Eve Thomas, an artist and magazine editor from Montreal, would not call herself a gamer. She played video games on a Mac as a child and enjoyed Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii, but most modern video games don’t appeal. “I don’t like the stress of dying,” she says. “And every single advert for most games presumed me to be a guy. They would presume a certain gaze. They didn’t feel like they were speaking to me.”
About three years ago, Thomas got in contact with game programmer Brie Code at Ubisoft, one of the world’s biggest games publishers, hoping to profile her for a magazine. Code had been spending a lot of time thinking about why it was that the video games she loved were failing to appeal to her friends and, increasingly, to her. “I was getting bored with video games,” she says. “I thought it was a problem with me, that I was just growing up and less interested in them. But it wasn’t just me. Everyone at work was pretending they were into all the latest things coming out but later, at the bar, they would admit they barely played games any more.”
Code was becoming interested in a radical approach to game design: rather than thinking about what gamers wanted, what would happen if you designed games for – and with – people who don’t play them? She now runs a game studio called Tru Luv, whose mission is to create “experimental games focused on care and characters”, and is collaborating with Thomas on a smartphone game called #SelfCare.
The game, which will be out this year, is about what would happen if you decided to not get out of bed for a day – surely a universal fantasy. It puts you in a virtual bedroom filled with calming tasks, such as reading a book, tending to a plant or sorting laundry by colour. “There are crystals. There are candles, plants, a glass of water,” says Thomas. “It’s the universal experience of just waking up in your bed, looking around your room and figuring out how you are going to face the day.”
Video games often focus on combat and stress: they get harder and harder until you die. This, Code feels, is a turn-off for many potential players. Games that focus on the idea of “tend and befriend” rather than “fight or flight”, she believes, could be more appealing as an escape from the stresses of everyday life.
The idea that taking time to look after yourself could be a revolutionary act has taken hold in the past couple of years – a counterpoint to societal pressure to be constantly productive. “When I started reading these suggestion lists that were going around a couple of years ago – take a bath, use a face mask, drink a glass of water – I was sceptical,” says Thomas. “People need permission to take a bath? Then it hit me: people do feel like they need permission. That’s how screwed up things are. Giving yourself permission to play a game that will make you feel good instead of checking your work email is, in itself, a form of self-care.”
Each little task in #SelfCare operates on a curve of positivity: things start out disordered and end up orderly. When you read a book, the words you sort on the screen start out neutral or negative, and become more positive. “Instead of it getting harder and harder until you fail, it gets more and more pleasant until you naturally lose interest,” says Code. “You only play this game for a few minutes at a time. It’s not designed to hold you there.”
Thomas and Code were motivated by the desire to create something that would make you enjoy using your phone, which itself can be a source of stress and anxiety. “This game is an escape from the rotation of email, social media and chat that you get into on your phone,” says Thomas. “It’s a tool to break it. You are still using your phone, but in a way that is relaxing. After getting angry about something on the internet, I would play the game for a while, until I forget what I am angry about. That, to me, is probably the most valuable thing a game can do for me: make me forget why I’m angry.”
The fact that what Code and Thomas are creating together is unusual taps into an uncomfortable truth about the video-game industry: most games are similar because the people making them are so similar. A recent survey by the International Game Developers Association claims that the industry’s workforce is 74% male, 61% Caucasian and 81% heterosexual. Code founded Tru Luv not because she disliked what the industry was making, but because she clearly believed in the power of video games to reach everyone.
“Diversity is clearly linked with innovation,” she says. “I was trying to convince a lot of my colleagues [at Ubisoft] that it might be interesting to make games in different ways, but of course the majority of my colleagues are interested in the kind of games that we already make. That’s why they came to work there.
“When it was new, people were just making games using their intuition. They were for all kinds of people,” adds Code. “Then we started to theorise about the definition and elements of games, and researching and classifying gamers and their habits. We have ended up in a closed loop, where we have tightened down the idea of what good game design is or what a good game is, in a way that excludes a lot of people.”
#SelfCare will be out this year. BreatheLuv, a free breathing-exercise companion app, is available now for iPhone.