That Spelling Bee Obsession

Spelling Bee

I keep hearing from people who are nuts about the New York Times Spelling Bee. It’s a simple game, similar to dozens of other smartphone and web apps. It has nothing to do with crosswords because meanings are irrelevant. There’s no wordplay. You don’t particularly learn anything new. You’re not psyched out by “?” clues.

I was curious, so I investigated. I think I have at least an inkling now. Here’s what I learned:

The game itself is fun

It must be. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many versions. After trying it myself for a few days, I agree.

The software is solid

The NYT games developers are excellent. The user interface is immediately understandable, the animations are smooth, the coding is first-rate, your current state is preserved across sessions and across devices, so you can start it on your laptop in the morning and continue on your phone when you’re standing in line for your latte.

Each game is well-curated

Sam Ezersky is credited as the editor. A simple computer program might generate games algorithmically but finding good ones requires a human with a good sense for the right level of challenge and fun. Accomplishment levels are well calibrated. Sam does an excellent job.

You wait for the answers

Even digital NYT crosswords used to work this way – Across Lite solutions were hidden with an unlock code that was revealed the next day – but that ended when clever bloggers posted answers on-line, sometimes within minutes of publication. With no quick way to solve the Bee, you’re encouraged to keep working at it. Like crosswords, answers you can’t see are sometimes obvious after you take a break. That feeling can be very satisfying.

Sometimes Sam makes mistakes

Sometimes legitimate words are disallowed, or bogus words are accepted. This doesn’t sound like a benefit but see the next section.

Wordplay has built a community of Bee players

The huge advantage that the Spelling Bee has over similar competitors is that, by piggybacking on Wordplay, it has a built-in forum where Bee Brains can share their own experiences, brag about their accomplishments, or whine about Sam’s editorial shortcomings. Each Bee has its own blog post which includes hints if you’re stuck. Whether or how you use the hints can be part of the conversation. They’ve even developed their own delightfully arcane language to talk about it. Are you a QB? Better yet, a QBABM?

Now what?

Try it if you’re intrigued. If you’re susceptible to word-game addiction, though, stay well clear.

This is a good time to remind you that XWord Info is not part of the New York Times. We have a long history of cooperation with the Times going back to the beginning of the Wordplay blog but we’re independent.

Your thoughts?