So over the past few years, the team (headed by Code in Toronto and Eve Thomas in Montreal) created #SelfCare, a game-like app that they call a digital companion. As it’s name suggests, it’s all about relaxing, breathing, and taking care of your mind and body.
While it has game-like elements, it’s not really a game. The goal is simply to feel better. There’s no winning, no failure, no score. No difficulty, no ads, no notifications. And it sounds like an idea whose time has come. In a world where being busy is a point of pride, there are cracks in the sanity of everyday life.
Activities like yoga and meditation can accomplish the same feeling. But sometimes you just want to get rid of stress in other ways. In #SelfCare, you can do things like pick up dirty laundry, do breathing exercises, or just lie in bed. I talked to Code, a seasoned game developer, about the making of #SelfCare and the thinking behind the smartphone app that can reduce your stress. The team collaborated with research advisor Isabela Granic, an anti-anxiety expert and professor at Radboud University in the Netherlands.
Code (former artificial intelligence lead on Assassin’s Creed) and Thomas released #SelfCare on iOS and Android in August, 2018, and they recently added a Journal feature that lets users record their thoughts. I felt better just talking to Code.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: How long did you work on the #SelfCare app?
Brie Code: We started in late 2015 or early 2016, sometime around then. It shipped in August of 2018.
GamesBeat: Is the adaptive journal a major update for you, then?
Code: Yes, it’s the beginning of—the exercises we put into #SelfCare at first, we wanted to test if we could use the tend and befriend reaction the way that the fight or flight reaction is used in normal game design. Most games, you make an increasing balance between frustration and reward. That puts the player in a flow state. I wanted to know if we could do something similar with, instead of frustration and reward, care and connection.
When we released #SelfCare last August we put in a few different mini-games that have different—instead of going from easy to hard, instead of having that frustration/reward curve, they did things like go from awkward to smooth, empty to full, disconnected to connected, messy to tidy. That can also create an interesting experience that feels fun to play, but using tend and befriend instead.
It worked. The feedback we got from users about that is that they found—I tuned it so that each of those attractions would last about three to five minutes. Then you put it down naturally at the moment when you’re feeling good. Unlike most game design, which goes from easy to hard and you put it down when you get frustrated, using this you put it down when you feel good. We found out that worked. Users were saying that this app really relaxes them. Those three to five minute interactions were about relaxation.
Once you’re relaxed, that’s an excellent state for learning or personal growth. The journal is the beginning of a new direction for the app that’s about personal growth and strength development.
GamesBeat: What was the original inspiration and some of the research behind the app in the first place?
Code: We discovered things as we went. First, we started just by looking at the tend and befriend reaction. Then, when we made the partnership with Dr. Isabela Granic at the Games for Emotional and Mental Health Lab, she worked with us to look at how we could use tend and befriend and other research to design the set of mini-games. The new direction with the journal has a lot to do with—she’s moving into a focus on narrative identity. She’s going to be publishing a paper soon.
Going much further back, there’s a story I like to tell about the moment that I changed my career. There were a couple of key moments in my career. I went into video games because I wanted to do something that helped people and brought people joy while using my computer science degree. I graduated when the dot-com crash happened and there weren’t many jobs left in the web, and I didn’t want to go work at a bank. I wanted to do something that was creative and that helped people, so I ended up in video games.
I didn’t think much further beyond that. I liked the technical challenges of it. I loved working with a team. Video games require you to work with so many different disciplines – artists, designers. But I never thought much about the cultural implications of our work until we made Brotherhood. One of my colleagues had worked hard to make sure that there was more than one Assassin in Brotherhood, and that there would be women included.
It was during the very end of the project and we were working very hard. I was very busy and overwhelmed. I was rushing through the metro one evening, and there in the metro was a poster for Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood that was life-sized, and it hadn’t really occurred to me before, the scale of what we did, but people lives were affected by what we did. I was thinking of it more as an intellectual exercise, that we should make this game in the right way, but not really thinking about the people on the other end.
Finally I saw this life-sized ad and realized that what I make is used by millions of people. I hadn’t really thought about that. It’s real. It’s out there in the metro, just like a shoe ad or something. It’s not small, what we’re making. And as I was staring at this poster thinking about that, a teenage girl walked up and she stopped and stared at the same poster. Then she walked up and put her hand out and touched the woman Assassin. I was standing watching her and thinking, “Oh my goodness. It’s important that we did that.”
That was the first time I changed my focus in my career a bit. I got involved in a lot of diversity work. I’d always been involved in diversity stuff. For the first five years of my career I was the only woman programmer on any project I was on. I was the only woman on the dev team at one company. I was always trying to fight for us to hire more women, things like that, but I hadn’t gotten fully into it.
After Brotherhood and Assassin’s Creed III, I became very interested in why we weren’t engaging a lot of people I know, particularly more feminine people. They just didn’t seem interested – my friends, at least, outside work – in what I was making. Why not? I realized that it was a much more interesting problem than just getting more female protagonists in games. We also need to think about why a lot of people are just not interested in this.
I moved on to Child of Light, and that was a first try at making something that my friends who aren’t interested in video game would like. Child of Light, I loved working on the project. We had an amazing team. I built a diverse team there, very intentionally. I balanced the team as much as I could as far as race, gender, age, level of experience, what country they came from. I tried to build as balanced a team as possible, knowing that that would be our best chance at making something that also appealed to a wide range of people.
I think it shows in some of the innovations we made in Child of Light, like the work we put in to make her hair move beautifully. She feels like she’s underwater all the time. A lot of the technical innovation on the programming team went into things like that, things that I might not have thought about earlier in my career, because it wasn’t a priority. But we still didn’t engage the audience we thought we would engage. It sold well, but I was still trying to my impress my friends, and my friends outside of work still found the controls too hard. It wasn’t compelling enough to compete with a natural experience for them.
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.
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.
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.
GamesBeat: Taking care of someone can be a satisfying outcome, then.
Code: Right. I’ve been saying that what we’re making is not a game. It’s a companion, a new kind of product. We’re building it on a few different psychological frameworks. We’re starting to integrate more features for growth as well as relaxation. The journal is the first step in that.
GamesBeat: What sort of feedback have you heard since it came out?
Code: The feedback has been amazing. Leading up the launch, a lot of my mentors were worried about me. They thought I was wrong. They thought that this wouldn’t work, that this isn’t game design. I had pretty good playtest results, but every game design expert I knew was telling me I was wrong. My confidence was wavering, but I put it out because I knew there was something there. I had that gut feeling. But I wasn’t sure.
I was hoping to get a few thousand users so I could work with them to iterate and get to something that worked. What happened instead was that we had 500,000 downloads in the first six weeks, with no advertising. We still haven’t done any advertising and we’re well past a million downloads. We’ve had very good organic growth. We still get a lot of email and reviews coming in, but we were absolutely flooded in those first few weeks with people saying that—“It’s like it put me in a trance. It’s the most calming app I have. I feel like the little character is looking out for me as much as I’m looking out for them.” Things that directly confirmed the hypothesis — if we can create these reactions through these things that go from disconnected to connected, instead of easy to hard, people will feel a sense of calm and a sense of connection.
It worked right out of the gate. It turned out not to need any iteration. For the first few months after launch, we just listened to the users about what was working and not working, and made a few small adjustments. Then we decided that if we were right about that, we might be right about what we could do for personal growth. That’s when we started to work on the journal.
GamesBeat: How long have you been working on the journal element?
Code: About two months. I’ve had it in mind for years, but we’ve been working on it directly since around November.
GamesBeat: How big a team do you have?
Code: It’s all part-time. Right now we have 12 people, though. Mostly people working in their spare time.
GamesBeat: Have you learned much about the demographics of your users? Are they mostly women, or any certain type of people who use it?
Code: Of the people who write us, it’s a wide range of ages, from teenagers to older adults. It’s men and women. The majority are women, but we get a lot of men writing in asking us to add more customization so they can feel like it’s their bedroom. Right now it does feel like a woman’s bedroom. We will be doing all of that over time, when we can afford it.
GamesBeat: How much content is there in the app now?
Code: The mini-games take three to five minutes. It’s a very short experience. We don’t want something that holds the user for as long as possible. We want something that actually works to calm people down. I tuned it specifically so that you put it down after three to five minutes. You can reach for it if you feel a twinge of anxiety and you pick up your phone. You could end up at a social media site and half an hour late you think, “Oh my gosh, I just wasted half an hour.” Or you could end up in #SelfCare and put it down in three to five minutes feeling better and ready to get back to what you want to do.
GamesBeat: Have you seen any other apps that fit into this same category?
Code: I wouldn’t say that I’ve seen another app that does exactly what we’re doing with companions, but we fit in the larger self-care or wellness space. We were featured by Apple as one of the best of 2018 in the category of self-care apps, which includes Calm and Headspace. Those would probably be the most similar products to what we’re doing.
GamesBeat: Do you see doctors or others who might be recommending it?
Code: [Dr. Granic’s lab will be studying the impact of using #SelfCare over time. We’ve built it on an evidence-based foundation for calm and relaxation. And we’d like to see what we can do for users over time. We’re excited to find out more.]
My philosophy for companions—I look at other apps that are out there, and the paradigm for apps right now is either you have apps that track you and tell you what you’re supposed to be doing—they might start with some intrusive questions where you don’t even know why they’re asking them. They start giving you notifications like, it’s your bedtime, so you should go to bed now. It’s kind of bossing you around. Or you get other apps that present you with tons of options. Maybe you want to do a workout, so you go to the app stores and search for a workout app, and there are so many options you don’t know what to choose. You pick one and open it and it has tons of workouts in it, but you don’t know which ones you want. You’re supposed to be expert and boss the app around, and you don’t know how to.
Apps are almost always in a hierarchal relationship with you. Either the app is bossing you around or you’re supposed to boss around the app. With companions we’re trying to create a non-hierarchical paradigm where you help the app and the app helps you at the same time. By doing these mini-games you care for the character, and you also cheer up yourself. It’s a more natural exploration of the world, without needing to be the expert right away, and without being told what to do.
GamesBeat: Are you making money from this?
Code: No. The goal is to eventually make money from this, but because our target audience is people who don’t like video games—the implication is that if we can build interactive products leveraging this other stress response, there’s the potential to double the market. To reach that audience in the early stages, to be able to make sure that what we design works for them and we don’t end up designing something that just works for the existing audience again, it’s important that we make it—we need to invite that audience in. They’re not out looking for this new kind of product. It’s important right now that we invite them in.
GamesBeat: Do you feel strongly that this shouldn’t be called a game? Or is it just a different kind of game?
Code: I think it should be called a companion. The word “game” is too—what’s possible with interactivity is too broad for one term. We need many terms. The word “game” is quite loaded. For many people it means winning, which is that frustration and reward loop, the easy to hard curve, needing there to be a win condition. Some games don’t have winning, like simulation games, but there are a lot of assumptions about what pieces go into a game.
Also, for people who aren’t interested in games, they already know that they’re not interested in games. Games have been around long enough that everyone has tried them. If someone’s not interested in them, they’re not necessarily going to try another game. What we’re making is differentiated. We want to create something that feels like a friend.
If you think about the whole world as a game world, then what we’re creating is just one NPC in that world. As we move into—say that in five years we have smart glasses and screens all over our house and we’re living in this AR world. The game worlds we engage with have merged with the real world and we’re living in one cohesive world, instead of many little worlds through this tiny window in our home. A companion is just one NPC in that world. You might have a companion for your morning exercise routine. You might have a companion for helping arrange your groceries. But you can think of it like an NPC.
GamesBeat: It sounds like it’s been a very satisfying thing for you to be working on.
Code: It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. The opportunity to sit and brainstorm with people who don’t like video games, and therefore have no preconceived notions about what should be in a game—they’ve just never gotten that deeply into them. For me it felt like it widened my perspective so much. I realized that I had a very narrow focus.
What informed me taking this direction in the first place is that diverse teams outperform expert teams. I read that, and I thought it was so interesting. Experts are all trained on the same knowledge base. They’re trained in the same procedures. They get stuck on the same problems, because they follow the same paths and have the same sense of what’s possible. To break out of established paradigms and established processes, you have to bring in some people who aren’t experts. When you get experts and other people to work together—I discovered there’s this whole other stress response that does imply we could potential double the market. That could really be interesting and fun to work on.