Then I became obsessed with this problem. I did a lot of focus groups and started to make a number of prototypes to see what would engage people who wanted something different. No one in the game industry was going to people like my friends and asking, “Well, what would you like?” That’s why I started Tru Luv, to co-design with people who don’t like video games and find interactive products they would like. For the first few years, I was bringing existing games to my friends and saying, “What about this one?” Then what I realized is it’s not about bringing them stuff that already exists. It’s about asking them what they would make, if they were to make something they would like?

GamesBeat: I remember you gave a speech at the MIGS conference on diversity. That was 2015, right?

Code: Yes, that as when I was first starting to think about this stuff. That was just after Child of Light. I made six paper prototypes, and I discovered that there was a really clear pattern in the focus groups I ran. I saw the same three answers every time. People were saying that they don’t play video games because the portrayal of women is not very good. This was a number of years ago now, and that’s improved. But that was easy to solve. They also said they didn’t see their own cultural touchstones represented. If you’re not interested in sci-fi or fantasy — if you’re interested in, say, a fashion magazine – there aren’t really games like that.

And then they said that they were already stressed enough from their working day. They don’t want their entertainment to stress them even more. What they wanted instead from their entertainment is to understand their lives more, to grow and change as a person. They don’t want to overcome more additional challenges. They just want help overcoming the challenges they already have. This is why they watch Netflix. If they’re dealing with a lot of, for example, office politics, they’ll watch something like The Good Wife and identify with the character and feel accepted and feel like they have some strategies they can use.

After Child of Light came out and it didn’t work for my friends, I was studying this problem. I got a bunch of my friends who don’t like video games to play some of my favorite games and give their feedback. This was before I decided to switch to co-designing. First I wanted them to play Journey, because it struck me as the most beautiful game, and it’s so accessible. It’s very self-referential. It represents our cultural movement, the way we can communicate over the internet without really knowing each other and still find common ground.

My cousin is one of the people I asked to play games like this. She’s my best friend, and she doesn’t like video games whatsoever. She’s also been quite hostile to my career. She knows me very well, knows what makes me happy or not, and when I would call her stressed out from work she would ask me, “Why are you doing this? You should quit. You should be an industrial designer, or an interior designer. Why do you do game design? It’s a waste of your time.” I knew that she just didn’t understand what games are.

Above: Apple named #SelfCare one of the top titles of 2018.

Image Credit: Tru Luv

I asked her to play Journey. She’s an art historian, so I thought she would like it. She came back to me and said she quit at the point where there’s a dragon that can kill you. That’s where she said to me that she doesn’t want to be attacked in her entertainment. She’s the first person who said that to me, and then I started hearing it all the time when I was doing the focus groups. Then, on a hunch, I asked her to play Skyrim. She googled it and said, “There’s no way I’m going to play this. I told you, I don’t like dragons! I’m not interested in this.”

I asked her to give it a chance and get back to me, and I didn’t hear from her. I assumed she just didn’t play it. It was a big stretch considering she quit Journey because of the dragon. [laughs] Then three weeks later my phone rang. I used to have a phobia about the phone. I don’t anymore. No one would ever call me. They’d always text message. I assumed it was the bank, but I looked down and it was my cousin’s number. Then I assumed it was a family emergency. When I answered, she was really upset. She said, “Lydia died.” I thought, “Wait, who? We don’t have a Lydia in the family.” And I realized she was talking about Lydia in Skyrim. I hadn’t heard her for three weeks because she’d been playing Skyrim constantly.

We had this amazing conversation, and that’s when I changed the course of my career for real. It was so eye-opening for me. Here’s my cousin, who I’ve been trying to convince for years that my career is valid, and she just didn’t see it. In this conversation I realized that she just hadn’t ever really played a video game, not to the extent of knowing how it actually feels and what’s possible. She didn’t know you could have an emotional connection with a character. She didn’t know that you could lose yourself in this world, that you could do things like identity play. She was really using it for—she was going through a big change in her life, and she could go home and play Skyrim in the evening and figure out who she was. That’s exactly what I’d done with Morrowind, when I graduated from university.

She said to me, all those years it wasn’t that she didn’t like video games. It was that she didn’t know what they could be. There’s still no game that’s right for her. She did quit Skyrim eventually after that, because she doesn’t like fighting. She’s not interested in being attacked in her entertainment. It was other things in Skyrim she liked. There isn’t a game that puts those other things into the core loop yet. That’s when I became obsessed with figuring out what that would be, what would be a game that would be an excellent tool for identity exploration and relaxation and personal growth.

That’s what I was getting out of games. I also don’t like shooting. I turn the difficulty all the way down when I play the Elder Scrolls games. The parts I love are collecting books and organizing them in alphabetical order on a bookshelf, or solving characters’ problems for them.

GamesBeat: There are still a lot of non-violent genres out there. Are those less interesting, like puzzle games?

Code: Something like Candy Crush is still about managing frustration and reward. It’s still hooking in on the adrenaline/dopamine response. This is what I discovered. After I saw all those same patterns in the focus groups, I did more paper prototypes with people who aren’t interested in video games, combining what I know from my game design background with their desires and needs and ideas. I saw, again, a clear pattern, and I knew that if there was a clear pattern, there must be a clear explanation. That’s when I started reading everything I could about player psychology. I read Sheri Graner Ray’s book about inclusive game design. Her chapter on stimulation resonated with me based on what I was hearing from people.

In that chapter she talks about how people tend to be more masculine tend to be stimulated by graphical fidelity and a sense of pressure or challenge or danger. People who tend to be more feminine tend to be stimulated by what she called a mutually beneficial outcome to a socially significant situation. This is exactly what I love in Skyrim, when I do a quest for a character and they get what they need and I get what I need. This is why I play RPGs. That’s the part I like the most, that mutually beneficial outcome to a socially significant situation. That’s my cousin liked about bringing Lydia along on her adventures.

That resonated with me, and I thought, “There’s something here. This is the key.” I read everything I could about stimulation psychology. From there I got into stress psychology, and that’s where I found my answer. We have two human stress responses. The first is fight or flight, and that’s the one that’s hooked into game design theory as we know it now. That’s frustration and reward. Frustration triggers adrenaline, adrenaline makes you want to win, and when you win, you have reward chemicals, dopamine. If we can manage a balance with ever-increasing frustration and reward, we can keep you in that flow state, in that stress response, and those reward chemicals feel really good, if that’s your stress response.

Out of 5 billion mobile users, there are about 2.2 billion mobile gamers. Those are probably the people who tend to have that stress response. I can’t prove that, but that would make sense. About half of people have another response to stress that we didn’t know about until fairly recently, though, because most stress research was done with men who tend to be more aggressive, who would have a fight or flight response, or they studied male rats, who also tend to have that fight or flight response.

Above: #SelfCare helps you relax.

Image Credit: Tru Luv

There’s this whole other stress response called tend and befriend. Instead of adrenaline and dopamine, it’s oxytocin and endorphin. If you have this stress response, instead of wanting win, you want to care and connect. If you’re a female rat, you tend to want to gather other rats back to the colony. If you’re a video game player like me, you want to solve someone’s problems for them in a way where everyone benefits, a non-zero-sum situation. Like being the healer in an MMORPG.

A lot of these behaviors exist in video games, but they’re never the core loop. The core loop is still always increasing difficulty, easy to hard. I thought, “Can we do things that don’t go from easy to hard?” Inspired by the defend reaction, I looked at other curves. Instead of easy to hard, there are ones I mentioned earlier like messy to tidy, awkward to smooth, anything that’s a metaphor for moving from disconnected and disorderly to connected and orderly.

That’s what we tested in #SelfCare. The idea is that potentially, what that does is it leads you along this curve that’s just as rewarding as a curve that goes from easy to hard, but it rewards you with different brain chemicals and different feelings. For those of us who don’t tend to have the fight or flight reaction, this is another form of engagement, one that’s good for us.

GamesBeat: How did you build that into the app?

Code: #SelfCare is built around a character who’s not feeling well. As you do the mini-games, the character cheers up. That’s one of the ways it’s built in. You’re taking care of the character at the same time the character is taking care of you. It’s a mutually beneficial outcome. And then all the mini-games in the app, they don’t go from easy to hard. The laundry game goes from messy to tidy. When you start the laundry game, you have to click a lot, and there’s a lot of different things you have to click. As you play the game more and more, it gets smoother and smoother. There are new ways to move clothes and more of them. You can do these large sweeping motions. It actually gets easier instead of harder as you play. But you’re going from messy to tidy.

The massager in #SelfCare, it starts out small, with a small brush. You have to do these little awkward movements to color it in. As you play it, it gets larger, and the brush gets larger. The motions get smoother and more satisfying. It’s going from disconnected to connected, or from awkward to smooth. It works.

GamesBeat: What are some words you’d use to describe the way you feel when you’re playing these mini-games? Is “relaxing” the right way to describe it?

Code: Relaxing is a good one. Calming. Satisfying.