It’s simple, it’s free, it’s addictive, it’s Wordle. But what makes the online daily puzzle so appealing? And what parts of the brain are being activated when players try to guess a five-letter word in six tries? The Gazette turned to Steven Pinker, a psycholinguist and Harvard’s Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, for answers.
GAZETTE: Have you played Wordle?
PINKER: I played once and enjoyed it enough that I vowed never to play it again, as a safeguard against diverting time from work. It’s a habit I acquired 40 years ago as an assistant professor when I got my first personal computer, fired up a game of Pac-Man that came with it, and realized that I had spent three hours eating dots and would never get tenure if I didn’t stay away from gaming. Perhaps mindful of its capacity to destroy lives and careers, Wordle presents only one puzzle a day.
GAZETTE: Why are some people better than others at this kind of game?
PINKER: I’d guess it’s a combination of several traits: (1) general intelligence, which embraces an ability to manipulate abstract symbols according to rules; (2) verbal intelligence, which includes commanding a large vocabulary; (3) “phonological awareness,” the knowledge that words are composed of sounds (a critical component of reading, and the main skill missing in dyslexia); (4) literacy in English, including familiarity with large numbers of words and spelling patterns; (5) “need for cognition,” the personality trait consisting of pleasure taken in solving intellectual problems for their own sake.