For a couple of months I’ve been dipping in and out of #SelfCare, a game about deciding to not get out of bed. It’s nominally designed for people who don’t really like video games, but as someone who has played them all my life, I’ve found it a fascinating experiment in game design.
#SelfCare is about doing almost nothing, an escapist fantasy with extreme power for me as a working parent. In a beautiful but credible bedroom, with all the detritus of everyday life around you (rumpled sheets, a phone and laptop cast aside), you stay under the covers and play calming mini-games about sorting your laundry, stroking your cat, or playing with crystals or tarot cards. The games aren’t difficult, and usually revolve around creating pleasant patterns or colors. Every activity is designed to be uncomplicatedly satisfying.
Some objects, like the ‘personal massager’ on the bedside table, are tongue-in-cheek. This isn’t one of those happiness apps that chirpily reminds you to drink a glass of water every hour. #SelfCare avoids a lot of the irritating Instagram platitudes that plague the self-care movement, and doesn’t present some sanitized image of aspirational feminine perfection. You’re staying in bed all day, not doing yoga on a hillside at 5am. #SelfCare doesn’t judge you for fantasizing about doing nothing much.
This is the first game from TruLuv Studios, a studio whose mission is to make games with and for people who don’t already play them. #SelfCare was designed by former Ubisoft developer Brie Code, in collaboration with Eve Thomas, a magazine writer and editor from Montreal. It’s an experiment in game design born from extensive experience with more conventional games.
Code worked for years as a technical lead on Assassin’s Creed and was lead programmer on Child of Light. A few years ago, she started to suspect that there was something limiting about the conventional wisdom around designing games. Everywhere she went, she still met people who struggled to understand video games. Also, like many of her friends and colleagues, she was starting to get bored with games after playing them for most of her life.
In her 2016 essay “Video Games are Boring,” Code suggested that game design is failing to reach outside of the seemingly closed group of gamers, impacting the things that games can do. In “Slouching Towards Relevant Video Games,” she outlined a way to do things differently, based on a human response to stress that many games don’t address: the idea of “tend and befriend” as opposed to “fight or flight.”
Most games, Code wrote, prioritize confrontation, adrenaline and action. If they prioritized compassion, connection and understanding, would different people play them? People often counter this observation by pointing at games like Dear Esther, Journey or Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, but even though these combat-free games exist, they are usually not reaching the people whose minds might be changed by them. #SelfCare is available through the app store; it feels at home on smartphones, and the platform allows many people to access it on a device they already have. Over half a million people have downloaded #SelfCare so far, and it has very positive user reviews.
For the last few weeks I’ve dipped in and out of #SelfCare, but that’s how it’s meant to be played. Instead of giving you more thing to do to keep you in the experience, it keeps things minimal and gentle. After five or ten minutes I naturally get bored of it, and don’t feel the urge to return until I next have a spare moment and want to relax. It makes me feel very good, perhaps because instead of stimulating adrenaline and dopamine like most games I enjoy, it’s stimulating oxytocin and opioids, a different kind of high. It is a break from the horrible things I usually see on my phone: endless bad news and Twitter invective, Brexit doom and Trump fury, the shocked responses to a world that seems to be spiralling out of our control. I like having it on my phone, like a private safe room. Instead of getting harder and more complex to keep you engaged, #SelfCare remains consistently pleasant until you naturally get bored with it. This is by design, and it’s made me rethink some fundamental emotions I go to games to experience.
#SelfCare is an interesting counterpoint to predominant ways of doing things in both game and app design. It’s free of the engineered stress and potential for failure that typify game design, and free of the intrusive ads and constant microtransaction barriers that typify mobile design. It leaves me with the optimistic feeling that even though I’ve been playing games for a quarter-century, I still have a limited perspective on what they can be. There’s so much more out there to explore.