Boost! West Oakland received a check for $50,000 from software developer and marketer Steven Cravotta on Thursday, February 24, 2022. Credit: Courtesy Boost! West Oakland

A case of mistaken “app-dentity” has led to a major donation benefiting a West Oakland tutoring and mentorship nonprofit. 

How’d it happen? Through the gaming obsession of word nerds and two software developers who used to live in Oakland and have a sweet spot for charity. 

The game in question is Wordle, the five-letter guessing game that millions of people are playing every day. Created by former Reddit engineer Josh Wardle, the puzzle is an international sensation that has led to the creation of copycats, thousands of memes, strange unaffiliated apparel, and just this month, a seven-figure buyout from The New York Times. Before it was hosted on Times’ website it was on another website with a slightly obscure URL.

The word-of-mouth nature of the game’s popularity, though, led to millions of confused people to search for it inside smartphone app stores. There, they found a different game called Wordle!, which first came out in 2016 and is similar in gameplay to Wardle’s Wordle game, though with ads and in-game boosters. Inevitably, the second Wordle! was downloaded millions of times, peaking this week as the top word game in Apple’s App Store. 

Made by a high school senior named Steven Cravotta, Wordle! was downloaded around 100,000 times in four months in 2016 before cratering in the app rankings. Cravotta stopped promoting it and moved on to college at Pepperdine University where he studied marketing. He largely forgot about the game, but then this past January Cravotta saw his app gaining thousands of new downloads.

“I had no idea where [my game’s] popularity was coming from. Then I did a Google search and articles about Josh’s game showed up. Right then I knew people were definitely confused,” he told The Oaklandside. 

Cravotta was paid unexpected royalties from what became more than 10 million downloads. 

Instead of suing each other in a battle to claim the “Wordle” name, Cravotta and Wardle connected over Twitter and, in a charitable twist, Cravotta decided to donate part of his earnings to a nonprofit they could agree on. 

“I said to Josh ‘Your app is boosting mine in the rankings and giving me a ton of downloads. Let’s do something cool here and donate the money to a literacy-focused nonprofit, because both our games are word games and it fits the theme,’” Cravotta said. 

They agreed on Boost! West Oakland, a well-regarded after-school program that Wardle’s partner Palak Shah used to volunteer with as a tutor. Wardle and Shah both lived in Oakland in the late 2010s before moving to Brooklyn, and Shah, according to her LinkedIn page, worked as a strategic consultant for Oakland nonprofit organizations, focusing on improving student outcomes.

In a presentation at the West Oakland library on Thursday, a smiling Cravotta gave a $50,000 check to Ty-Licia Hooker for the nonprofit. Hooker, a former Oakland school teacher at Garfield Elementary, told The Oaklandside that it was a “transformational” amount of money that will help the nonprofit expand by bringing in a new staff member to recruit new tutors. The money will also be used to buy school supplies, including canvases and pencils, as well as food for students, who usually stay at the center until 7:30 p.m. 

Building something fun that stimulates the mind

Cravotta said the last month of his life has been crazy and he is happy to give some of the money he’s made to a program that helps children through literacy and science tutoring. 

“We thought the organization was small enough to where the money would make a real impact,” said Cravotta, who flew into Oakland from Southern California to deliver the check. In an Instagram post, he called it one of the best days of his life. 

The two games side by side. On the left is Josh Wardle’s game, recently acquired by The New York Times. On the right is Cravotta’s game, which currently leads Apple’s App Store word game rankings.

A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Cravotta created his version of Wordle to practice coding after learning through YouTube videos. 

“I saw The Social Network movie about how Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook, and I was like, ‘Okay, that’s the coolest thing ever.’ I want to learn how to code and build websites and build apps and stuff,” he said.

Since graduating in 2020, Cravotta has worked in affiliate marketing and in his spare time, created another app, this one to help people quit vaping called Puff Count. He became addicted to vaping in college and realized it was taking over his life in negative ways. 

“My ultimate goal in life is to use the skills that I’ve been given to make people’s lives better,” he said.

At the same time that Cravotta was dealing with all his new users, Josh Wardle was on the other side of the country in Brooklyn neck deep in a much bigger popularity maelstrom. By mid-January, 14% of Americans were playing his Wordle game every day. 

The success surprised Wardle because he never intended to make any money out of it or become famous. It was just something, he told The New York Times, that his partner Shah could play with him during the long, boring months of the pandemic, besides trying to solve the latest New York Times crossword puzzles.

The ethos of doing something for fun for its own sake, and as an intellectual challenge, resonated with tutors at Boost! West Oakland, for whom playing Wardle’s Wordle with the kids has become a part of their routine, said Hooker. 

“For young students, the game is a little hard. But mentors play the game at the beginning of sessions, and it’s a fun literacy game,” she said. 

Hooker also said that ever since the news came out they were going to get money, tutors and students have been excitedly playing both games. 

The latest chapter for a small community nonprofit

Steven Cravotta and Ty-Licia Hooker met on Thursday as part of the award ceremony. Credit: Courtesy of Boost! West Oakland

Boost! West Oakland is celebrating 25 years of helping kids improve their academic skills, and the big check has functioned as a nice birthday present. 

First started by Joan and Howard Poulter in 1997 as a free tutoring program for underserved children called the Lafayette School Mentoring Project, Boost! is known for its focus on tutor-student relationships. It matches the expertise of professional adults to children that need to improve their skills in a related subject. For example, a professional author might help kids who need to improve their writing, or an engineer can develop confidence in youngsters who struggle with math or science. 

The program works, Hooker told The Oaklandside, because of one-on-one tutoring. 

“The reality is a lot of students who are behind in school need to have education tailored for them. Children are not getting the attention they need and deserve,” she said. “A lot of schools give homework for parents to help but they don’t know how to teach them. And if students miss a concept, it’s important they can feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable to say to someone that they don’t know and can you please teach it to me again.” 

Hooker told The Oaklandside that the current education situation for Oakland public school students is particularly fraught. After two years of the pandemic, she said teachers are noticing many students haven’t progressed academically, and some are behind where they started. 

“Many 5th graders in 2020 who are now in 7th grade are still at 5th grade level. Or maybe academically at an even a lower level,” she said.

Boost! has been in recess for a few months during the pandemic, but Hooker says it will start again next week with 20 tutors helping 25 students. She hopes more locals become interested in joining as tutors so the program can offer twice as many tutors to kids for the 2022-23 academic year. Currently, there are 60 elementary school kids from the neighboring Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary who are eligible to take after-school Boost! tutoring lessons. For the next eight weeks, all of the tutoring will happen over Zoom due to COVID-19 transmission worries. 

Besides school work, Boost also offers children the opportunity to expand their cultural horizons. Many of the tutors take their students on field trips to museums and other places. In fact, the connection that develops between the pairs over time may be the most magical and important part of the whole program. 

Shah actually started tutoring an Oakland second grader nine years ago. According to Hooker, the pair continued working together through elementary school and even past the time she aged out of the program. Now 17 and in the 11th grade at a local high school, the student has stayed in touch with Shah, leading to what Hooker said is one of the most important relationships of both of their lives. 

Hooker said that while not all tutor-student relationships last as long as that pair’s, the impact tutors can have is immeasurable. 

“At the core of learning is relationships. We don’t see tutoring in isolation of mentorship. We don’t start tutoring by taking out a backpack and working on a math problem right away. We start by connecting with the student’s hopes and opening up space for a dialog on a basic level,“ she said.

Correction: Wordle was purchased by The New York Times for a seven-figure sum, not six.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.