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Your Wordle strategy says a lot about how you see the world

Arielle Retting

There's a good chance you do not need a rundown of the basics of the online game Wordle. You have perhaps seen it appear in your Twitter timeline as cryptic posts from people you know, made up of little green, yellow and black boxes — these are people posting their results. If you ever played the board-and-peg game Mastermind as a kid, it's pretty much that, only with words, and while it's certainly not an idea no one has ever had, the implementation of it that has taken off in recent weeks has been pretty wild.

Here's the short version: You have six chances to guess a five-letter word. With each guess, the game tells you which letters are correct letters in the right spot (green squares), which letters are correct letters in the wrong spot (yellow squares) and which letters are not in the word at all (gray squares). For instance, if the word is LIGHT and you guess GLOAT, you will get yellow-yellow-gray-gray-green squares, showing you that the word has an L and a G, but not in those spots, and that it has a T at the end where you put it. A new game is released every day, so everybody is playing the same one at the same time.

It did not take long for me to conclude that Wordle is a metaphor for life, meaning that you can learn a lot about different ways to see the world from different ways to play Wordle. (If you are inclined to attribute this discovery on my part to prolonged social isolation along with seasonal madness as I stay inside my house to avoid breaking my kneecap while walking my dog across crusty snow and ice, I say: Stay out of my private thoughts, you.)

For one thing, there is easy mode, and there is hard mode. You switch between them by toggling a setting. The difference is that in hard mode, you have to incorporate the letters you've already gotten into your next guess, so that every guess could plausibly be right, based on what you know. This means, for instance, that if you guess RENTS on your first try and you learn that the first letter is indeed an R, then you can't guess BALMY on your next try just to see if you can nail down some more letters. You are constrained to guesses that include that R. If you post your results after playing in hard mode, they appear with a little asterisk. "This person played on HARD MODE," the game tells all your friends, just to make sure that they know without your having to communicate it to them. It is the humblebrag of Wordle.

But of course, you can choose to play in hard mode without switching the game to hard mode. You can play in hard mode on the honor system. This means that you will not get your little asterisk next to your results, but you will know you played on hard mode. You will know you carefully incorporated each piece of information into your next guess. As often happens in life, you are presented with a choice between telling everyone that you overcame an obstacle and smugly knowing and keeping to yourself the delicious knowledge that you overcame an obstacle. (Perhaps you can tell from this description which I prefer.)

James Doubek / NPR

There is also the matter of risk. The disadvantage of playing on easy mode is that if you make that leap from RENTS to BALMY with the information that the final word contains an R, you know that BALMY is not the final answer. You are knowingly giving up your opportunity to get the prized notification that you got the answer right in only two guesses, which is the smallest number that incorporates any skill. You are making a guess you already know is not going to turn all green and wiggle its letters up and down at you in excitement the way a correct guess will. If you are a person who always wants to keep the dream alive of that 2 score, then you want to go from RENTS to, say, ROYAL, because it could actually be ROYAL! You are flying without a net! ROYAL could be correct! But if you guess BALMY, you have a better shot at getting another letter to join that R — the better to position yourself for your third guess.

Would you rather play it safe and BALMY and be better equipped to avoid the difficult six-guess day or the dreaded didn't-even-get-it-on-the-sixth-guess day; or would you rather bet on yourself, on your capacity for glory, and fly Top Gun-style into battle with your ROYAL flag waving?

And how superstitious are you? Some people start every day with the very same first guess, usually something like CARTS or TRAIN that has a lot of common letters in it. Other people (I am one of these) take a different stab at it every day.

And do you think you need a method, a trick, a hack, a secret strategy? I am strangely preoccupied with last letters, myself. Once I have a sense of where one letter might be, it's surprising how often the possible last letters begin to contract in number. But in all likelihood, this is no better as a solution strategy than anything else; I just like it. Because it's how I do it. It's how I Wordle. And I've been Wordling for about ... two weeks. So clearly, I have massive experience to draw from.

All I'm saying is this: Your approach to this word game is critically important. Just critically important. At least that's what I tell myself when I wake up with insomnia at 4:30 in the morning and think, "Ooh, I can play Wordle!"

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Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.