April 17, 2022
I think it’s a normal human desire to feel intelligent. In a capitalistic world centered around performance and output, our intelligence is (for better or for worse) used to define our worth. To be smarter than someone is to be stronger. And while I have a lot of issues with this mentality, many games in the past years have attempted to capitalize on it, namely: HQ Trivia, Trivia Crack, and the most recent, Wordle. These casual mobile games allow their players to go head-to-head (literally) with their friends through small brain games. It’s this competitive aspect that makes these games so popular.
Now before I go any further, for those who haven’t played the titles I listed above, here are some brief explanations:
Originally released in August 2017, HQ Trivia hosted live, nightly trivia games for players to participate in. Each night a charismatic host would read out a series of unrelated trivia questions that got progressively more difficult. Players were then given 10 seconds to answer these questions, after which the correct response would be revealed. Answering correctly would bring you on to the next round, while any mistake would immediately eliminate you. Those who were left after twelve questions would then receive a fraction of an advertised prize pool (typically resulting in a payoff of a few cents, which for the sake of my argument is negligible).
Compared to HQ, Trivia Crack placed players in a one-on-one situation. Their intelligence was no longer being tested against a group of strangers; their competition was their best friends.
In Trivia Crack, players would challenge individual friends to matches. Once accepted, these matches boiled down to selecting a specific category (Sports, Entertainment, History, etc.) and answering curated community-generated, questions. If you answered your question correctly you would “claim” that category. If not, the category would remain unclaimed, and your opponent would attempt to claim a category of their own. After claiming the majority of categories, you’d be declared the victor.
Purchased by the New York Times for more than $1,000,000 in 2022, Wordle was an instant classic among the public.
Each day, the Wordle website would pick a random, commonly used, 5 letter word. Players would then take up to 6 guesses trying to spell out the word. After each guess, the player is told which letters are: a) not in the word, b) in the word but in the wrong spot, or c) in the word and in the correct spot. The player's objective is to minimize the number of guesses needed to arrive at the target world.
While all slightly different from one another, these games share a common design goal of making the player feel intelligent. Making it further than 90% of players in HQ because you knew the Roman God of Love (Eros), or clean sweeping a Trivia Crack game, or getting the Wordle in two guesses cause you started with “QUERY”, helps us feel extraordinary.
Yet this feeling is simply that, a feeling. Being better at these games than another person does not make you more valuable or desirable. Furthermore, due to the random nature of the games knowing the correct facts to succeed, HQ and Trivia Crackultimately equates to a game of probability. These games can be phrased as “Havey ou heard this random fact before?”.
And players realize this. When they choose to play we understand that these games aren’t meant to rank people based on their brain capabilities. By playing we sign an unseen social contract saying we won’t take things too seriously.
But despite all of this, while we can understand that the games are silly while formally analyzing them, it doesn’t stop our brains from feeling superior after winning. And there’s nothing wrong with this!
This dichotomy of seriousness is what makes these titles succeed. If players were to take a loss too seriously, the game would stop being fun. Though, on the other extreme, a game based on pure luck (such as LetterLe, the one letter version of Wordle) has little incentive to be played on its own.
We play because we know it doesn’t matter how we perform, but we still want to perform well.
(And for anyone who is wondering, yes, it did take me 6 tries to get the Wordle today)
* An argument can be made that for Wordle, consistent performance does require a large amount of skill. This is true. Yet, for most casual players performance varies based on the daily word.