From Wordle to Scrabble: Do word games bring out the worst in people?

The digital puzzles editor at ‘The New York Times’ often receives insults and threats over the words he chooses for the daily riddles

The Wordle word game has a passionate group of followers, who aren't afraid to express their disapproval of the words chosen.
The Wordle word game has a passionate group of followers, who aren't afraid to express their disapproval of the words chosen.Mike Kemp (Getty Images)

Ever since Sam Ezersky, digital puzzles editor at The New York Times, took on the responsibility of choosing the words for the game Wordle, which is played by several million people worldwide, he has been inundated with hate mail. Every day, the 27-year-old engineer is insulted and threatened for a seemingly trivial matter: words. He had no choice but to close his Twitter account. He talks about the experience in an interview published in The Economist, in which he admitted that while he is not a “true word person” (he studied mathematics and engineering); he accepted the position in the puzzle section, because he loves solving problems.

Every day, after the publication of the Spelling Bee – one of the newspaper’s greatest hits – Ezersky’s department also receives dozens of emails; readers complain about words being too obscure, too British or too ambiguous. Several Twitter accounts have been created just to troll him. When the puzzle did not accept the word “raffia” someone sent fibers of that material to the newsroom, accompanied by a slight threat.

Josh Wardle, the creator of Wordle – the name of the game is a nod to his last name – is also surprised by the passion of the players. Wardle, an engineer for the online community Reddit, created the game for his partner, who loves word games, during the Covid-19 lockdown. Last February, he sold it to The New York Times for a seven-digit figure. At the time, British players complained of a “cultural imperialism” bias in the criteria applied for choosing words, and rumors spread that the New York newspaper would make the game more difficult or put it behind a paywall. “It going viral doesn’t feel great, to be honest. I feel a sense of responsibility for the players. I feel I really owe it to them to keep things running and make sure everything’s working correctly,” he told The Guardian in an interview after the sale. “It’s not my full-time job and I don’t want it to become a source of stress and anxiety in my life.”

The fervor of the Wordle players – especially the losers – is so great that it has spawned multiple theories about the passions that a game that is played in private, but whose results are displayed on social media, can arouse. Aggressiveness is not what one would expect from lovers of words, but a 2015 investigation carried out by the New York University on Scrabble already revealed that those who play were not exactly pensive intellectuals – or at least they did not always behave that way when they played. The work, carried out by Allison Parrish, a professor in the Department of Telecommunications, set out to find out why Scrabble “turns people into assholes.”

Her research was based on the bad experiences with her own family. In the study’s conclusions, Parrish wrote that being good at Scrabble isn’t the same as excelling at poker or football, because Scrabble’s key skills, having a rich vocabulary and spelling correctly, are tied up with social status far more than other skills. “A good move in Scrabble is saying more than ‘I’m a better Scrabble player than you.’ It’s saying: ‘I’m a better person than you. I’m more literate than you.’” This is, she wrote, the source of the bad feelings one gets when playing Scrabble. Word games go straight for the player’s ego.

For Douglas Gentile, professor of psychology at Iowa State University, Wordle, with approximately three million daily users just in the United States and available in several languages, is the perfect game because it fulfills the ABC of human needs: A is autonomy (we all want to feel in control of situations), B, the need to belong to a group and feel connected to other people and C, competence; we want to be good at something. The fact that it is also a short game (it only takes three minutes off your day) spares you the guilt of feeling not productive. So, losing in the perfect game puts us in a very bad mood. If we can also blame a third party, be it the developer of the puzzle or the person in charge of The New York Times, it’s even better for our self-esteem.

Kelli Dunlap, clinical psychologist and professor of game design at the American University, explains that games allow us to overcome surmountable obstacles. If they are well designed, they present challenges that strike an optimal balance between what is too easy and too difficult. However, if a player feels that this balance is broken and the game is being unfair, they can feel frustrated and angry. The expert believes that, in the case of Wordle, aggressiveness has more to do with poor management of emotions or the lack of ability of the players than with the design of the game itself. After all, not many games intentionally try to annoy the players; even the most difficult ones usually provide opportunities to learn, improve and succeed.

Professor Gentile goes back to the ABC of human needs, which is, he points out, the basis of a theory of human motivation called self-determination. Everything that does not give us autonomy, a sense of competence and connection with other people will not be enjoyable in the long term. We dislike doing things that frustrate any of these three needs. Perhaps, he concludes, it would be necessary to find out which one is failing when people go into a rage over a simple word game.

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