On the Bee's "missing" words


I know harassing the #nytbee for “missing” words is a Twitter pastime, but it’s worth asking: would Spelling Bee be better with longer word lists? Is it a better experience if a word you’ve never heard of is required to get to Genius? To Queen Bee?

The design problem is interesting. People get mad (or whatever) because a “missing” word feels unfair. It also feels unfair in a different way from how an unguessed word feels unfair. If minimizing unfair-feels is the goal and the lists the only tool, it’s a tricky balance.

Another way to address this: each puzzle could include a separate comprehensive list of words from a broader vocabulary. If you guess a word on the big list, the game recognizes you for it, but doesn’t count it toward the main score.

Question: Is that better?

Even more interestingly, there’s a third option: leave it as is. Let Twitter be the release valve for frustration over a missing word. It generates social media buzz for the game, it builds a community of players, you get to feel smarter than the NYTimes.

Also amateur game designers can feel smart for pointing this out.

Anyway, before you start calling puzzle editors illiterate, remember that computers exist. They know all the words. They’re withholding some for reasons.

P.S. I still think about this one. twitter.com/NYTimesWordpla…

Some discussion of “missing” words in this reflective write-up of the Bee in the NYT (Oct 2020): nytimes.com/2020/10/16/cro…

Audio interview with Sam 19 minutes into this Slate Culture Gabfest (Feb 2021): slate.com/podcasts/cultu…

(Originally posted to Twitter on March 22, 2021. It received 1 likes.)