When Kartik Chandra made Shabdle—a Hindi version of Wordle—he didn’t think it would get a single loyal player. A student at MIT, Chandra had seen Wordle spinoffs in foreign languages, and was inspired to make a Hindi 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 players had grown bored of the English Wordle, and ‘Hindi Wordle’ was a rising search term in India. So when Chandra’s project met this need, it ended up with over 200,000 players.
As of June, Shabdle, and other Indian language Wordles like Accher (Kashmiri), Shabdakhool (Marathi) Tamil Aadal (Tamil) and Shobdle (Bengali) have carved a special place for themselves on the Indian Internet. Not only have these games allowed people to enjoy a global trend without the barriers of English, but they have also allowed expats and youngsters to connect with their native languages in a fun and meaningful new way.
Tamil Aadal: a case of the ‘ideal’ outcome
“The game was played by a lot of grandparents and grandchildren together,” says Chennai techie P Sankar, about his game Tamil Aadal (‘playing with Tamil’). Sankar was surprised by how quickly people rallied around his creation: it seemed everyone was waiting for a single person to ignite the spark.
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Tamil Aadal received 3,000 visitors on day one, and soon had a line of enquiries from Tamil speakers around the world—including young, first-generation Americans—who wanted to help with the game’s code. Eventually, the community took over the reins. “Apart from the initial few days of coding, I do not do much for the project now. I just tweet about the new word everyday, but the word setting is all by the community,” says Sankar, who wanted to ‘take Tamil to the digital age’. His spinoff definitely seems to be paving the way.
Tamil Aadal has unexpectedly found enough wordmasters to keep the game running for over a year since launch, and scores of people still play every day. Sankar also introduced themes: words from songs by Ilayaraja, from Sangam literature, from Tamil book names. And if public support wasn’t motivation enough, Tamil Aadal also won Google’s international Serverless Hackathon, which focused on bringing new ideas to market. Safe to say, Sankar’s game is no one-week wonder.
From too many players, to not enough
In similar fashion, Haider Ali Punjabi, 23, had the goal of positive representation when making his Kashmiri Wordle, Accher (‘alphabet’ in Kashmiri). An MCA student in Srinagar, Punjabi knew how to weave the Kashmiri script into tech projects, and made Accher with a simplified keyboard to keep the game easy. But soon, he hit a demographic roadblock.
“The only audience of this game was people who could read/write Kashmiri, which unfortunately, I learned, was a very small number,” reflects Punjabi. “A majority of people in Kashmir don’t know how to read or write it, though they can speak it very well. This is largely because Kashmiri wasn’t taught in schools. It was introduced when I was in school, so people my age and younger do have some exposure to it.”
Kashmiri is spoken by around 7 million people in India, as per the 2011 census. But Punjabi isn’t one to lament about the lack of players; instead, he wants to help overcome it with multiple digital projects. “One of my goals is to add examples of Kashmiri on the Internet, so that newer generations will be interested in it,” he says.
Shobdle: Love from across the border
In a separate chat, the creators of Shobdle, the Bengali Wordle, echoed this interest of putting quality language projects online—of course, they’d have a lot more players to work with. Combining India, Bangladesh and the diaspora, Bengali has over 200 million speakers worldwide.
Shobdle (‘shobdo’ meaning ‘word’) was developed by Dhaka tech company Devs Core for International Mother Language Day (February 21). Also known as Shahid Dibosh, it’s an important holiday there to remember those martyred for the Bengali language movement. But despite launching with this patriotic connection, Shobdle got more attention from West Bengal than it did in Bangladesh.
Devs Core isn’t sure how this happened, but they’re glad for the support from Indians—and the growing pile of suggestions and bug reports, which has prompted them to work on a version 2. It could become an engaging learning tool, says CMO Md Tahseen Quayum, but the lack of digital resources on Bengali is a problem. “Given Bangla’s huge corpus of words, we often get reports that a legitimate word is rejected in the game. The dictionary we used just did not have these…there is still a great deal to be done for Bengali’s digital infrastructure.”
The challenge of using Indian scripts
With English as the lingua franca—and the Roman alphabet being easier for typing—there hasn’t been much incentive for Indian scripts to grow online for commercial use. Sure, you’ll find them on some blogs and news portals, on song lyric sites. But to make an accurate Indian-language Wordle, you need a complete dictionary in that script, available as an open-source file. Otherwise, like Shobdle, you’ll always have players complaining about missing words.
Once you find an acceptable dictionary, the second challenge is turning that script into your on-screen keyboard. Like Accher, if the alphabet is too big, you have to remove some letters (and thus words) to keep the game simple. You also have to account for how Indian consonants combine to make conjuncts: the ‘-ksh’ in ‘shiksha’, or the ‘-thh’ in ‘patthar’, for example. How would you input that in a way that players can actually guess it? Does each conjunct get its own box, do you separate them, or do you remove all words with conjuncts?
These challenges certainly push Indian Wordle players to think about their mother tongue in a deeper way to win, a way that is not required in English. Caltech astronomer Ashish Mahabal, who made Marathi Wordle Shabdakhool, has solved the conjunct problem by providing the ‘shape’ of the word and the number of conjuncts in each letter:
“People have been having fun trying to think of words by shape. Many said that they had never done that exercise,” shares Mahabal. But the extra time needed to think differently also alienates impatient players, who want an easy solve. This holds back nuanced games like Shabdakhool from going truly viral, even if it has a big pool of speakers. But Mahabal doesn’t seem too bothered by it. His larger desire of people engaging with the Devanagari script has taken off, with users on Marathi site Maayboli, as well as on Facebook, posting Shabdakhool scores daily. Shabdakhool now has three versions: an infinite one (the original), and daily ones with three and four letters, and there is promise for its audience to grow.
How can Indian-language games truly blossom?
In short, if you give them multiple chances, and contribute—with code, design or PR—wherever you can. Almost all of the Indian Wordles started out as passion projects, with no expectations for virality. Many were launched at the same time, or even before famous spinoffs like Nerdle or Worldle. Yet, their visitor count comes nowhere close to the foreign versions.
This might be due to a lack of marketing, but it’s also because there is a deep-rooted apprehension among Indians towards trying things that challenge our everyday patterns of thinking, even if it’s something as harmless as a puzzle.
Chandra, who made the Hindi Wordle, says he’s happy to keep his game running as long as it brings people joy. The other developers show no signs of wanting to shut shop either. But to motivate such early creators to keep going, players have the responsibility to engage, amplify and show solidarity.
In the US, UK and Canada, Wordle is already being used for K-12 education, for corporate tournaments, and for daily bonding in employee game leagues. We already have the tech ready, so with enough awareness, what’s to say that desi spinoffs can’t unlock the same potential in India?
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