People think play is only important for children, but play is important throughout a lifespan.”

Play, she explains, offers stress relief and escape. People associate escapism with negativity, but “we need a little escape to rejuvenate and relax our mind,” Kowert says. “Then we can function at our highest capability.”

A look at the online game Wordle. STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Ultimately, “all games are social,” Kowert says. This is true even when the game is single-player, like Wordle. Through simple design, it’s easy to share your Wordle wins and losses. The user interface also lets you share how you came to determine the day’s word. Wordle’s design creates a “shared experience” you can use to engage others in conversation and build connections, Kowert says.

“I think people don’t give enough credit to all the games that can foster a level of connection,” Matthew Abbott, a licensed therapist, tells me.

“They’re a great starting point. Much like athletics or other hobbies, games can provide a chance to initiate conversation that, with a little bit of push and intentionality, can lead to building relationships.”

Abbott has studied this in the context of a different game, a table-top iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. Part of the reasoning behind this research is that scientists want to find new ways to treat people with social anxiety. Abbott and his colleagues were interested in whether or not games like Dungeons & Dragons might help meet this need. A 2021 study published in the journal Social Work with Groups describes their success: In a therapeutic setting, playing the game for a year resulted in increased confidence in social situations, especially when it came to navigating personal boundaries or making mistakes.

A 2019 game of Dungeons & Dragons played in Hungtington, New York. Steve Pfost/Newsday RM via Getty Images

“All the participants [originally] shared that interpersonal relationships, or just friendships in general, caused a great deal of anxiety,” Abbott says.

“And even though vulnerability or open communication felt daunting or scary to them, they felt this experience helped them feel safe in a therapeutic context. They became better at navigating disagreements, conflict, and awkward moments — instead of shying away from them, they could use opportunities in the game to talk about and explore those things.”

Feeling a part of a group fosters interpersonal growth. Similarly positive results have been found in other studies related to games: Video games, for example, may provide emotional benefits and access to social support across ages. In turn, researchers are especially interested in games that promote social connectedness among older adults, who are at an increased risk of loneliness and social isolation.

Social connectedness is critical for mental and physical health and can even help you live longer.

It’s something to consider when you see naysayers roll their eyes at people who share their Wordle scores on social media or question why a powerful media company would spend more than a million dollars on a game. Games are fun, and games are powerful. People, hungry for connections, will be drawn to play — and those who stand to benefit economically from that natural drive know it.

Next time you feel guilty about making time for Wordle — don’t. Play the game. Even better, play another game, too (Kowert recommends Animal Crossing and the indie offering Kind Words). Find people to talk with about the game, and you may be better for it.