Back to Prindle Institute

Why Don’t People Cheat at Wordle?

photograph of Wordle being played on phone

By now, you’ve probably encountered Wordle, the colorful daily brainteaser that gives you six attempts to guess a five-letter word. Created in 2020 by Josh Wardle, the minimalistic website has gone viral in recent weeks as players have peppered their social media feeds with the game’s green-and-yellow boxes. To some, the Wordle craze is but the latest passing fad capturing people’s attention mid-pandemic; to others, it’s a window into a more thoughtful conversation about the often social nature of art and play.

Philosopher of games C. Thi Nguyen has argued that a hallmark feature of games is their ability to crystallize players’ decision-making processes, making their willful (and reflexive) choices plain to others; to Nguyen, this makes games a “unique art form because they work in the medium of agency.” I can appreciate the tactical cleverness of a game of chess or football, the skillful execution of a basketball jump shot or video game speedrun, or the imaginative deployment of unusual forms of rationality towards disposable ends (as when we praise players for successfully deceiving their opponents in a game of poker or Mafia/Werewolf, despite generally thinking that deception is unethical) precisely because the game’s structure allows me to see how the players are successfully (and artistically) navigating the game’s artificial constraints on their agency. In the case of Wordle, the line-by-line, color-coded record of each guess offers a neatly packaged, easily interpretable transcript of a player’s engagement with the daily puzzle: as Nguyen explains, “When you glance at another player’s grid you can grasp the emotional journey they took, from struggle to likely victory, in one tiny bit of their day.”

So, why don’t people cheat at Wordle?

Surely, the first response here is to simply reject the premise of the question: it is almost certainly the case that some people do cheat at Wordle in various ways or, furthermore, lie about or manipulate their grids before sharing them on social media. How common such misrepresentations are online is almost impossible to say.

But two facets of Wordle’s virality on social media suggest an important reason for thinking that many players have strong reasons to authentically engage with the vocabulary game; I have in mind here:

  1. the felt pressure against “spoiling” the daily puzzle’s solution, and
  2. the visceral disdain felt by non-players at the ubiquity of Wordle grids on their feeds.

In the first case, despite no formal warning presented by the game itself (and, presumably, no “official” statement from either Wordle’s creator or players), there exists a generally unspoken agreement online to avoid giving away puzzle answers. Clever sorts of innuendo and insinuation are frequent among players who have discovered the day’s word, as are meta-level commentaries on the mechanics or difficulty-level of the latest puzzle, but a natural taboo has arisen against straightforwardly announcing Wordle words to one’s followers (in a manner akin to the taboo against spoiling long-awaited movie or television show plots). In the second case, social media users not caught up in Wordle’s grid have frequently expressed their annoyance at the many posts filled with green-and-yellow boxes flying across their feeds.

Both of these features seem to be grounded in the social nature of Wordle’s phenomenology: it is one thing to simply play the game, but it is another thing entirely to share that play with others. While I could enjoy solving Wordle puzzles privately without discussing the experience with my friends, Wordle has become an online phenomenon precisely because people have fun doing the opposite: publicly sharing their grids and making what Nguyen calls a “steady stream of small communions” with other players via the colorful record of our agential experiences. It might well be that the most fun part of Wordle is not simply the experience of cleverly solving the vocab puzzle, but of commiserating with fellow players about their experiences as well; that is to say, Wordle might be more akin to fishing than to solving a Rubik’s cube — it’s the story and its sharing that we ultimately really care about. Spoiling the day’s word doesn’t simply solve the puzzle for somebody, but ruins their chance to engage with the story (and the community of players that day); similarly, the grids might frustrate non-players for the same reason that inside jokes annoy those not privy to the punchline — they underline the person’s status as an outsider.

So, this suggests one key reason why people might not want to cheat at Wordle: it would entail not simply fudging the arbitrary rule set of an agency-structuring word game, but would also require the player to violate the very participation conditions of the community that the player is seeking to enjoy in the first place. That is to say, if the fun of Wordle is sharing one’s real experiences with others, then cheating at Wordle is ultimately self-undermining — it gives you the right answer without any real story to share.

Notice one last point: I haven’t said anything here about whether or not it’s unethical to cheat at Wordle. In general, you’ll probably think that your obligations to tell the truth and avoid misrepresentation will apply to your Wordle habits in roughly the same way that they apply elsewhere (even if you’re not unfairly disadvantaging an opponent by cheating). But my broader point here is that cheating at Wordle doesn’t really make sense — at best, cheating might dishonestly win you some undeserved recognition as a skilled Wordle player, but it’s not really clear why you might care about that, particularly if the Wordle community revolves around communion moreso than competition.

Instead, swapping Wordle grids can offer a tantalizing bit of fun, authentic connection (something we might particularly crave as we enter Pandemic Year Three). So, pick your favorite starting word (mine’s “RATES,” if you want a suggestion) and give today’s puzzle your best shot; maybe we’ll both guess this one in just three tries!

A Squid Meta-Game Rule

photograph of Squid Game game board

[SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses several plot details of Netflix’s Squid Game.]

At one point in Squid Game, a competitor, Deok-su, finds himself at a decision point: Should he jump on to the right or left pane of glass in front of him? One will break under his weight and he will fall to his death. The other will hold his weight, carrying him forward to the game’s ultimate goal, crossing the bridge without dying. Instead of choosing, he throws a rival onto one of the panes sending the competitor crashing through. Many will regard Deok-su’s actions as morally wrong, but why?

Is our disapproval based merely on the fact that a competitor is being thrown to their death? This is horrific, no doubt, but in context, it is arguably not morally reprehensible. Surely we can agree that the game itself is morally reprehensible because of the stakes involved as well as its exploitative nature. The series, however, asks us to put this moral concern aside. The players have all voluntarily agreed to participate. The rules of this game have been presented to the participants, and there isn’t any reason to think Deok-su’s strategy falls outside these lines. Consider the game of poker: a player may choose to lie to their fellow players in order to win the pot through a strategy known as bluffing. Normally, lying to steal your friend’s money is not morally acceptable, but in the context of this game, where everyone knows the rules and the consequences of the game, it is a legitimate strategy and we wouldn’t morally judge a person engaging in bluffing. Likewise, Deok-su has found a legitimate strategy that isn’t strictly prohibited by the rules of the game, yet our moral condemnation still feels appropriate. How do we square these competing intuitions?

I think there is still a good reason to judge Deok-su wrong, and it has to do with the nature of what a game is. I believe that in all true games, the individual players have the ability to help determine the outcome of the game. For example, a “game” like Chutes and Ladders is not a game at all, as the players have no agency in determining the outcome of the game. The game is entirely determined by chance and chance alone. When Deok-su throws his competitor onto the next pane of glass, he strips his opponent of their agency, removing that player’s ability to choose. He’s effectively broken a meta-rule of games. These would be rules that don’t apply to a specific game, but to all games, in order to maintain their integrity as a game. (I don’t think that this is the only meta-rule of all games, but I’ll only be examining this particular one here.)

If the meta-rules of games can help us make moral judgments, then we should see similar results in other cases. We can apply this to a moment earlier in the series. Sang-woo has an advantage in the second game that the contestants are forced to play. He has a strong suspicion that the game will be Honeycomb and chooses the easiest shape to win, the triangle. He doesn’t share this information with his allies, but only watches silently as the show’s protagonist, Gi-hun, chooses the umbrella, the hardest shape. While this may not be in the spirit of the alliance that they have formed, he has not removed Gi-hun’s agency in the game. Sure, he’s violated the trust of his alliance, but given the stakes of the games, it might be considered simply good strategy to create false alliances. It is a more complex version of a bluff. But, imagine that Sang-woo, upon completing his task, went to all the other players that had yet to finish their tasks and shattered their honeycombs by kicking them. They would be eliminated from the game, but not by their own agency. The game would be taken from them. This would be morally reprehensible in the same way as a player slapping down the cards of their opponents in order to reveal them to the table in a poker game.

Let’s consider another moment from the Glass Bridge game. One of the players, a former glass maker, thinks that he can determine which plate is tempered and thus will not break. The host turns off the lights to stop him from being able to determine which is tempered. In the show, Sang-woo removes the glass maker’s agency in the same way that Deok-su does, by forcing the glass maker onto an arbitrary glass plate, because he is taking too long to decide. Are these two instances morally equivalent?

Let us suppose that Sang-woo acts differently and the Host leaves the lights on. The former glass maker could conceivably win the game at this point. He could simply stall, not making a decision until the last second, and then jump onto the correct plate in order to win the game. The other players would run out of time and lose the game. In this scenario, did the glass maker remove the agency of the players? If we understand the rules of the Glass Bridge game, no. Sang-woo could still go on to the same plate as the glass maker is on, exercise his autonomy, and choose without waiting for the glass maker to reveal the correct choice. Much like Sang-woo is not obligated to reveal the game was Honeycomb, the glass maker is not obligated to reveal to the other players the correct decision. It would be unfortunate that the players behind Sang-woo and the glass maker, Gi-hun and Sae-byeok, couldn’t advance safely. The game for them has ceased to be a “game” as they are prevented from making any meaningful choices. But would this be wrong? That is, is the glass maker blameworthy in the same way we seem to hold Deok-su responsible? Of course not. The manner in which the agency is lost in the game makes a moral difference. Direct removal of a player’s agency is fundamentally different from agency being removed by the circumstances of game play.

It isn’t only in fiction that we see such actions. We can see similar strategies in professional sports where a team or player actively aims to remove the agency of a player from a game. The most morally egregious case would be aiming to injure a player to remove them from the game. However, we can see a legitimized version of removing agency of a player in baseball. When a hot batter comes up to the plate in baseball, pitchers can choose to deliberately walk the batter so as to minimize their potential impact. This practice is so cemented into the rules of the game that now the actual throwing of the pitches isn’t required. The coach of the defending team can simply signal the umpire that they would like to intentionally walk the batter and the player will advance to first base. The intentional walk strategy, and now rule, has generated strong feelings about its “sportsmanship.” However, I suspect the actual frustration that fans are experiencing is that the strategy fundamentally takes the game out of the player’s hands. The batter has been intentionally stripped of their agency, and so the game ceases to be. Fans came to see a game played and this, momentarily, is not a game. This non-game event could have a significant impact on the outcome, and that can make it feel unjust or unfair. Fans who defend the intentional walk strategy may argue that the rules of baseball don’t disallow it, and in fact now explicitly support it. I will concede that this is the case. But while it may not break the stated rules of the game, it breaks a meta-rule of games, and thus generates a justified sense of moral unfairness.

There are many games that we play where we suspend the normal rules of morality for the sake of the game and adopt a new set of moral rules that apply to the game. Consequently, we can’t simply make moral judgements about a player’s strategies in relation to normal morality. Sang-woo is often a cunning and brutal player in Squid Game, but at least he isn’t an immoral one in the Honeycomb game. In the Glass Bridge game, both Deok-Su and Sang-woo show their moral colors not because they were breaking any stated rules of the game they were playing, but because they were undermining an aspect of what it means to play a game. Violating a meta-rule of games is at the very least dissatisfying, as we see in baseball, and would allow us to label strategies that break these rules as morally wrong, in the same way as breaking the stated rules of any game.

Is Moral Mediocrity Bad?

illustration of cartoon crowd with most wearing masks

Here’s a question to consider in a pandemic: do we wear masks and socially distance because we should, or because we’re conforming to what others do? No doubt part of the explanation involves moral reasons: we wear our masks and socially distance to prevent others from getting ill. But that isn’t the whole explanation. Moral psychology backs this up: there is good evidence that we’re morally mediocre; i.e., we aim to be morally on par with our peers, not much worse or much better. And the implication is that moral reasons don’t explain as much of our behavior as we want to believe. Most of us don’t steal candy bars from the story for the sole reason that stealing is wrong; we have practical reasons too: it is easier to simply purchase them, dealing with the police isn’t fun, getting caught would be embarrassing, and so forth.

The empirical evidence from psychology strongly suggests we modulate our behavior based on what others do. To give a few examples: people are more likely to reduce household energy use if shown statistics that they use more than their neighbors. We are subject to peer pressure on a host of practices like littering, lying, tax compliance, and suicide. Moral mediocrity shouldn’t surprise us: as a social species, it not only matters what we do, but how we look to others. We rely on others to cooperate with us for our survival, and so it matters what others think of us if we want them to cooperate with us.

Is moral mediocrity bad? Not particularly; but it isn’t great either. Moral mediocrity can be bad if our peers are morally terrible. Aiming to be about as good and as bad as Nazis would clearly be bad; we should want to be substantially better than Nazis. Of course that’s an extreme case, but there are less extreme ones, too: the social science evidence we reviewed earlier would suggest that we would be less likely to wear masks and socially distance if our peers didn’t do likewise. However, moral mediocrity can also be good: in a just society, where everyone does what justice requires because everyone else is just as well would be a good society in which to live. Citizens in a just society would be good parents and grandparents, they would comply with just norms and laws, pay their debts, wouldn’t cheat or steal, and would only use violence to defend themselves or innocents when necessary. The moral mediocrity of the citizenry isn’t great; but such a society would be. Like many things, moral mediocrity is a mixed bag: some good; some bad.

However, optimal moral agents don’t just act morally; they act for moral reasons too. Suppose Omar is drunk and feeling generous, and gives Sally the cash in his wallet. As it happens, Omar owes Sally that exact amount. But Omar didn’t give Sally the money because he owed her, but because he was drunk and impulsive; had he been hanging with someone else, he would have given them the money instead. This is not a case where Omar’s actions aren’t motivated by just reasons, but rather circumstance. There is nothing especially wrong here; Omar did a good thing). But one should get credit for doing the right thing if one acts from duty, not just as a by-product of something else. When we act for moral reasons, it shows our motives are rooted in moral duty; they aim at the moral good, instead of hitting it accidentally. Kant explains the importance of acting from duty (not merely in accordance with duty):

“[There] are some souls so sympathetically attuned that, even without any other motive of vanity or utility to self, take an inner gratification in spreading joy around them, and can take delight in the contentment of others insofar as it is their own work. But I assert that in such a case the action, however it may conform to duty and however amiable it is, nevertheless has no true moral worth, but is on the same footing as other inclinations.”

The evidence of our moral mediocrity suggests we deserve less credit for morally good actions than we often think. We are the beneficiaries of the moral progress made by those who came before us; the reason, say, we think slavery is wrong has far more to do with the cultural period in which we were born than any profound moral insight and bravery on our part as individual moral agents. And this would suggest that we should protect our moral inheritance, instead of free-riding on the hard-won moral victories of those from the past.

And we should clarify in closing: nothing here is reason to discount the role of choice and free will in shaping the kind of moral agents we are. However, it is often tempting to overemphasize the role that agency plays in shaping our moral character and choices, and to downplay the role of our peers and environment. Highlighting our tendency toward moral mediocrity is meant, if nothing else, to correct this imbalance of emphasis.

Seneca, Stoicism, and Thinking Better about Fear

photograph of feet standing before numerous direction arrows painted on ground

During times of crisis, such as a global pandemic, we have an opportunity to think better about fear. Most folks are living in fear, to various degrees, during this time of uncertainty. And that isn’t fun; fear is often unpleasant ‘from the inside.’ And it can rob us of well-being, and a sense of agency and control. And fear can be irrational: ancient Stoic philosophers argued that it neither makes sense to fear what we cannot control, nor to fear what we can. Of course, too little fear, in certain situations can be fatal; but we’re often faced with the problem of too much fear. Let’s begin with how fear can inhibit our ability to lead a moral life.

When in the grip of fear, it is all too easy to snap at loved ones, focus on our own problems at the expense of others, and generally be unpleasant, and perhaps worse. We may, in the grip of fear, treat others as obstacles in the pursuit of allaying those fears, and inflict unjustified harm in response. By example, Sam fears the trespasser on his property intends him harm — the man, while innocent, looks menacing; Sam shoots first and asks questions later. Here Sam is treating the trespasser as an impediment to his peace of mind; and in the grip of fear, he does something deeply wrong. We often aren’t at our moral best acting out of fear.

In addition, fear can rob us of our ability to think clearly. In the grip of fear, we can have a worse time thinking clearly and rationally: fear can, among other things, enhance our selective attention: the ability to focus on a specific thing in our environment, to the exclusion of others. And while this may be useful in a dangerous situation, it can also make rational thinking difficult. Conjure up the last time you were afraid; you likely weren’t at your smartest or most rational; I wasn’t. And fear can be self-defeating: if we want to address the source of our fears, we often need our full cognitive capacities. We thus need to rid ourselves of the feeling of fear, to best equip ourselves to address the cause.

And there’s the issue of control: the source of fear — e.g. economic uncertainty — may not be in our control. Many things aren’t in our control. Things that have receded into the past, as well as things that await in our unknown future, lie outside our control. The ancient Stoic philosophers thought it irrational to fear what we cannot control: there is nothing to be gained from fearing what we can do nothing about; we emotionally harm ourselves, but gain nothing. Fearing what is beyond our control is like standing on the beach and trying to will the tide not to come in; we can immediately recognize this behavior as irrational. But fearing what is beyond our control isn’t that different: we can do nothing about it; so to focus our mental and emotional energies on it would be a waste. As the Stoic philosopher Seneca explains:

“Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.”

How should we then think about fear directed toward the future?

“It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so, look forward meanwhile to better things.”

It isn’t rational, the Stoics held, to fear what we cannot control. And we shouldn’t fear what we can control either: if we can control it, we should. It makes more sense to focus on controlling the source of fear, and addressing it, then continuing to remain afraid. It doesn’t make much sense to be afraid of something we can address. It would make no sense to, say, be afraid of visiting the dentist, as many are, but fail to take active steps to prevent having to visit the dentist (more than necessary), by say, practicing good oral hygiene.

You may reply here that you don’t have direct control over your feelings; it isn’t as though you can voluntarily expel fears by sheer acts of will. There is an element of truth here: we often don’t have direct control over our emotions like we do, say, a light switch; we often just find we have certain feelings and emotions. There are things we can do cognitively to indirectly control and combat fear. Here are a couple of tools to help:

Narrowing one’s time horizon: sometimes the best way to address fear, especially fear of things to come, is to shrink our time horizons. Instead of focusing on the year, month, or even the next week, focus instead on the day. Too long? Narrow it further: focus on the next hour, or even the next minute. Life isn’t lived in an instant; and often enough, our fears lie in anticipation, but aren’t actually realized. This is why Alcoholics Anonymous wisely suggests those in recovery mentally frame their recovery as ‘one day at a time’: sometimes it is too overwhelming to think in larger time slices; doing otherwise may be too overwhelming. We need not be in recovery to benefit from the wisdom of narrowing our time horizon when in the grip of fear.

Gratitude: taking note of what we have to be thankful for — often, if we look hard enough, we can find things for which we should be grateful — can displace fear. We can use the practice of gratitude — like making a gratitude list — to draw our attention to the good things in our lives, to combat the overemphasis on the bad. To put the idea poetically: we can’t long abide both in the shadow of fear, and the sunlight of the gratitude; the latter has an uncanny way of driving away (or significantly reducing the power of) the former.

What’s the point to thinking better about fear? In short: to live a better life. We aren’t our best selves when we’re afraid. And since bad things may eventually befall you — where there is little we can do about it — we may as well appreciate the good things in the moment. What’s the point of that? I’ll let Seneca answer:

“There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So, look forward to better things.”

Though fear can be useful — by example, it may help us survive — we can be too fearful to live good, productive lives. We may not always be able to do something about feeling afraid, but we need not let it completely dictate the quality of our lives either.

Free Riders, Agency Fees, and the Fairness of Public Sector Unions

A low-angle shot of the U.S. Supreme Court

An upcoming case in the United States Supreme Court could have significant effects on the state of the American Labor Movement: Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31. At stake is whether public sector unions can require employees who have not joined the union to pay agency fees—fees that go to exclusively cover the costs of negotiating the labor contract that covers all workers at a workplace, union members and non-members alike. If the court were to rule against the legality of required agency fees, this would overturn a previous Supreme Court decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which held that agency fees were allowable, just so long as those fees were not used for the political or ideological activities of the union.

Continue reading “Free Riders, Agency Fees, and the Fairness of Public Sector Unions”