A play on Wordle: using games to communicate climate issues

Almost 150,000 people have played IIED’s Wordle spin-off that focuses on providing an environmental message. Matt Wright reflects on the game’s communication lessons

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Insight by 
Matt Wright
Web planning and content manager in IIED’s Communications Group
15 March 2022
A close-up of a young girl, amid a crowd of people, looking at a mobile phone being held up for her

She's not checking out A Greener Worldle, but Greta Thunberg was one of the game's five-letter answers ("Greta") last month. While names aren't strictly within the rules, we felt it was appropriate to include the incredible climate activist (Photo: Victoria Pickering, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Taking advantage of a craze for an online word game might not be where you expect to find an organisation like IIED, which prides itself on rigorous research and influencing policy change. 

But over the last six weeks our eco-friendly adaptation of the Wordle game has introduced a wider audience to climate and environment issues. It has received international media coverage and been played and shared by over 150,000 people, including eminent climate scientists and some of our key donors.

The idea to produce a variation of the popular Wordle game with answers focusing on climate and the environment came from Twitter where I saw a digital marketing lecturer had constructed a version using just marketing words as a learning device for his students.

At the time, only a few other Wordle imitations had already launched, such as Queerdle, one for choral music and a few versions using rude words (I still think these missed a trick by not calling either SwearWordle). The idea felt fresh and unusual, especially in the international development sector, not usually known for the speed with which it embraces new trends. 

It felt like there was an opportunity to do something different and harness the attention that Wordle was generating. We could produce something to help keep climate change at the forefront of people's minds and get a wider audience thinking about such critical issues in a different way.

Wordle of mouth

Our biggest initial problem was its name. We struggled to find a one-word sound-alike to Wordle that conveyed our environmental theme, so started to explore the similarity between Wordle and ‘world’. A colleague  then pointed out how the tiles turning green when you got a letter correct and in the right place chimed neatly with our message. 

‘A Greener Worldle’ was born – and also the slogan we would use in the marketing: “You want to turn the tiles green, just like the planet…”. A few hours later we had brainstormed enough answers to last at least three months.

One final hurdle was ensuring that the director of our climate change group was on board with our plans. Not only did she greet the idea enthusiastically, she highlighted how, when you’re working alongside partners on the climate frontline, dealing with the loss of lives and livelihoods, it is important to be able to step away and de-stress with fun things like this.

Spreading the Wordle

With A Greener Worldle launched in under five working days (and at a cost of less than £400), it was rewarding to see the results were just as immediate. Within weeks there were over 5,000 people playing the game every day, with visitors from more than 150 countries. At peak times there is someone playing A Greener Worldle every nine seconds.

Within 24 hours of launch, respected climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe had tweeted about it to her 200,000-plus followers and it was included in the Washington Post’s Climate 202 newsletter and on its main website. 

Amid further media coverage the chief executive of the Gates Foundation – a major donor – shared his results on Twitter and we received praise from campaigners for digital sustainability for producing a version that was more environmentally friendly than the original. Our hosting provider for the site is 100% eco-friendly, of course.

We received thanks from people who were delighted to see climate issues being reflected in all areas of life to those just pleased to have an extra Wordle to do each day. Importantly, we’ve noticed many people acting as our advocates, telling others in their network about the game and encouraging them to join in.

We’ve also noticed comments that the answers – such as ‘money’ and ‘debts’ – have prompted people to think harder about the connections between them and the climate/environment.

Not everything went completely smoothly. On day three we had to fix a bug that meant the correct answer wasn’t being recognised. And we’ve also made a couple of small updates based on suggestions from users, such as automatically adding a hashtag and a planet emoji for when the results are shared.

A Wordle to the wise

Over the following weeks more than 300 other wild and wonderful Wordle clones were launched to compete for attention, but we already believe that A Greener Worldle has done its job.

By reacting quickly, we seized the zeitgeist and provided something that captured people’s interest. And the positive response, particularly from audiences who already knew us, showed that there is an opportunity for us to be a bit more playful than our traditional image might suggest. 

Time pressure and a busy workload can mean that it’s often easy to stick to what you know. The idea for A Greener Worldle came from keeping an open mind, and then being ready to run with a new idea that could be implemented at little cost and with limited risk.

Rather than feeling daunted by taking on a new challenge, it’s been inspiring and a lot of fun tracking who’s playing the game and where in the world they are. It’s made us want to do more of the same.

This blog has been adapted from one originally written for the Charity Comms website.

About the author

Matt Wright ([email protected]) is web planning and content manager in IIED’s Communications Group

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