According to Kate Spicer, the new ‘gentle’ video games are absorbing, beautiful, and silly – and they can help keep us calm in a crisis.

The streets are quiet outside my window, the world is strange, and the future is uncertain. Conspiracy theorists flood my social media feed, and everyone claims to be an expert on the pandemic. But for the time being, I’m fine because I’m a moose. Everything is a game that has been out for a while. When I click on a thought bubble, the counterculture philosopher Alan Watts tells me something; other times, I choose to be a solar system or a single-cell organism instead of a moose. I move around this infinite possibility game, doing little and occasionally communicating with other things through barks or tinkles. I’ve never been much of a gamer, but in recent weeks, Everything – and its sister game, Everything 2 – have piqued my interest. Mountain (equally, if not more, pointless) – have been, well, everything to me. Both have calmed me and made me forget the lunacy and drama of life online and in lockdown. They are absorbing, still, deep, silly, and beautiful, with a chorus of odd but satisfying sounds.

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Everything was a game that divided the gaming community when it was released: ‘Joyfully expansive’ or ‘garbage’. It was, however, an escape from the turbulence of work pressure and paranoia into an exquisite form of boredom for someone like me. It was given to my nephew and niece. They told me, wiser and wiser, “It’s for relaxing before bedtime because it doesn’t make you excited.”

Brie Code, a programmer, couldn’t have predicted how accurately one line would describe our lives today when she wrote a manifesto for her new games company, Tru Luv. “We stare horrifiedly into our phones, all of us overwhelmed with shock…” Her vision for the Toronto-based company was to develop games that are an antidote to the adrenalized, goal-driven, fight-or-flight content that has dominated the gaming industry since its inception 50 years ago. “The multitudes of white masculine gamers who dominate the games industry have made experiences that are relevant to them but not to most people,” she says provocatively.

Tru Luv’s first game, a phone app called #selfcare, was released in 2018. The ‘player’ is trapped in bed, interacting with various de-stressing rituals. #selfcare appeared and felt like a game, but it went nowhere. There are no monsters to defeat; instead, there are cats to stroke and simple but satisfying tasks to complete. 

“Rumpled to smooth, tangled to loose, messy to tidy. We designed an app that was a calm space to escape to inside your phone,” says Tru Luv’s Eve Thomas. “The way to keep people at that sweet spot of engagement has been the same. Social media, gambling, games – they all follow a design card of rising tension so that the stress response is triggered. Life is stressful enough. Yet we turn to our phones or tech to escape and find more of the same.” 

SoundSelf takes the player on an ‘inward journey’ that will instil a deeper quality of stillness – Robin Arnott

Video games are already a massive industry. According to the Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA), the UK games industry was more valuable in 2019 than the music and film industries combined.

When the lockdown began in March, the gaming platform Steam reported the highest number of concurrent users ever logged on at the same time. But, in a world where everything is a fight-or-flight scenario, aren’t these computer games a bit of a busman’s holiday? “Capitalising on fear by continuing to make games that drive this fear is a short-term strategy,” Code says of the stress imperative in so many games and online activities. It is profitable to instill fear in young men. It’s the coward’s option, and it’s a dull one. Artificial stress is not required to create engaging experiences. Love and understanding can produce nourishing and compelling experiences.”

Code worked as a high-level programmer in the mainstream gaming industry for the first eight years of her career, most recently at Ubisoft, a French video game company with 16,000 employees worldwide. Code directed blockbuster games such as Assassin’s Creed and was successful, but something about gaming bothered her. “When you are in fight-or-flight mode, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and releases adrenaline, which is followed by dopamine. If you enjoy games like this, it’s most likely because adrenaline and dopamine are very pleasurable. Pupils dilate, heart rate increases, airways open, and you feel energised. You have a sense of being alive. You have a strong sense of self-confidence. However, not everyone enjoys these types of games. I don’t. My pals don’t.”

Inward journey

SoundSelf by Andromeda Entertainment will be available later this month. The game, which took eight years to develop by company founder Robin Arnott, tracks the experience of religious ceremonies, psychedelics, chanting, meditation, and hypnosis. SoundSelf, he says, takes the player on a “inward journey” that will instill a deeper quality of stillness. I saw how games could lead to a state of transcendence. You only have to look at kids staring blankly at screens to see how entrancing the medium is – it’s just that trance is typically used to elicit a very narrow range of psychological states, when it can be used to catalyse any emotion a human is capable of feeling. For the past half-century, the industry has produced one type of game for one type of person. Why do 90% of people aim for a cortisol (stress) response?”

There are, of course, successful exceptions to the fight-or-flight imperative in gaming. There are the gentle world-building games, such as The Sims and Minecraft, in which players escape into alternate realities of their own creation. Players in the simulation game Animal Crossing take on the role of a lone human on an island teeming with cute, saucer-eyed animals. There’s nothing to do but bumble around, fishing, chopping wood, hunting for Easter eggs, and picking fruit. Its most recent issue, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, was released near the end of March, around the time much of the world went into lockdown, and quickly outsold all previous iterations of the game, five since its initial release in 2001. It was dubbed “the Game for the Coronavirus Moment” by the New York Times. And it wasn’t kids who were doing it. Rhianna Pratchett is an award-winning writer of game narratives. “Animal Crossing is popular on my Twitter feed because so many people play it,” she tells BBC Culture. “It came at the perfect time, with calming, gentle music and the sound of waves breaking on the shore. It’s relaxing, peaceful, inventive, and addictive.”

She mentions Stardew Valley, another slow and gentle simulation game. “It’s just farming and going to see neighbours.” But it was such a massive game that Elon Musk programmed it into the monitors of his Tesla cars, prompting images of sleek executives harvesting parsnips while waiting for their car to charge.

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