Capitalism Hates Collective Fun

Human beings are wired for collective, public fun — the kind that a game like Wordle provides. But capitalism, with its relentless drive to privatize, insists instead that entertainments are best experienced as individualized, solitary pursuits.

Although each person plays alone, Wordle is a communal experience because the daily word is the same for everyone. (Jakub Porzycki / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Online commentary and complaint have flowed freely ever since the New York Times announced it was buying Wordle, the online puzzle game that became a global sensation, and I’m hardly alone in lamenting the likelihood that Wordle will soon be transformed from a kind of public good available to all free of charge into yet another gated and paywalled internet amenity.

But as one of the many people for whom Wordle has become an indispensable daily pleasure, what I find most dispiriting about the news is not just the prospect of the game’s commodification, as undesirable as that may be. In fact, it wouldn’t be rational, under capitalism, for Josh Wardle, Wordle’s creator, to continue to provide us with his brilliant idea and daily labor for free, given that he also needs to work at a real job and survive in Brooklyn. To his credit, he has not been greedy: Wardle probably could have sold the concept for much more money to a gaming company. The New York Times was not the worst choice; even if the Times does monetize Wordle, it will at least help support the paper’s newsgathering, which is always badly needed.

Even more than the relentless drive to turn everything into a profitable product, what the Wordle saga highlights for me about capitalism is its relentless drive to narrow, fence off, and privatize any kind of communal, collective fun.

Although each person plays alone, Wordle is a communal experience because the daily word is the same for everyone. A sharing feature makes it easy to show others your results with a color-coded grid that shows how close you got in how many guesses, without revealing the word. Most days, my teenage son and I text each other with our grids and scores. I do not post my Wordle outcomes on social media, because I get why people who don’t play find this practice tedious, but I enjoy seeing everyone else’s. I used to think the posting of scores and grids was braggy and annoyingly competitive, but that is not the dominant spirit in which people are sharing them. Rather, it’s delightful to see how many different routes everyone takes to get to the same endpoint.

But Wordle is not a unique case. Consider the state of minor league baseball. Many towns are losing their teams, because for the Major League brands, which are the parent companies, the minor leagues aren’t profitable on their own, and the farm system is no longer the most efficient way to generate Major League players in the era of predictive stats. Never mind that minor league games provide hours of joy for working-class people and a sense of community for many small towns and cities. (For a sense of the economic logic of this travesty and what our culture is losing, I recommend this beautifully reported recent Harper’s article on the demise of the Appalachian League.) Capitalism does not incentivize collective joy.

The same can be said of many other small collective pleasures: many of us enjoy Instagram, TikTok and Facebook, as well as video games, but the profit motive has eroded at least some of this digital fun over time. In response to the uproar over Facebook’s ludicrous new 3D avatars, BuzzFeed’s Kelsey Weekman wrote this week that “we shouldn’t always let our distaste toward social media billionaires keep us from having fun online.” I admire her attitude, but they do vastly complicate our efforts to do so. Video games and social media platforms are engineered to be addictive, which is more profitable for the companies, but can cause stress in the rest of our lives and a range of mental health hazards, especially for young people. Social media algorithms favor content that will make users angry or upset, embroiling us in pointless conflict, which, for those of us initially compelled by the potential of these platforms for sharing photos of cats playing with cardboard boxes, has been disappointing. We love creating and sharing playlists on Spotify, a pleasure recently marred by the controversy over Joe Rogan’s anti-vaccine propaganda, but the latter is far more profitable for the company than our playlists, or, sadly, even Neil Young or Joni Mitchell’s music.

In the late twentieth century, when the Berlin Wall was coming down and the Soviet Union was coming apart, part of the West’s appeal to the communist youth of the East Bloc was that the consumer pleasures of capitalism seemed more fun than the sober austerity of their societies. Our discos were louder and more sparkly. Our blue jeans were more varied and up to date. Yet in more important ways, capitalism has turned out to be less fun than socialism. As Kristen Ghodsee has observed, women of the East Bloc report that with all the economic stress and competition, postcommunist sex isn’t as good. People in postcommunist societies also report less time for leisure and friendship under capitalism than they enjoyed under communism.

Humans are wired to play, and we do so all the time, endlessly and inventively. But capitalism always ends up getting in the way. I still love Wordle and will keep playing for now, but, as a happy little time-out from the grind of the capitalist machine of individual work, consumption, and profit, its days are numbered.