May 9, 2022 - Technology

NYT's Wordle swap is part of an ongoing gaming debate

Photo Illustration: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The New York Times’ decision to change Monday’s Wordle answer is part of a long-running debate about how politically charged games should be.

Why it matters: From online crossword puzzles to Call of Duty, popular games rarely tackle, or even broach, charged topics. Books, music and other sectors of culture are far more likely to confront divisive subjects.

  • Indie game developers tend to take more risks.

Driving the news: The Times swapped out Monday’s originally planned Wordle answer, “fetus,” noting it unintentionally coincided with the leak of a draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

  • Or at least the Times tried to remove the word.
  • According to a note posted this morning, even though the answer was spotted in the game’s queue last week, the current tech behind the game prevented changing the puzzle for all users.

What they’re saying: “At New York Times Games, we take our role seriously as a place to entertain and escape, and we want Wordle to remain distinct from the news,” wrote Everdeen Mason, the Times’ editorial director for games.

  • Veteran game developer and New York University Game Center chair Naomi Clark called that a “dodge” that “denies an old truth: play and games, even when we think of them as escapism, gain part of their power and meaning from the roots they have in the rest of society and culture.” Retaining the original word, she added, “could have been an opportunity for thoughtful commentary.”

Between the lines: Game makers’ avoidance of content that is viewed as politically controversial is near-constant in big-budget games.

  • Ubisoft claimed that 2021's Far Cry 6, in which players take the role of a rebel in a Cuba-like country, wasn’t trying to make political statements about current-day Cuba. They later acknowledged games about repression and revolution are inherently political.

Yes, but word games are different, some experts say, and are not presented with the vivid context of a Call of Duty war game that gestures at reality.

  • “Generally, people play word games such as Wordle as a ritual, hoping to feel a sense of success and control in a world that’s out of control,” Ian Bogost, a veteran game designer and professor at Washington University in St. Louis, tells Axios. “For that reason, any reminder of the news or the uncomfortable world beyond the game might be construed as undesirable.”
  • Some New York Times crossword puzzle creators say they’ve tried to make their puzzles “apolitical,” a position criticized by puzzle critics as political, according to a January Kotaku report. Terms such as “NRA” have frequently appeared in the Times crossword, while “Donald Trump” rarely has.

What’s next: The Times says it's changing the tech behind Wordle to ensure it has control of the day’s answer for all users.

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