From the Magazine

Inside The New York Times’ Big Bet on Games

Wordle. Connections. Spelling Bee. Ye olde crossword. The Times is home to beloved brainteasers that are helping boost the paper’s bottom line. As one staffer jokes, the “Times is now a gaming company that also happens to offer news.”
Joel Fagliano Zoe Bell Christina Iverson Will Shortz Everdeen Mason Sam Ezersky Jonathan Knight Wyna Liu and Tracy...
From left: Joel Fagliano, Zoe Bell, Christina Iverson, Will Shortz, Everdeen Mason, Sam Ezersky, Jonathan Knight, Wyna Liu, and Tracy Bennett, photographed at Sour Mouse in New York City.PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW SALACUSE.

On the ninth floor of the New York Times headquarters, high above the bustling newsroom, a group of editors are doing the Sunday crossword. Or, rather, they’re undoing it. The editors already accepted this submission, one of the 150 to 200 puzzles arriving weekly, and are now working through it clue by clue—questioning, waffling, rewriting. They nitpick and fact-check. They debate the timelessness of a hint; whether the solver’s reaction will be Oh, I guess versus Aha!

There’s a completed puzzle onscreen, along with little video boxes for editors beaming in, including Sam Ezersky, joining from upstate New York, and Christina Iverson, from her Iowa home, where a cat can occasionally be heard meowing in the background. A few seats away, Joel Fagliano, sporting a New York Times T-shirt, a hoodie, and Allbirds sneakers, hunches over his computer and clicks around the grid while reading each clue and its answer aloud. Fagliano, known for never letting a meeting run long, works efficiently but also lets the group nerd out when appropriate. Like now. “All right, ‘Norwegian city depicted in’—oh really? I didn’t know Oslo was in the background of The Scream,” Fagliano says. He pulls up an image of the iconic Edvard Munch painting. “Hard to say what’s back there,” he chuckles, squinting at the ghostly image. “It seems like it’s sort of a whirling.”

The other editors are similarly skeptical as to whether the city of Oslo, the answer to the proposed clue, is clearly identifiable in the painting. “It’s just a blur. Maybe Munch says it was. I know it’s in Oslo,” says Iverson, referring to the physical location of the work. “If the painting is in an Oslo art gallery, I like that,” Ezersky says. Fagliano, still googling, adds, “This says they located the spot to a fjord overlooking Oslo.”

They go back and forth—“City that inspired The Scream”? “Setting for”?—and return to the fact that the actual painting is currently housed in an Oslo museum. “That’s a standard clue angle. ‘City that’s the setting for Edvard Munch’s The Scream,’ ” Fagliano says, adding, “I feel like you can back-solve it by the fact that if you’ve seen a bunch of other clues, you know there’s the Munch museum there.”

He turns to me: “What do you think of this clue? Fair? Unfair?”

Seems fair to me, though my days start with more instant dopamine hits. Most mornings I wake up and play Wordle, which gives you six chances to guess a predetermined five-letter word. The game has become an international phenomenon, beloved by celebrities—Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Bradley Cooper are in a private group—TikTokers, and royals alike. Then I move onto Connections, a word-association game that officially launched in August and already has a devoted following, with more than 10 million weekly active users as of November. I save Spelling Bee, where I form words using a set of seven letters, for my morning commute. Sometimes I’ll throw in The Mini, a five-by-five version of the traditional crossword. Where there was once only a castle, now they are building a kingdom. Still, if you ask veteran puzzle master Will Shortz, the Times crossword remains “the anchor” of the growing stable of games. “It’s like if Playboy magazine back in its heyday had just been the interview and the cartoons—would it have worked without the pictorial?” he asks. “I don’t think so.”

Tracy Bennett, Christina Iverson, Sam Ezersky, Joel Fagliano, and Wyna Liu.PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW SALACUSE.

These games are critical to the Times’ business strategy in trying to reach users—and ideally, future paying subscribers—beyond its core news product. Of course, the Times is still competing for White House scoops with its traditional print and digital rivals and dispatching correspondents to war zones. But the company is also vying for people’s attention against every app on their home screen. So it’s developed products in recent years to satisfy the lifestyle needs of its audience: cooking, shopping (via what is now known as Wirecutter, acquired in a 2016 deal worth more than $30 million), sports (via The Athletic, the site it acquired in 2022 for $550 million), and audio, building on the success of The Daily with a slew of podcasts.

The products and the journalism coexist under what the Times calls “the bundle,” an offering that has turbocharged the company’s ambitious growth strategy. The bundle starts at $25 a month. The Times surpassed 10 million subscribers in November, with a goal of 15 million by the end of 2027.

“A lot of people are actually buying the bundle through our Games product,” says Times chief product officer Alex Hardiman. “That’s a pretty big shift in terms of where we were a year and a half ago, two years ago. And that is what is so powerful about games as a funnel.” People who engage with both news and games on any given week have the best long-term subscriber retention of any product combination in the bundle, and it isn’t lost within the Times newsroom just how integral Wordle, Connections, and the rest have become to the bottom line. As one Times staffer puts it: “The half joke that is repeated internally is that The New York Times is now a gaming company that also happens to offer news.”

When I visited the Times in October, I was greeted by Everdeen Mason, the editorial director of Games. Mason, who was sporting a newsprint-themed blouse and skirt, projected a spunky attitude—she loves anime, K-pop, and changing her hair color on a monthly basis—and also seemed a bit harried. (At one point in the day she apologized to her team during a meeting for coming off “more mean” on Slack than in person, adding, “I’m happy. I’m stressed but I’m happy.”) In the elevator, Mason told me she hoped I wouldn’t be bored by meetings full of puzzle-speak.


I’d envisioned the Games department as equal parts Santa’s workshop and a massive control room monitoring the world’s incorrect Wordle guesses. In reality it’s a conventional office setup—a smattering of desks and conference rooms on a floor that also houses Cooking staffers and some executive offices.

The Games department was originally just the crossword, which has appeared in the paper since 1942. “Crosswords very much grew out of the newsroom and the desire, as part of the old newspaper experience, to have some relief from what was actually at the time the unrelenting World War II news,” says Times executive editor Joseph Kahn. Shortz became editor in 1993 and immediately set out to modernize it. “There were older solvers who were not happy because now they were expected to know things they didn’t know,” says Shortz. “My feeling was, if younger solvers have to know older culture, older solvers should have to know younger culture,” like the answer to “ ‘If I Ruled the World’ rapper” (NAS), which appeared in a 1999 puzzle, or “Excellent, in modern slang” (PHAT), in 2003.

The 2006 documentary Wordplay, focusing on Shortz and his loyal following, helped boost the puzzle’s mainstream profile. Submissions, which were then received exclusively by snail mail, jumped from around 60 to 150 a week; summer interns helped Shortz keep up with the influx. In 2011 that intern was Fagliano, who, a few years earlier, at 17, had published his first puzzle in the paper. Fagliano graduated college in 2014 with a degree in linguistics and cognitive science and a gig at the Times. The paper was launching a new Crossword app and, soon after, a new daily puzzle, The Mini.

“I’ve always loved the New York Times crossword, but it took me three or four years to be able to eventually even do the New York Times crossword,” says Fagliano, now 31. He approached The Mini as “a crossword that made you feel good but also wasn’t dumbed down, that still had wit and fun references.” The puzzle could be turned around quickly—so much so that in 2015, two days after Slate wrote a piece trashing The Mini, Fagliano responded by making the answers to the three longest Across clues AWFUL PIECE SLATE. “I had no real oversight at that time,” Fagliano says, laughing.

Neither did the rest of the Games team, which then consisted of some 15 people. Over the next five years, that number would nearly triple. Today there are roughly 100 Games staffers, which is about the same size as the paper’s Business desk. Along with the puzzle editors, there is engineering, product management, marketing, data, and design. “We were like a start-up basically, hiding inside the larger company,” says former employee Sam Von Ehren, who was hired in 2016 to start prototyping new games aimed at reaching different types of players. Out of this process came puzzles like the letter-connecting Letter Boxed, the matching game Tiles, and Vertex, a version of connect the dots.

In 2017, Ezersky—a boyish quipster whom the other puzzle editors call Encyclopedia Sam due to his incredible memory—joined as the third puzzle editor following a two-week tryout. He was soon tapped to edit Spelling Bee, which had debuted in the paper’s print magazine a few years earlier and was about to launch digitally. The game gained a “small die-hard following,” Ezersky says, “but what I thought was growth and popularity paled in comparison to what happened just after the onset of the pandemic.” At a time when people were looking for ways to connect virtually, Spelling Bee offered a communal experience. Sometimes that experience was complaining, as users figured out they could bug Ezersky via Twitter about a missing word; other times it was boasting about reaching the highest level, as comedian Steve Martin did on occasion. Seth Meyers posted his word list, featuring “burgh,” to riff on the Pittsburgh Steelers.

By 2020, more than 850,000 people subscribed to Games—about a 40 percent increase from the year before—and more than 28 million people were playing at least one game. The product was rebranded from Times Crossword to Times Games. Two more puzzle editors, Wyna Liu and Tracy Bennett, joined the team as Jonathan Knight, a goateed games-industry veteran who’d worked on hits like The Sims and FarmVille, came on as its general manager. “It was really Spelling Bee, in a lot of ways, that helped the company realize what a much bigger opportunity there was in games,” says Knight, who notes that adding Spelling Bee to David Leonhardt’s “The Morning” newsletter—to which millions of people subscribed—helped open it up to a wider audience during the pandemic. “It was driving subscriptions that were stacking on top of what was a pretty healthy and growing Crossword subscription. And so then the vision became: What if we have a portfolio of games?”

Knight hired Mason, the Washington Post’s senior audience editor, as editorial director—someone who would both build out an ecosystem of content around Times Games and be a sort of middleman between the business side and the puzzle editors. “I’m like sword and shield, basically,” she says. The structure “helps protect them from capitalism. We’re not making them look at solve rates on a puzzle and edit based on them.”

During a flurry of meetings within the Games department, I watched Mason do a dance, switching modes between coworker and boss, manager and creator, all while balancing the pressure to expand this product and the capabilities of the handful of puzzle editors who fuel it. When I ask a question hinting at this tension, Mason flashes me a big, knowing grin before answering. “Our decisions are always going to be somewhat of a compromise to what the overall organization wants,” she says. “We’re not a pure games studio.”

Times Games rode the momentum into 2021, when it reached 1 million subscribers. Knight brought Spelling Bee into the Crossword app. He hired Zoe Bell, a seasoned game developer with whom he’d overlapped at Zynga, to be executive producer of Games—and to drive the greenlight process for new ones. Anyone across the Games department (or even outside of it) can pitch an idea for a new game. And there’s the annual Game Jam, a two-day hackathon where people across functions team up to imagine ideas for new games. “If they’ve got an engineer on their team, they can build an actual prototype and you can play it,” says Knight. All ideas are reviewed by a concept committee that includes Bell, Knight, and Mason. First they weigh whether the game will be fun. Ultimately they’ll want it to feel responsive (e.g., the jingle upon completion of the crossword), offer positive reinforcement (the progress bar of Spelling Bee), and feel like it has a clear goal. After they start greenlighting phases of deeper development, they’ll build a prototype, test it internally, prep it for an external beta with real users, run the beta, and do more research. At each step, they vote on whether to proceed or kill it. For a taxi-driving game in the prototype stage over the summer, which offered the experience of navigating traffic, it was the latter. “It felt like a little kid’s game,” says Bell. “We couldn’t figure out how it would be sophisticated enough for the Times audience or different enough from day to day.”

In the summer of 2022, they experimented with a chess column, an interactive story puzzle with commentary from chess grand master Daniel Naroditsky. It started as daily but, due to the editorial lift, moved to weekly. Less than three months later they stopped the column entirely. “When we looked at the traffic, people just weren’t really developing enough of a habit,” says Bell. It was a far cry from the hits incubated at the Times—or in one notable case, acquired—that have proven instantly addictive.

On January 3, 2022, the Times published an article about Wordle, a viral word game that Josh Wardle, a software engineer, had created for his partner. Wordle was the subject of various Slack messages Knight received that day, and when he played it, he understood why. “The next morning I woke up thinking about the game as soon as my eyes opened. Solved it again. Thought: Oh, I can’t wait for tomorrow.”


Knight got an early look at Wordle’s metrics and was encouraged by its retention rates. His first call with Wardle was January 5; the Times announced publicly that it had acquired the game on January 31. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen us move on an acquisition this fast,” says Hardiman.

Around the same time, the game became the subject of SNL cold opens and millions of tweets. Anderson Cooper and Monica Lewinsky gushed about their mutual obsession on air. Vice President Kamala Harris admitted during a DNC fundraiser that she’d been playing Wordle when she couldn’t sleep. Camilla, not yet the queen of England, told British Vogue that she played it every day with her granddaughter. On TikTok, previously unknown creators became “puzzle influencers,” with daily videos of themselves playing Wordle and the many spin-offs that the game inspired, from Thirtle (solve 30 Wordles as fast as possible) to Nerdle (use numbers and symbols to form a math equation). “I’m sure that the other news organizations’ games are fun, but you don’t have that comparison and that connection,” says Savannah DeLullo, an influencer who has turned her Wordle-related TikToks into a full-time job and recently made videos playing Wordle with the Jonas Brothers and Ed Sheeran.

“Wordle really lowered our age demographics,” says Bell, bringing in people “very social in their play.” The Times raced to stabilize its audience, adding a log-on to capture people’s stats and streaks. “We called it Hot Wordle Summer internally,” says Bell. They tried not to break anything along the way. Wordle, as the Times received it, was set up with a list of randomly selected words that would last through 2027. An unfortunate coincidence revealed the limits to the algorithm in May 2022 when, a week after news leaked that the Supreme Court was poised to strike down Roe v. Wade, the game inadvertently chimed into the national abortion discourse with the randomly selected word FETUS.

That summer the Times asked Bennett, who’d been hired in 2020, to oversee the game. Her prior jobs, including one managing copy editors at a mathematical journal, made her well suited for the database-management aspect of editing Wordle. She also has the disposition, with a calm, unassuming nature that balances out the frenzy around the game. She scrambled the list of words, as some people had figured out how to unearth the solutions from Wardle’s site. She conceived of a “week-by-week flow,” with varying difficulties and parts of speech. She briefly experimented with a themed word—FEAST on Thanksgiving—to the ire of some players. “It did change the rules of the game in a way that I hadn’t really thought about,” she admits. “Having to guess what the editor might be thinking on a particular day does add an element to the game.”

Tracy Bennett, Sam Ezersky, Joel Fagliano, Jonathan Knight, Zoe Bell, Christina Iverson, Will Shortz, Wyna Liu, and Everdeen Mason.PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW SALACUSE.

Bennett chooses her words about six weeks in advance, using a random-number generator associated with each word in the database to generate a week’s worth of Wordles. “Sometimes I see problems, and that’s when the editing comes in,” says Bennett. “I’ll say, ‘I’m not gonna have this next to that,’ ” or “ask my superiors if it’s better to wait on that word and run it another time, based on the news cycle”—something she hasn’t yet had to do. She has, however, deleted some words from Wardle’s list—fewer than 20—mostly because they were obscure, borderline vulgar, or derogatory. She’s only added eight of her own, including kazoo and snafu. When I interviewed her via Zoom—she’s based in Ann Arbor, Michigan—Bennett, who has red cat-eye glasses and curly gray hair, shyly conceded that another word she added, guano, was unpopular. “It’s actually a really common element of fertilizer.” She laughed faintly, shrugging. “I don’t know, I live in the country.”

By 2023, the Times was ready to start looking for its next big game. “Wordle didn’t create the games market for us, but it really accelerated growth and our own ambitions,” says Hardiman. As it turns out, they already had a hit: Connections, a word-association game first pitched during Game Jam in 2021, along with the numbers-based game Digits, which was tabled when Wordle came along.

Digits launched in beta in April and a Connections beta followed in June. The Times doesn’t do big marketing pushes around its betas, in part because it wants to keep the audience as constant as possible between each game it’s testing. With Digits, when the team looked at the player retention and how often people were returning, “they really weren’t,” says Bell. “Outside of a core audience, I think people viewed it more as schoolwork.” Connections, on the other hand, had a “really stable” number after a month. In August, the Times shut down Digits and moved Connections out of beta and into its permanent suite of puzzles. It wasn’t exactly ready, but “it just went gangbusters,” says Mason. “Now that we’re a core part of the Times strategy, the expectation is to turn a lot faster,” she adds.

Connections was the most “constructor-driven thing we’d done since maybe The Mini,” says Knight. “You can kind of feel it when you play it—there’s a person on the other end trying to trick you, right?” That person is Wyna Liu, whom the Times hired in 2020. Liu was an obvious choice to construct Connections, not only because she didn’t yet oversee her own game, but also given her artistic nature. “I don’t think a computer would do a great job of making this game,” says Fagliano, which he notes is particularly “creative.” (Liu also designs jewelry, some of which she was wearing on the day I visited, along with a flowy Issey Miyake–styled dress and chunky sandals that she slipped off during meetings.)


Liu was working as a yoga teacher when she first met Fagliano in December 2017 on a seven-night Times crossword–themed cruise. “My mom got the travel brochure and calls me one day and is like, ‘So, we should go on this crossword cruise, because you love crosswords and I love cruises,’ ” says Liu. “I met Joel. We just hung out in the spa.” Fagliano was on board as entertainment, leading live crossword-making classes for guests. “I figured that was the Rubicon of puzzle nerdiness, and I was just like, okay, I’m no longer afraid to go to a puzzle event,” says Liu. She spent that year attending “every puzzle tournament” and worked up the courage to start making her own puzzles. By 2019 she’d had one published in the Times.

I’m sitting in a room with Fagliano and Liu as they tell me this story, finishing each other’s thoughts as they go. Fagliano is warm and paternal, holding weekly office hours for anyone who needs to discuss their puzzle and training the next generation of puzzle editors the way Shortz trained him. “My job is to just help our other editors flourish when they’re making their puzzles,” he says—in addition to maintaining the ones he’s in charge of. When I ask who edits Connections, Liu tells me Fagliano does. “We do it together,” Fagliano adds.

Connections is “very much a paper-first process for me,” says Liu, whose notebook is overflowing with ideas for different categories. She slides her notebook across the table to me, and Fagliano looks over my shoulder, exuding not only pride in the game but admiration for Liu as we flip through the pages. Sometimes she’ll start with “just a fun group of words that I want to see,” says Liu. In her notebook it looks something like this:

She spins downward off of each word, creating groups of associated words underneath. NANA becomes a group of Peter Pan characters. GAGA becomes LADY __. DADA is the first in a series of art movements. HAHA is one way to signal laughter over text.

Liu pours herself into the game, so much so that when I recall a certain board from a few weeks back that was particularly fun, she says, “Thank you,” as if I am complimenting her child. One type of challenge for players to sort out is a fifth word that could work for multiple categories. “I distinctly remember the week when you started experimenting with that, and it got so much harder,” Fagliano says to her. “My dad texted me,” says Liu. “He was like, ‘Your cousins say your game is too hard.’ ”

Connections caught some heat upon release, with some pointing out its resemblance to a long-running BBC program called Only Connect. When I ask Knight about this criticism, he notes that word association is a pretty common genre of word game and says the Times is “very confident” that they’ve created “a unique take on a tried-and-true category” using “unique” mechanics and Liu’s content. Bell adds: “We came up with something that we think is the most fun.”

That Connections was created internally makes its success all the more gratifying. “Our whole prototyping process and smaller team has proven that we can make a hit game,” says Bell. “Wordle cast a long shadow, right? It’s a tough act to follow,” says Knight. “It’s hard to have a viral phenomenon—period. In games, they don’t come along that often.”

People have a distinctly impassioned relationship with Times Games, perhaps because, unlike mass-market franchises such as Candy Crush or Tetris, there’s a human on the other side who could theoretically heed their cries. Players engage with the product like a sports fan would a referee. “So much of the discourse around Spelling Bee is, ‘Why is this word not in your word list?’ Shaking your fist at it. I’m like, is this by design?” says Michael Sharp, an English professor who has spent the past 17 years blogging about the daily Times crossword under the pseudonym Rex Parker. (Ezersky would say no, that he prunes word lists “however arbitrarily for what I think is fair for our audience.”)

Sharp is fascinated by what the Times has created in the Hivemind, as the community of Spelling Bee enthusiasts is collectively known. “You don’t win anything; you don’t get any money. But people I know are bonkers about getting Queen [Bee] or Genius or whatever, and it’s all arbitrary and dumb, but they’re addicted.”

Among the Hivemind is J. Smith-Cameron, who has tweeted her frustrations directly at Ezersky. The actor, who starred as Gerri Kellman on Succession, got early exposure to the game from cast member Peter Friedman, who played fellow Waystar Royco executive Frank Vernon. “I remember that Peter was like, ‘The Spelling Bee is not to be rushed. It is a full-day event,’ ” she recalls. Spelling Bee was “a great thing to do on set, as it kept your mind working, kept you from getting too sleepy or bored. You’re waiting around, and you can’t just keep going over your lines without losing some spontaneity.” Her latest obsession, though, is Connections. “I have to compare notes with a friend of mine in LA and my sister in Virginia,” says Smith-Cameron.

Another member of the Hivemind: Kahn. The executive editor of the Times admits that he and his wife don’t have separate subscriptions—“which we should, I will address that”—so they share Spelling Bee. “She rolls out of bed and begins Spelling Bee pretty much every day,” he tells me, “and then at some point notifies me that she needs me to step in to get to Genius.” He also plays Connections, which he says is “a little bit like candy after Spelling Bee, especially if you’re trying to get to Queen Bee. Spelling Bee takes a little focus.”

Over the course of reporting this piece, I heard from countless people who are in group chats—with friends, nieces and nephews, coworkers, parents—in which they share their daily Wordle results or discuss their experience with that day’s Spelling Bee. It’s hard to think of an analogue in modern culture that has everyone from teenagers to grandparents hooked. “It’s another point of entry into the Times,” says a veteran Times editor. “Some people think there’s a political bias in our coverage, but they really trust Cooking or Games. It’s a way of getting potential subscribers to think differently and holistically about the company.”

Plus, recipes and puzzles—basic elements of Cooking and Games—have a long tradition inside the Times, which is perhaps why I haven’t sensed blowback from the newsroom as these departments have grown. “There’s slightly more consternation over Wirecutter choices recently, and people are upset over The Athletic coming and taking over Sports, since The Athletic is not unionized,” says one Times reporter. “But Games and Cooking—these are not things bringing shame on The New York Times. They are executing well on it. And they are both new and traditional…. The modern media company has taken all the parts of the newspaper that work as a business and kept it going.”

Everdeen Mason, Will Shortz, Zoe Bell, and Jonathan Knight.PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW SALACUSE.

The Times, says Kahn, has “mindful games for curious readers, but we’re not Activision, and I don’t think we’re looking to become that. These are brainteaser games for smart people who want a challenge in the course of the day. So I see them as very complementary, but not replacement, products for a news organization.”

One may argue that the expansion of Games “somehow detracts from the mission, but that’s what they said about the science section, and the living section, and everything else too,” says former editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, who spent decades at the Times, following in the footsteps of his father, Abe, the legendary executive editor who faced criticism when launching new feature sections, like Science Times and the Home section, in the 1970s.

“It’s part of the Times’ evolution to think of their readers less as the people they serve than as consumers off of whom to make a profit,” says Rosenthal. While the Times has proved through the years “that it could do more than one thing at a time,” Rosenthal adds, he questions if that can still be the case “in an era of shrinking resources, when resources are being diverted from news to product.” He suggests the September closure of the Sports desk is evidence of such. “It’s impossible, at least for people who care about the paper and are looking at it from the outside, not to see that as connected somehow to the Games and Wirecutter and the rest of it.”

“There are resources going into development of games and cooking, but there’s also significantly more investment in the news product,” says Kahn. “If anything, making the best use of our company’s ability to invest in news is more of a challenge now than competing for resources that are going elsewhere,” he continues, noting that Times CEO Meredith Kopit Levien and publisher A.G. Sulzberger essentially “said to us, when you can show that you’re going to make good use of it, we have the resources to invest. So there’s no ceiling now on the investment capacity for what we think would enhance news. I don’t think it feels at all like a zero-sum game.”

The Washington Post, too, has experimented with games, albeit with mixed results. The paper had also looked into buying Wordle, according to two sources familiar with the matter, and it was considered a missed opportunity by senior leaders after the Times acquired it. They’ve since made some advances into the space; I recently did a double take when my boyfriend told me he’d been playing a “fun new Washington Post game,” words I had never heard used in the same sentence. But when I asked him a few weeks later what it was called, he said he was no longer playing it. Few games are as sticky as the Times’. On a day in mid-October, the average daily active users in the Times Games app—iOS and Android combined—was 2,615,333. One year earlier, it was 886,000.

“Other organizations have been so late to catch on to the moneymaking potential of a gaming or puzzle enterprise,” says Sharp. “I think that even the Times itself was relatively late to understanding what they had and building on it.” Jill Abramson, a former executive editor (and now avid Spelling Bee player), notes “how slow the Times business side was to figure out that they were revenue drivers in the digital world.” She recalls suggesting for years to digitize recipes, something the Times didn’t get to until 2014, the year she exited the paper. “You could only monetize it once you digitized it,” she notes.


There’s been talk inside the paper even further back about the possibilities of expanding into games. About a decade ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave Mark Thompson, then CEO of the Times, and David Perpich, now publisher of The Athletic, some advice. The Times executives were in the Apple boardroom, demoing the NYT Now app—a short-lived attempt to attract young readers—NYT Cooking, and the new NYT Crossword app. The Times, said Cook, should really be the leader of digital puzzles, according to a source familiar with the discussion. (The Times declined to comment on this meeting.)

“It’s undeniable that Wordle was a big tipping point for us,” says Hardiman. But “it’s not Wordle only. It’s Wordle driving more attention to other games, allowing us to invest more in games,” she says, “and ultimately driving attention to the rest of the bundle, and to news too.” The number of players engaged with two or more games each week has tripled since the start of 2023. In her 2023 Q2 remarks, Kopit Levien said the “audience of people playing games other than Wordle has experienced record growth over the last year.” By October, the Times said that the group had more than doubled in size over 12 months. About three quarters of the Times Games audience is in the US, with the remainder largely in the UK, Australia, and Canada. Wordle has skewed more non-US than any of its previous games.

The crossword is the only game that’s fully paywalled and yet, for many, the least intellectually accessible, requiring time as well as practice. The Times has been working to make the puzzle less daunting for new solvers, such as with the “Easy Mode” newsletter, which gives people an easier version of the clues for the Friday crossword, which is among the hardest of the week. Some traditionalists may cry blasphemy at the premise; making it to Friday is, historically, an earned achievement. But “if we’re asking people to pay for a product that’s primarily this thing that they can’t access, then that’s not very smart,” says Mason. “We’re trying to find ways with our editorial content to help people become better solvers, and this is one way,” says Knight. There’s also the Spelling Bee forum, the Wordplay column, the Wordle Review, and, now, the Connections Companion.

Liu, Mason tells me, is currently working on an emoji-only Connections board. On the day I visited, they discussed whether they could do a “sexy emoji” category—eggplant, peach, tongue, sweat drop. Knight vetoed the idea. “He can present very mild and doesn’t give a lot of reaction, but I know when he just kind of takes his glasses off,” says Mason. “He was like, ‘Everdeen, don’t do this to me.’ ” (There are other games in the pipeline, such as a word-search game they hope to beta test this year.)

And there’s an interactive editorial quiz that Mason was trying to get off the ground. “Basically our version of the Myers-Briggs test, but it’s categories of what kind of puzzle you are,” she says. Users will answer multiple-choice questions, and then, using data from the audience insights group, be told both their puzzle type and what puzzles—both Times Games and others—they should try.

Gaming is in the air at the Times; on the day of my field trip to HQ, staffers congregated for a newsroom Ping-Pong tournament hosted by managing editors Carolyn Ryan and Marc Lacey. I ask Mason what she’d say to people who think the Times’ decision-making on games is driven less by a love of their product than the desire to draw in subscribers and revenue. Maybe top executives see Games as a “cash cow,” she says, but “I can only speak to the Games team as a whole. We love this shit.”

Sittings editor, Nicole Chapoteau; hair, Mark Alan Esparza (all women); makeup, Yumi Kaizuka (Iverson, Mason), Ann Benjamas (all other women); grooming, Ann Benjamas (Knight), Yumi Kaizuka (all other men); set design, Elaine Winter. Produced on location by Area1202 Productions. For details, go to