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Puzzlers gather 'round the digital water cooler to talk daily games

In the daily Connections puzzle from <em>The New York Times</em>, players divide a grid of 16 words into four groups of four.
Beth Novey
In the daily Connections puzzle from The New York Times, players divide a grid of 16 words into four groups of four.

It's hard to find water-cooler TV anymore in the same way it once existed. That's partly because it's hard to find water coolers, and because fewer people even work in offices. But it's also because TV has fragmented and spread out in time, and audiences — especially same-night live audiences — are much, much smaller. Fortunately, social media has found at least one way to scratch at least some of the same itches: the daily puzzle habit.

There have always been "do the NYT crossword and talk about it" people; they deserve their due. But it felt like a new chapter of this kicked off when Wordle became really hot early in 2022. It was an indie game, similar to lots of old games and even one game show, but everybody seemed to agree that one of its genius moves was to make it very easy to share your result without spoiling the answer for anybody who hadn't played yet. Regrettably for those of us who prefer for no one outlet to own too much of anything, The New York Times bought Wordle shortly after it became popular and folded it into their puzzles app, along with the crossword and Spelling Bee, which debuted in 2018 and also has a healthy online chatter component, particularly over which words were allowed and which ones weren't.

The NYT app has continued to add on since then. I don't play Tiles or Letter Boxed, and I've never been a Sudoku person, because other than the very easiest ones, I'm terrible at it. But I do the crossword basically every day, and the Wordle, and the Spelling Bee, and now the daily Connections puzzle, too, where you divide a grid of 16 words into four groups of four based on some kind of thread that, well, connects them. Connections is somewhat controversial! (I use this term in a relative sense.) Some people think it's way too easy or the answers are too random, but I sort of like it. It doesn't take long, compared to something like the Spelling Bee that I can come back to again and again all day.

It's not limited to that, though. I challenge myself with Box Office Game on many, though not all, days. It's a great little exercise where you try to identify the top five movies from some random weekend in history — today, as I write this, it was the weekend of Dec. 29, 1995. You reveal clues until you can figure out what movie it is, and it has really caused me to learn a few things about myself. I'm terrible at remembering what year movies came out, for instance, so if I realize from the clues that it's, say, a Star Wars movie, I'm going to take some wild guesses before I figure out which one. And if it's James Bond or it's an interchangeable action person like Steven Seagal? I'm not going to remember which movie was Hard to Kill and which one was Under Siege, let alone which year they came out. I'm best at years from about 1985 to 2000, when I was in my late teens and 20s, gradually becoming very attached to popular culture of all kinds.

I love to follow social reactions to the Box Office Game too, particularly from my friend Joe Reid, who co-hosts the podcast This Had Oscar Buzz, because Joe has an eye-poppingly brilliant recall of movies and when they came out. My highest scores are similar to Joe's lowest scores.

I also take news quizzes — there's one in Slate that I take every week, there's one in the NYT, and there's now a terrific one at NPR, too. (Although the NPR one sometimes points out the terribleness of the wrong answer you chose, like that you're off by 100 years or whatever. This is one of those "hurts so good" things you just have to embrace.)

And these, now, are the things I often process in real time along with other people. If I want to complain about a Spelling Bee word? I throw that on social media, and somebody else will be mad, too. Yesterday, I saw a joke go by about the weird Connections puzzle of the day, and I nodded knowingly. A couple of weeks ago, the next day's NYT crossword failed to show up at 10:00 p.m. as it usually does, and since that's often the last thing I do before I go to bed, I wailed to Twitter that my winding-down routine was ruined. And guess what — someone else's was, too.

It's not the summer of "Who Shot J.R.?" by any means. Connections is not a cliffhanger. But if I can go out there and find at least one person who also doesn't understand why "FELLA" is allowed in the Spelling Bee and "HOLLA" is not, isn't that basically the same thing?

This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.