A look at the (word) games people play
Unless you’ve been hibernating for the past few months, you’ve no doubt heard of the latest word game craze called Wordle. I say ‘the most recent’ because there have been a few over the last century and, as you might expect, we’re going to look at some of the more important ones today.
“FUN’S Word-Cross Puzzle,” which debuted in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper in late 1913, seems like a good place to start. Originally conceived as a largely solitary endeavor, crossword solving became serious competition when New York Times puzzle master Will Shortz launched the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1978.
In 1933, Alfred Butts, an unemployed architect in Poughkeepsie, New York, came up with a landmark version of the crossword puzzle, which he called Lexico. By the time it really took off in 1953, the game was called Scrabble and it was launched. The North American version of Scrabble is manufactured by the Milton Bradley division of Hasbro and uses Merriam-Webster’s “Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary” in sanctioned events.
In 2011, when his problems were far less serious, actor Alec Baldwin was kicked off an American Airlines flight after he refused to quit his game of Words With Friends (WWF) at the request of a flight attendant.
A johnny-come-latent, WWF is a free online multiplayer game that looks and plays a lot like Scrabble, but includes a lot more chances for two- and three-letter word scores. (Its website, wordswithfriends.com, says the game is “similar to other classic board games.”)
Baldwin’s devotion to Words With Friends was such that its creator, Zynga, asked him to be a “brand ambassador” for the game’s 10th anniversary in 2019. Of course, he said “YES.”
And now we have Wordle, which was created by Brooklyn software engineer Josh Wardle for his wife, who loves word games. The online game gives players six chances to guess what the five-letter word of the day is. With each guess, the game gives you clues by turning a letter in your guess red if it matches the same letter in the same place in the secret word, or gold if a letter in your guess is in the secret word but in the wrong place. In the last two months of last year, the number of people playing Wordle rose from 90 a day to 300,000, making it the latest word game craze.
Where is it? In fact, Wordle is very similar to Lingo, a British game show that originally aired briefly on ITV in 1988. The main difference is that in the Lingo program contestants were given an opening hint, whereas Wordle players are completely on their own.
I remember playing Lingo about a year ago after a colleague discovered it. Being a word guy, I was pretty good at it and thought it was a fun game, then quickly forgot about it. Wordle is therefore not the first game of its kind. It’s not even the second.
Ask Steven Cravotta, who created the Wordle app! (with an exclamation mark) five years ago, when he was a teenager. When downloads of the app, which gives users 12 seconds to form a word from four scrambled letters, recently skyrocketed from 10 a day to 40,000, Cravotta scoured the internet to find out what was going on. , according to the Wall Street Journal.
It turned out that people were downloading his app thinking it was the hot new game everyone was rushing to. (Wordle is free to play its one game a day and has no app.) So far, Cravotta has earned a few thousand dollars from these erroneous downloads. He says he’s not bothered by the coincidence of the names of the games and is considering donating his small windfall to charity.
Lewiston’s Jim Witherell is a writer and lover of words whose works include ‘LL Bean: The Man and His Company’ and ‘Ed Muskie: Made in Maine’. He can be reached at [email protected]