Today we are going to be thinking about words, so let’s start with a little vocab‒what does “ludology” mean? If your Latin is strong enough that you recognize the opening syllable as coming from ludus or “game” then you can probably piece together that “ludology” would then be the study of games and play. Not that it works every time, but the more familiar you are with language (and yes, sometimes multiple languages), the more often you can reverse-engineer the meaning of a word from seeing its component parts. Of course, the rest of us can just Google it.

So why am I bringing up “ludology” other than to show off a liberal arts degree? Well, what this term means isn’t just the study of a particular game in the sense of learning rules and strategy, but a “ludologist” would be interested in all sorts of questions surrounding games. For instance, how intensely do different cultures take sporting events? What sorts of games do we decide are “for children” and which are “for adults”? How do concepts like sportsmanship evolve or change? And, as a final question, how is it that games help us learn and grow? This is what we will focus on today: the way that games and playing allow us to explore new problems, adapt to new contexts and internalize new information in ways that are actually fun rather than boring. This practice is particularly easy to see with regards to language whether you are looking for something slow and relaxing or something competitive and snappy!

Let’s talk about the new kid on the block first‒have you heard about Wordle? Or, more likely, have you been seeing people posting seemingly inscrutable matrixes of black, yellow and green squares on their social media while saying things like “This one was so hard?” What are they doing with those squares? Well, while there are tons of sites and apps that have built up imitation games, here is the Wordle that people are talking about. While you can see the rules for yourself, you are essentially trying to guess a five-letter word in six tries and the game gives you feedback if you guess a correct letter. It’s very intuitive and quick to pick up, but I’ll admit that I love opening it in the morning to take a stab at the daily word, and my group chats with friends and family tend to include little daily tangents about who got lucky with their guesses. As one final fun note, ludologists could write a Master’s thesis on people who do and who do not share their opening word selections on Wordle; you will have to see which type you are!

Of course, the long-reigning champion of word games is the crossword puzzle, and while some purists of the pencil-and-paper variety may disagree, I contend that doing a crossword puzzle has never been as accessible or interesting as it is today with digital crosswords. If you are someone who finds crosswords either frustrating or too slow, let me offer you these quick advertisements of how the puzzle has changed from their invention in 1913 to modern examples of today. First off‒no erasing, no scribbling out, just the cleanliness of digital type-and-erase, which means never trying to mentally keep an answer in place before writing it down on the page. Second, the ability in real time to check for wrong answers either within a single space, a word or across your whole grid; sure this is a way of making the game easier, but another way of putting that is that it is more flexible to a quick schedule or a little more forgiving in areas of knowledge that aren’t your specialty (I always have to check actors’ names). And finally, given that you are doing the crossword on the exact same machine that has access to a full internet of information, you can actually learn from the clues you can’t answer. For a long time when I didn’t know a crossword answer such as “What is the capital of Uruguay?” I would look the answer up quickly, but because I wasn’t really applying or considering the information in any other sense than plugging it into the puzzle, that meant I never really retained that information. If you have the time and patience to actually look up and read a little information on Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, or actually put a name and face together for that actress you couldn’t’ recall, then you do actually stand a strong chance of picking up a few things each time you do a crossword. Oh, and some services even let you share your puzzle link with a friend so you can collaborate even if you aren’t in the same room.

As promised, if you are someone who prefers some competition rather than a puzzle to reflect on, then it really is hard to beat Scrabble. And just like the crossword above, Scrabble has benefitted enormously from its adaptation to a digital environment. OK, yes, I’ll admit that there is something extremely hard to replace about physically moving your tiles back and forth on your little rack; the feeling of smug satisfaction as you watch your ready-to-play word just sitting there while your opponent struggles is a sublime sensation. That said: what are the bad parts of Scrabble? It takes quite a while. Keeping score manually is a drag. Going to the dictionary for adjudication feels slow. If you have cats, then you know those tiles are going to get knocked around or even lost. Again, all of those are swept away by any sort of app or website that moves the game online. Now (subject to the rules or service you choose), a game can take days as players find spare time to play throughout the day; now, the score just tallies itself up for you; and now you have a built-in dictionary that will automatically watch your spelling.

Any of these avenues, I would contest, are a quick little addition to your day or morning routine that can help keep you sharp through the power of play. Any time we can find ways of working in a little mental exercise that makes us smile or gives us something to talk about with friends‒and for free‒we should consider that a fantastic opportunity.