In 2021, the web-based word game, Wordle, took the world by storm. Developed by a Welsh software engineer for his family and friends, the game asks players to find a five-letter word in six guesses using color-coded clues to indicate correct letters in previous guess.
The game had around ninety players in November 2021, then 300,000 by the end of the year and over two million by the second week of January 2022. By the end of that month, the game was bought by the New York Times which has continued to make it free-to-play on its website.
The Times has since introduced some interesting analytics to help users understand the game, explore tactics and to see how they fare compared to other players and against the newspaper’s in-house Wordle computer, called Wordlebot.
Now James Dilger, from Stony Brook University in New York, says that this analytics page reveals far more data than is actually displayed. His analysis of this data over several months reveals a range of insights into the game, including the inescapable conclusion that up to 10,000 players cheat outrageously. “It happens consistently every day!” says Dilger, in his light-hearted paper.
His conclusions come via a fortuitous discovery. Every day, Wordlebot displays the dozen or so most popular words that players use for their first guess, plus some selected other words, such as the ranking of an individual’s first guess.
Dilger imagined that analyzing the data over time might reveal some interesting insights, so he copied and pasted it into an Excel spreadsheet. To his surprise, he ended up with data for the top fifty most popular word guesses, most of which are never displayed on the webpage.
He collected the data between 3 May and 31 August 2023 and then analyzed the trends that emerged.
The results clearly show that many players cheat. The game has an internal vocabulary of 2315 words (5 years’ worth) from which the correct answer is chosen. The chances that one of these is a first guess are 1/2315 or 0.043% at best. The actual probability is smaller because most users will not know the precise contents of this list.
And yet Dilger’s data show that the percentage of players who guess correctly on their first try never drops below 0.2%, equivalent to 4000 players. “Some days it’s as high as 0.5% (10,000 players),” he complains.
Dilger is strident in his conclusion. “What shall we call these people?” he asks. “Hmmm, “cheaters” comes to mind, so that’s what I call ‘em!”
He points to some bizarre choices of first guess words made by this group: “What serious Wordle player would choose NANNY as a first guess? You’d be testing only 2 vowels and 1 consonant! And IGLOO? srsly?”
But there is some good news too. Dilger says the data suggest that the rate of cheating is dropping over time. “Are cheaters getting bored with Wordle, or have they just been on summer vacation?” he asks.
He goes on to analyze starting word loyalty. It turns out that people tend to stick with the same word for their first guesses—except on the rare days when these words have turned out to be the correct answer. On these days, the popularity of these words rises dramatically and then returns to normal on the following days, presumably because of the behavior of cheaters.
There is a curious exception to this trend when one word suddenly became more popular when the New York Times crossword included the clue “Most popular starting word for Wordle” with the correct answer being ADIEU. “This seems to have inspired about 30,000 players to abandon whatever opening strategy they had been using and follow the crowd,” says Dilger.
That’s interesting work that takes the study of word games to entertaining new heights. “This study is the first one to go beyond social media postings, surveys, and Google Trends to provide solid, quantitative evidence about cheating in Wordle,” says Dilger, who plays against his sister and daughter who “tolerate my nerdy tendency for statistics and puns”.
The tendency to cheat may be built into our genes, Dilger confesses, but that doesn’t diminish the genuine bewilderment he and his family have over cheating. “We are baffled as to how first-word cheaters actually have fun playing,” he says. Quite!
There are some 10,000 of you out there, so feel free to let us know. In the meantime, ADIEU.
Ref: Wordle: A Microcosm of Life. Luck, Skill, Cheating, Loyalty, and Influence! : arxiv.org/abs/2309.02110