Why Our Brains Love Wordle: A Game of Challenge, Connection, and Dopamine

drawing of a yellow and green heart amidst many gridded squares

Verywell / Nusha Ashajee

Key Takeaways

  • Wordle is a web-based puzzle game, whereby users get 6 tries to guess the 5-letter word answer.
  • This game became massively popular at the start of 2022, with millions of users around the world.
  • Wordle may provide a satisfying combination of problem-solving challenges and social connectivity with mass appeal.

Leslie Kung, a nonbinary Asian American writer based in Gurnee, Illinois, says, "Wordle is a word puzzle that doesn’t demand more. Unlike most app games today, Wordle is a website with only one word puzzle per day."

Since it keeps track of one's score but does not include any gimmicks, levels, or pay-to-play options, Leslie finds it simpler than crossword puzzles which were printed in the days of physical newspapers. And the fact that it's just one single straightforward daily puzzle is only a small part of its appeal.

Wordle challenges your brain, fosters community, and even provides a daily hit of dopamine triggered by a sense of personal achievement. And it's those little moments of being proud of our accomplishments—even if it's just due to a successful Wordle play—that are essential to our mental health during yet another grim covid winter.

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The Simple Joy of a Daily Word Puzzle

For Leslie, Wordle has become the pandemic survivor’s midnight nightcap, and sharing green and yellow colored squares with no context on social media platforms is the intrigue that draws more and more people in.

Having spawned countless whimsical parodies, including Sweardle and Lewdle, this word game is testing the vocabulary and patience of people from all walks of the internet at a time that has been challenging for many. 

Leslie says, "Every day, I rack my brain for words, and words that fit (“WHAT STARTS WITH ‘B’ AND ENDS IN ‘H,’ DEAR GOD, I ALREADY ELIMINATED MOST VOWELS!”), knowing others are hacking away at the same exact problem, and that some of us will fail to arrive at the answer."

With six tries, Leslie says that some will randomly pick the correct word as their starter and win the Wordle jackpot. "Unlike many things that are going wrong in the world, and where so many people are divided and running in completely different directions (unstaffed schools, mask mandates, quarantine periods, etc.), Wordle both unites and humbles us."

All in the space of five letters, Leslie notes how figuring out strategic starting words in Wordle fills the empty spaces of mindless doom scrolling. "It won’t take up all your time; after all, it’s only one word a day," they say.

Meaningful Social Experience

Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Florida, Matt Baldwin, PhD, says, "There are probably many reasons why Wordle has become so popular but I’ll touch on a couple that I think are important. For one, Wordle is a deeply social experience."

Baldwin notes, "When we experience something together, the feelings get amplified so when we have fun with Wordle, that feeling is amplified when we remember that we are playing with millions of people at the same time."

Having seen some individuals on social media who even discuss Wordle Discord and Slack groups, Baldwin highlights that people are playing with their friends and family, and discussing the experience on private messages while the rest of the world continues solving the puzzle.

Baldwin explains, "Research also suggests that people like having secret knowledge about the world; so when we share that, it's really meaningful! The whole experience has created a subtle, but clear, in-group."

By coming together around a common goal, Baldwin notes that research demonstrates how common goals create group cohesion. "The fact that we can share our experience on social media just seals the deal," he says.

Matt Baldwin, PhD

The other reason why Wordle is so popular is that it has the perfect combination of challenge, meaning, and insight. The words are common, but not too common. The number of guesses is just right.

— Matt Baldwin, PhD

Baldwin highlights, "The other reason why Wordle is so popular is that it has the perfect combination of challenge, meaning, and insight. The words are common, but not too common. The number of guesses is just right."

A 2022 study found that this "Aha!" experience of insight is not limited by cognitive load demands in the same way that analytical multi-step strategies require.This bodes well for Wordle meeting peoples' reduced levels of functioning when many minds may feel pushed to capacity.

With only one word per day, Baldwin notes, "We do not feel that the game asks too much of our time or attention. And because it is a shared experience, playing Wordle connects us with others."

In showing others that we are good group members, with a task that is optimally meaningful with the right amount of challenge and attention, Baldwin highlights how that task is almost immune to boredom.

Since the Wordle game is designed to slowly reveal clues to the user over the course of more tries, Baldwin notes how this increased sense of understanding, insight, and truth with each guess gives a sudden rush of insight, or fluency, and an “aha!” moment that is highly rewarding. 

Baldwin explains, "We’ve been living virtually for almost 3 years now. We are craving shared experience—something that brings us together. The simplicity and accessibility of Wordle means that most of us can share this."

As long as there is access to an internet connection and a couple of minutes, Baldwin notes that this experience can be shared. "The pandemic has caused such great harm, stress, and hardship to so many people and for some, it might be difficult to see beyond that," he says.

Baldwin highlights, "Something about Wordle reminds us that there is simple good still out there, and that we may be more similar than we are different. We may be starkly polarized on social issues and politics, but if we can all agree that Wordle is fun, maybe there is some hope."

A Reprieve from Pandemic Stress

Neuroscience coach and clinical social worker, Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, says, "Regardless of what side of the COVID experience you fall on, it’s safe to say that the past three years has changed something about the way we all experience life. For many, Wordle has provided an enjoyable way, that’s right at our fingertips, to escape from the noise."

Weaver explains, "The reality of the pandemic is it is an invisible enemy we are all trying to defend ourselves against. An enemy that permeates and makes every area of our life seem unstable, from relationships in our personal, professional, social, and financial lives."

For many, Weaver notes that Wordle may provide a reprieve from the stress and exhaustion that individuals feel from trying to figure out how to win this fight. "Wordle presents a challenge that our brain is motivated to solve. When we aren’t able to solve the challenge, we are given the answer and that aha moment brings calm to our stressed brain," she says.

Weaver highlights how babies need to be held to thrive and seniors need to be socially stimulated to survive. "This pandemic has taught us that social connection is important to all of us across the lifespan," she says.

Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

Games like Wordle offers us the ability to remain socially connected while maintaining physical distance.

— Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

Since isolation can feel like pain in the brain, Weaver notes how that can be interpreted as a threat to an individual's state of well-being. "This threat sends us into a survival state and releases stress hormones that can become toxic when they stay in our body for too long," she says.

As a provider, Weaver appreciates that her patients have access to games like Wordle because so many are experiencing depression, anxiety and loneliness due to the social isolation imposed by the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, Weaver may have recommended connecting through in-person social activities to improve moods, increase healthy habits, and boost productivity. "Games like Wordle offers us the ability to remain socially connected while maintaining physical distance," she says.

On a short-term basis, Weaver notes that stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are actually good for brains because these hormones signal to the nervous system that there is a challenge that needs a response.

Weaver explains, "When we are able to resolve the challenge, we get a surge of dopamine and when we are able to share our wins with others, we get a surge of oxytocin. Both hormones bring calm to our nervous system and help us to relax. Wordle is a great way to achieve stress release."

What This Means For You

Wordle has come to resonate with millions of users around the globe for a variety of reasons. If you have not yet tried it, the Wordle game may offer your brain a challenge that feels doable when many other problems may feel much more overwhelming to tackle.

1 Source
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  1. Stuyck H, Cleeremans A, Van den Bussche E. Aha! under pressure: The Aha! experience is not constrained by cognitive loadCognition. 2022;219:104946. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2021.104946

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.