I should like word games. I think Spelling Bee, found in The New York Times Games page, is okay. Scrabble isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever played, and I’ll admit that I’ve been playing a little bit of Wordle recently.
But, despite some surface level affection, I deeply despise all of these word games. I’ve been forced to think about them recently, as Wordle has exploded in popularity, its sleek, daily drip of short puzzles captivating for our distraction-oriented age. Word games are a very particular type of game that seem to appeal to a very particular type of person. The fact that The New York Times boasts an impressive word game selection is no coincidence. Word games appeal to the Times reader, the educated cosmopolitan. Someone who has read a lot. And that seems to make sense. They are word games.
But I don’t think this makes sense. I dislike word games precisely because I like words. I think word games are dismissive of words. Games like Wordle and Scrabble and Spelling Bee are ordering games with the aesthetic, but none of the substance, of words. They’re really games about series of symbols.
In most word games, words are disconnected from their central fun and purpose (crosswords are a notable exception). Word games aren’t about playing with meanings; rather, they’re about playing with symbols. Games like Wordle and Scrabble might as well be played with Greek letters, because the meaning of the words involved never comes into play. And in games like Scrabble, meaning is so disconnected from the play that nonsense words are frequently allowed, such as the list of two-letter words in the Scrabble dictionary. These two-letter words don’t mean anything, but they’re useful to the game. They make the design and play of Scrabble easier.
This is why I don’t like word games. I like words, and I like them precisely because they marry meaning and symbol, sounds and letters. Words are useful and interesting because of this marriage. Words can be delightful or strange, but only by way of their meanings. A word like effervescent or twinkle can “sound” like what it means. One can practically hear malice drip from the word itself. But all of this relies on us grasping and appreciating the meaning of words. After all, that’s why we have them.
Word games ignore all of this entirely. Words are made into meaningless stones, mere game pieces whose utility comes only from their predefined status as “legal” and “illegal” moves. Scrabble doesn’t need to define what legal and illegal letter series are, because there already exists a dictionary. But that’s all that words are for word games. The word game doesn’t care for the word as a unit of meaning, but as a legal series in a dictionary.
Our fascination with word games is a fascination with ordering, nothing more. The word game might as well be a number game. Wordle might as well be, like its analog ancestor Mastermind, played with colored dots. To even call them “word games” presumes that these games have a connection with words that they don’t actually have. They’re ordering games, series games.
The New York Times might try to cultivate its Games page to appeal to the modern reader. But the skills of a modern reader are wasted playing these games. An appreciation for words might even be a detriment. When you play these games, you might be distracted by the beauty of the playthings — the words and letters — and spot some underlying meaning while the word game algorithmically processes on, demanding we simply order its symbols to win.
I admit I’ve played Wordle every day for the past two weeks. But Wordle is a grim vision of words. It’s a computer vision of words. No wonder it was made by a programmer as a gift for his girlfriend. It’s the epitome of the boyfriend gift. Sweet, but fumbling, a last-minute Valentine’s gift for the word aficionado. A semblance of the thing, with none of their substance. From a computer lover that doesn’t really understand you, and never will.