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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.

Dungeons, Dragons, and Du Bois’ Race Problem

photograph of D&D figurines and dice

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

On June 17th, Wizards of the Coast — the company that owns and manages the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragonsreleased a statement about its plans to update the official rule sets and materials describing the fictional worlds of D&D. In addition to hiring new staff (including sensitivity readers) and altering the canonical depictions of some fictional people groups that “echoed some stereotypes” of real-world cultures, Wizards of the Coast is intentionally working to eliminate the role of racial attributes and cultural essentialism within the fantasy game. Specifically, this will mean shifting character-creation techniques to center individualized player choices about a character’s background (rather than making certain features dependent on the character’s race) and, most notably, recasting the two “evil” races within D&D as people groups that are “just as morally and culturally complex as other peoples.”

If you’re not already familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, much of that last paragraph probably sounds pretty odd. First published in the 1970s, D&D is a tabletop role-playing game (RPG) that offers a basic set of rules for players to follow as they collectively tell a make-believe story about heroes and villains in a fantasy world. Perhaps most famously, these sorts of RPGs use dice rolls to randomize the outcomes of various in-game events, allowing players opportunities to cooperatively and creatively react to unexpected elements of the imaginary scene. Often, those dice rolls are modified by various attributes of your player-character and, to date, at least some of those modifications have been pre-set based on which of the several fictional races (like elves, tieflings, and dragonborn) your character represents. And, while the story of each game of D&D is unique to the group of people (or “party”) playing, Wizards of the Coast regularly publishes a wealth of materials to help parties create the worlds of their stories.

The announced changes to D&D amount to a shift away from an essentialistic approach to race or culture within the game — an approach long-criticized in both Dungeons and Dragons and the fantasy genre writ large. Such a story-telling technique treats a character’s biology or social origin as necessarily constraining their personality, worldview, or moral compass, such as when Rowling’s giants or Tolkien’s trolls are treated as hopelessly evil enemies for the heroes to simply eliminate. According to the most recent Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook, the drow (or “dark elves”) are a “depraved” race of people who are “universally reviled” after their ancestors followed a path “to evil and corruption;” players who choose to role-play as a drow are encouraged to treat their characters as unusual individuals who have “develop[ed] a conscience.” Similarly, D&D presents the orc race as a monstrous, violent culture bent on waging “an endless war against humans, elves, dwarves, and other folk.” If players choose to create a half-orc character to role-play (full orcs are not officially valid options), the Handbook advises that evil impulses and desires will necessarily “lurk within them, whether they embrace it or rebel against it.” Although it remains to be seen how Wizards of the Coast exactly plans on presenting the orcs and drow “in a new light” going forward, the way they have presented these races to this point is plain.

While the response to Wizards of the Coast’s announcement seems to have been largely positive, it has not escaped criticism. Most detractors argue that these rule shifts are unnecessary, either because they will do little to prevent actual racism in the real world or because the classic presentation of orcs in D&D isn’t racist in the first place. Some have suggested that the publishers of D&D have actually been fooled by supposedly-disingenuous protestors interested more in social control than social justice. One need only look to the responses on Wizards of the Coast’s Twitter thread or the comments on, for example, Breitbart’s coverage of the story to see such attitudes.

But these critiques fall flat. Even if used simply to promote seemingly-innocent story-telling tropes or to simplify morality narratives for easier digestion, any reliance on cultural or racial essentialism — even just narratively — is ethically perilous (and, incidentally, aesthetically lazy). The point is not that “racists portrayal of these fictional peoples will promote racist treatment of non-fictional peoples,” but rather that employing racial essentialism of any stripe legitimates — even unconsciously — an unavoidably immoral way of viewing the world (regardless of whether that world is Abeir-Toril, Arda, or Earth).

It is a way of viewing the world which W.E.B. Du Bois describes as “a vast veil” that shuts people out from the worlds in which they belong. Speaking from his own experience as a Black man at the turn of the 20th century, Du Bois traces how his personal experiences of racism in post-Reconstruction America mirrored wider social policies designed to maintain the cultural homogeneity of the United States in the wake of Emancipation. Time and again, Du Bois recounts stories of how relatively mundane — and, perhaps, unintentional, in some cases — choices led to him being routinely set apart from the people around him. Consider this anecdote from when Du Bois was a college student looking for work as a teacher in Tennessee:

“I remember the day I rode horseback out to the commissioner’s house with a pleasant young white fellow who wanted the white school. The road ran down the bed of a stream; the sun laughed and the water jingled, and we rode on. ‘Come in,’ said the commissioner,—’come in. Have a seat. Yes, that certificate will do. Stay to dinner. What do you want a month?’ ‘Oh,’ thought I, ‘this is lucky’; but even then fell the awful shadow of the Veil, for they ate first, then I—alone.” (The Souls of Black Folk, ch. IV)

The Veil comes from the often-unspoken set of assumptions about what counts as “normal” in matters of race and culture against which everything, including even relatively small and otherwise-unimportant actions, is tacitly judged. The Veil is also a manifestation of one form of racial essentialism that judges (even implicitly) individuals in virtue of their biology, rather than their unique personalities and histories.

Now, don’t misunderstand me: my point is not that a fictional orc is necessarily wronged by a Dungeons and Dragons player treating it like a monster (nor is it that a player who doesn’t care about orcs will also not care about flesh-and-blood humans). Instead, my point is that carefully considering both the intentional and unintentional messages of our cultural artifacts (like D&D) is an important part of being responsible people who care about our fellow citizens; this is precisely what Wizards of the Coast has started to do. Suggesting that the kinds of racial and cultural essentialism long-incorporated into Dungeons and Dragons is valid somewhere, even just in a fictional context, requires us to say (or at least operate on the assumption) that it is not inherently unethical — that is a morally indefensible position.

Echoing Fredrick Douglas before him, Du Bois famously wrote that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” In this regard, the twenty-first century is no different: what Du Bois called the “race problem” remains, both in explicit, intentional acts of racist oppression and, far more frequently, in the unthinking assumptions that lead many to uphold the Veil, however accidentally. Defenses of racial essentialism, wherever they may appear, contribute to this in their own way by tacitly legitimating a fundamental component of the Veil’s operation.

(It’s also worth pointing out that the stereotypical depiction of orcs and “dark elves” likewise demonstrates Du Bois’ separate point about a curiously European theory of human culture wherein “Everything great, good, efficient, fair, and honorable is ‘white’; everything mean, bad, blundering, cheating, and dishonorable is ‘yellow’; a bad taste is ‘brown’; and the devil is ‘black.’” Considering the potential contributions of such imagery to the contemporary real-world Veil is an exercise left to the reader.)

Given both the inherent customizability of the game and its five-decade-long history, it is not possible for Wizards of the Coast to simply change by fiat how all parties will play D&D, but the company is taking visible steps to improve how racial diversity will be officially represented going forward. Given that the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons has skyrocketed in recent years (including being prominently featured in Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things) and the lockdowns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have only spurred greater interest, it is good to see Wizards of the Coast clearly demonstrate that it wants “everyone to feel at home around the game table and to see positive reflections of themselves within our products.” Analyzing how the Veil might nevertheless affect both the worlds and the players of Dungeons and Dragons, even unintentionally, is an important part of engaging with this sliver of our culture’s much larger race problem.

The Artificial Intelligence of Google’s AlphaGo

Last week, Google’s AlphaGo program beat Ke Jie, the Go world champion. The victory is a significant one, due to the special difficulties of developing an algorithm that can tackle the ancient Chinese game. It differs significantly from the feat of DeepBlue, the computer that beat then-chess world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, largely by brute force calculations of the possible moves on the 8×8 board. The possible moves in Go far eclipse those of chess, and for decades most researchers didn’t consider it possible for a computer to defeat a champion-level Go player, because designing a computer with such complexity would amount to such great leaps towards creative intuition on the computer’s part.

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