From Scrabble to Wordle: A Five Letter Legacy

By Ariel Konieczko and Keira Krisburg

Stimulating word games have been around since before the 4th century BCE. From the “Sator Square” anagram games, an anagram being a word that can be rearranged into another word, of ancient Greece, to the daily New York Times Spelling Bee, the evolution of word games has been built off of the love of learning, logic, and entertainment.

Although an exciting array of ancient and Victorian era games would come first, in 1913 Arthur Wynne created something remarkable: the first-ever “Word-Cross” puzzle in the newspaper New York World’s “Fun” section. Despite the game’s name being changed to “Cross-Word,” many aspects of the game haven’t changed since like design and orientation. In the original puzzles, the thirty-one riddles ranged from “The fiber of a gomuti palm,” to “A boy.” Today’s crossword puzzle clues often revolve around pop culture, which have grandparents asking younger relatives about actors and book characters. Yet, many “Word-Cross” clues still remain timeless.

As crossword’s popularity swept over the nation, the idea for Scrabble, a game in which points can be earned as players place lettered tiles on a gridded board, was brewing in the mind of architect Alfred M. Butts. The game’s name evolved three times– “Lexiko” became “Criss Cross Words” and only “Scrabble” once it was redesigned to its final version with James Brunot. The version of Scrabble known today was trademarked in 1948, but since its invention and popularity due to its introduction into Macy’s stores, different versions and spin-offs have been released including “Scrabble Junior,” “National Parks Scrabble,” and “Scrabble Cooking.” Much like Chess, Scrabble holds a high place in the prestigious game world and many competitions, books, and lives have been dedicated to the game. 

While some games, like crossword puzzles, were built to last forever, within the walls of New York City’s Beacon High School, Scrabble’s standing is shockingly low among young teens. Results from a survey conducted by students in early April 2022, showed that almost 73% of the subjects questioned claimed to “never play” Scrabble. However, 62% of the questioned students had a physical game of Scrabble in their homes so it can be assumed that older relatives keep the game for either nostalgic purposes or for their own entertainment. Whether the game takes too much patience to play or the multiplayer aspect is unachievable in many families’ busy lives, the colorful board once had remarkable fame and still contributed to the basis of many of today’s greatest games.

One of the earliest forms of the modern word game, the initial “word-cross” puzzle.

While entertaining to older generations, crosswords and Scrabble can’t always be understood or taught to young children due to the games’ demand for knowledge of current events, complex facts, and intellectually advanced words. However, once a child learns how to read, they can play word searches. The “Word Search,” invented in 1968 by Norman E. Gilbat, is a grid filled with randomized letters that hides full words embedded within. The object of the game is to plainly find the words, and because of the simplicity of the game, educators have reclaimed the original newspaper-published puzzles into classroom staples. While most Beacon student surveys came back saying students played word searches monthly, this is probably through schoolwork or digital app games, not in magazines and newspapers. While a word searches’ format looks least like the beloved “Wordle” game of today, the idea that one is “searching” for a word is true to every word game around, making it an important piece of the grand word game puzzle. 

The survey conducted discovered a few other interesting facts about the way teens view age-old word games. Surprisingly, crosswords were the most popular, 24% of students play them daily, which trumps any other game. While Scrabble was the least loved, word searches were a close runner-up for least popular. 

In one question, teens were asked who played word games the most – themselves, younger siblings, parents, or grandparents. Roughly 40% of teens said they played the most word games, most likely a result of Wordle’s recent popularity. Nearly 35% of people said grandparents played the most; grandparents usually stick to the classic board and paper games. 

Adults weren’t surveyed but it would have been interesting to see how they responded to the question “Do you play digital/app word games on your device?” to which 88% of teens responded “yes.” For many, Wordscapes, a word game app that was released in 2017, first comes to mind when the phrase “app games” is said. Wordscapes is number two on Apple’s list for best word games – a remake version of Wordle called “Wordle!” is in first place. The New York Times app also houses many games other than Wordle, such as their digital Crossword, The Daily Mini Crossword, and Spelling Bee. The theory that teens love digital games is further proved by the statistic that 83% of surveyed teens have downloaded and actively play NYT’s games. 

Wordle unexpectedly started out as a gift and a symbol of one software engineer’s love for his partner. Josh Wardle knew his wife was keen on word games, so he created a unique word game they could play together. After they slowly grew more and more fond of it, they shared the game with the rest of their family, who equally agreed the game was addictive. It starts out with one putting in any word of their choosing and attempting to guess the word based on the color or frequency for the letter. If a letter is yellow, the letter is in the word, but is incorrectly placed. If it is green, that means that you have correctly guessed where the letter is supposed to be. Wardle shared it with the public, and 90 people played the first day. Unlike other word games which require multiple software engineers and coding experts, Wardle was able to get the ground running mainly by himself. By January, an astounding 300,000 got out of bed, ready to guess the next familiar or unfamiliar five letter word. The fad had begun. 

Don’t sleep on Wordscapes.

 Once you have guessed the word, you experience the satisfaction of having all the letters turn green. It has been a trend for many people and celebrities to post how many tries they got the word in, making people more competitive each day. The convenience and simplistic elements of Wordle made people eager to make it a part of their routine.

As Wordle became a vital part of  Beacon students’ daily lives, it spread throughout the community. The same survey revealed that 45.5% of students were said to be committed players, determined to not lose their streak. From having competition with friends, to the accomplished feeling when you see those five brightly colored green boxes, students are looking forward to being first in their Wordle group chats each day. 

After the spread of Wordle, other app developers thought, “Why just words?” That’s when the multitude of variations started. The most popular variations worldwide are Globle and Worldle, which seems to be true amongst beacon students as 80.6% of participants had heard of Globle and 58.1% had heard of Worldle.

Not everyone is keen on geography, so versions for the musically inclined such as Taylordle or Heardle were made. Taylordle uses the same structure as Wordle, but only uses words associated with Taylor Swift while Heardle is guessing a song from short clips. 58.1% of surveyed people said they had heard of Taylordle, while 56.1% said they had heard of Heardle. Nerdle, designed for “math nerds,” was created by Richard Mann in the UK, which was created for his son. In Nerdle, one is trying to guess the missing numbers or math symbols in an eight digit equation. 

It seems as if Wordle has been around for years based on its exponential growth within the past six months, and new variations will keep arising eventually becoming new trends. The idea of a daily game with hints of competition will keep the popularity alive for years to come. Next time you play Wordle, take time to reflect on the game’s legacy and other games which have come before it.