When Kartik Chandra Shabdle made – an Indian version of Wordle – he didn’t think he would have one loyal player. Chandra, an MIT student, had seen Wordle’s publications in foreign languages, and felt inspired to make an Indian prototype while on vacation. “I simply put it online to show some friends…and then forgot about it.”
But this was in January, when Wordle’s popularity was booming. Regular gamers were tired of the English word wordle, and “Hindi Wordle” was a rising search term in India. So when the Chandra project fulfilled that need, it ended up with over 200,000 players.
As of June, Shabdle and other Hindi-language Wordles such as Accher (Kashmiri), Shabdakhool (Marathi) Tamil Aadal (Tamil), and Shobdle (Bengali) have carved a special niche for themselves on the Indian Internet. These games not only allowed people to enjoy a global orientation without the barriers of English, but also allowed expats and young people to connect with their native languages in a fun and meaningful way.
Tamil Adal: A case of an ‘ideal’ score
“A lot of grandparents and great-grandchildren have played this game together,” says Chennai technician B Sankar, of his game Tamil Adal (“Playing with Tamils”). Sankar was surprised at how quickly people rallied around his creation: everyone seemed to be waiting for one person to ignite the spark.
Tamil Aadal had 3,000 visitors on its first day, and soon received a host of inquiries from Tamil speakers around the world – including young, first-generation Americans – who wanted to help code the game. In the end, society took over. “Aside from the first few days of programming, I don’t do much for the project now. His sub-level seems to be paving the way for sure,” says Sankar, who wanted to “take Tamil into the digital age.”
Tamil Aadal has unexpectedly found enough script pros to keep the game running for over a year since its launch, and dozens of people are still playing it every day. Sankar also introduced themes: words from Ilayaraja songs, from Sangam literature, from Tamil book names. And if public support wasn’t enough to keep going, Tamil Aadal also won the international Google Serverless Hackathon, which focused on bringing new ideas to market. It’s safe to say Sankar is no wonder for a week.
From too many players, to not enough
In a similar way, Haider Ali Punjabi, 23, was aiming for positive representation when making his Kashmiri words, Accher (“alphabet” in Kashmiri). An MCA student in Srinagar, Punjabi knew how to weave Kashmiri script into technical projects, Accher made a simplified keyboard to keep the game easy. But he soon hit a demographic barrier.
“The only audience in this game are people who can read/write Kashmiri, which unfortunately, I knew was a very small number,” she reflects in Punjabi. “The majority of people in Kashmir do not know how to read or write Kashmiri, although they can speak it very well. This is largely because Kashmiri was not taught in schools. It was introduced when I was in school, so people my age and younger They are exposed to it quite a bit.”
Kashmiri is spoken by about 7 million people in India, according to the 2011 census. But Punjabi is not one to lament the lack of players. Instead, he wants to help beat it with multiple digital projects. “One of my goals is to add examples of Kashmiri online, so that new generations will be interested in them,” he says.
Shopdle: Love Across Borders
In a separate conversation, the creators of Shobdle, the Bengali Wordle, echoed this interest in putting quality language projects online — of course, they’ll have plenty of players to work with. Bringing together India, Bangladesh and the diaspora, Bengali has over 200 million speakers worldwide.
Shobdle (“shobdo” meaning “word”) was developed by Dhaka technology company Devs Core on the occasion of International Mother Language Day (21 February). Also known as Shahid Debush, this is an important holiday in Bangladesh to remember those who were martyred in the Bengali language movement. But despite kicking off this national association, Shobdle has garnered more attention from West Bengal than from Bangladesh.
Devs Core don’t know how this happened, but they are happy with the support from the Indians – and the growing number of suggestions and bug reports, which led them to work on version 2. It might become an attractive learning tool, says CMO Md Tahseen Quayum, but the lack of digital resources in Bengali is a problem. “Due to the huge collection of Bengali words, we often get reports of a legitimate word being rejected in the game. The dictionary we just used did not have these… There is still a lot to be done for the Bengali digital infrastructure.”
The challenge of using Hindi scripts
With English being a lingua franca – and the Roman alphabet becoming easier to write – there wasn’t much incentive to grow Hindi scripts online for commercial use. Sure, you will find them on some blogs and news portals, on lyrics sites. But to create a completely accurate Hindi Wordle, you need a complete and standardized dictionary in this script, available as an open source file. Other than that, like Shobdle, you will always have players complaining about missing words.
Once you find an acceptable dictionary, the second challenge is to turn this script into an on-screen keyboard. Like Accher, if the alphabet is too large, you have to remove some letters (and thus words) to keep the game simple. You also have to take into account how Hindi consonants are combined to form associations: “-ksh” in “shiksha”, or “-thh” in “patthar”, for example. How do you introduce that into the game, in a way that players can actually guess? Does each tool get its own square, do you separate them, or remove all the words with links?
These challenges are sure to push Indian Wordle players to think about their native language in a deeper way so that they can win, in a way that is not required in English. Caltech astronomer Ashish Mahabal, who made the Marathi Wordle Shabdakhool, solved the linking problem by providing the ‘shape’ of the word and the number of hyphens in each letter:
“People had fun trying to think of words by shape. Many said they had never done this exercise,” shares Mahabal. But the extra time needed to think differently also alienates impatient players who want an easy solution. This prevents games with nuances like Shabdakhool from going really viral, even if they have a large selection of speakers. But Mahabal doesn’t seem too upset with him. His biggest desire to engage with the Devanagari script has taken off somewhat, with users posting on the Marathi Maayboli website, as well as on Facebook, their results in Shabdakhool daily. Shepdakhul now has three versions: an infinite version (the original), and a daily three- and four-letter version, and there’s a promise that its audience will grow.
How can Hindi language games really thrive?
In short, if you give them multiple opportunities, and contribute – using code, design or PR – wherever you can. Almost all Indian Wordles started as passion projects, with no expectations of spreading. Several were launched at the same time, or even Before Popular publications such as Nerdle or Worldle. However, the number of their visitors does not come close to foreign editions.
This may be due to a lack of marketing, but it is also because there are deep-rooted fears among many Indians about constantly trying things that challenge our daily thought patterns, even if they are something as innocuous as a puzzle.
Chandra, who made the game Indian Wordle, says he is happy to continue playing his game as long as it brings joy to people. Other developers are showing no signs of wanting to shut down the store either. But to motivate these early creators to keep going, players have a responsibility to share, amplify, and show solidarity.
In the US, UK, and Canada, Wordle is already used for K-12 education, for corporate tournaments, and for everyday bonding in employee gaming tournaments. We already have the technology ready, so with enough awareness, what are we saying that Forums Can’t subsidiaries unleash the same potential in India?