Game Design

kind words is the rare haven of companionship we need from a video game

Online games have long been notorious for toxicity amongst players.  A 2019 study said that 74% of US gamers have experienced harassment in online multiplayer games, with offensive names and trolling or griefing topping the list of incidents1.

As an avid gamer myself, I’ve come to expect it – being called names, threatened, trolled, bullied, ridiculed and verbally abused in online games has sadly been the norm for many years.

And so, I’m a hardened cynic.  I mute players quickly, I disable chat, I play in private servers with only people I know.  My naïve perception of online communities from the early MMORPG days of guilds and raid nights has long since been crushed by reality.

Basically, given any online platform where users hide behind anonymity, the worst will come out in people.  Or that’s what I thought.

Kind Words (lo fi chill beats to write to) by Popcannibal takes all of this and turns it on its head.

Kind Words is about writing letters to strangers

The game is simple.  As the lo fi hiphop music plays in the background, you can either send out a message request about your thoughts or worries, or browse and respond to messages from other players.

There’s no back-and-forth communication, and all letters are anonymous, showing only a first initial.  You can read responses to your message request in your inbox, and collect and send stickers to thank others for their message.

Every now and then, a paper airplane floats by your room, showing a positive affirmation or quick note written by another player that was sent out to the world.  Unlike message requests, you can’t respond to these.

That’s it.  Really.  That’s the whole game.

A game design formula that shouldn’t work, but miraculously does

As the friendly mail deer was explaining this to me when I first opened the game, it sounded too good to be true.  But the game kept surprising me by how well it works.

I was fully expecting that at least half of the message requests would be people trolling or being inappropriate.  None of them were.  They addressed strikingly personal topics such as relationships, fears, sexuality, violence, death, illness, and mental health, without coming across as flippant or attention-seeking like social media posts sometimes do.

advertisement


I thought the responses I received for my message about the anxiety I was feeling in lockdown would be mean-spirited.  All five of them (received within an hour or two) were anything but.  In fact, all of my responses since then have been similarly thoughtful, kind, and at times, profound.

I stepped away from my computer after two hours of Kind Words feeling moved and confused that a game so pure can exist and thrive in such an awful online world.

Kindness is both the game’s motivation and reward

What stands out is how the game’s design encourages kindness.  Kindness forms the core of the game and serves as both the motivator and the reward in a single-entity feedback loop that is not common in video games.

Usually, a game provides rewards, like in-game gold, or unlocking a secret area, for a specific separate goal, such as “kill 20 dire wolves in the forest”.  This is in addition to the player’s sense of accomplishment for having completed said goal.

In Kind Words, the motivation and the reward is the satisfaction you get from writing to someone and receiving responses.  It may be the first and only video game whose focus is being kind to others in such a tangible way.

Sure, you can get stickers, but this is hardly an incentive for long-term play.  In my short time of playing Kind Words I’ve already collected 8 out of the 11 stickers available.

You can collect stickers to add items to your room.

There’s no achievement, badge or score for sending a certain number of letters, or collecting all the stickers.  That’s the genius of Kind Words’ design, because it keeps you focused on the game’s raison d’être – spreading kindness and making people feel they are less alone.

Here’s the thing.  People love helping others.  We love giving advice.  And any game that can take that internal motivation and spin it into action is going to go far.

Anonymity is a double-edged sword

In video games, users often hide behind usernames as a way to anonymously be mean or cruel to others.  The flip side is that being anonymous also allows players to be vulnerable, and designing for this use of anonymity is where Kind Words shines.

In an age where digital civility is remarkably rare, Kind Words manages to curate its messages by laying down the rules at the start of the game, telling you straight up that trolls are not welcome, and making you sign in a box to say you’re going to respect the space and the purpose of the game.

This simple action goes a long way.  Signing your name virtually, even if you use a pseudonym, feels almost as if you are signing an invisible contract with yourself and, as an extension, with the creators and community of Kind Words.

Discouraging trolls is deceptively simple in Kind Words

Game co-creator Ziba Scott has stated that only 3% of the millions of messages sent are automatically picked up for moderation based on keyword detection, and even then a majority are due to off-topic conversation.

In another clever game design move, not being able to send messages back and forth from a single user discourages trolls because people aren’t able to see their impact or get a rise out of someone.

[Trolls are] not going to be able to know the effect they had and we find that’s pretty effective.  They get bored quickly.  They come, and they’ll spend an hour saying awful things, and then they’ll disappear and never come back because there’s really no reward for them to be doing that.

– Ziba Scott, game designer of Kind Words2

There’s also a “Report” button to flag inappropriate messages, but I haven’t had to use it once.

It turns out the game’s circular reward and motivation cycle based on “kindness” does nothing for a player who is intentionally out to grief others, and that is to the advantage of the game as a whole.

Kind Words is the game we need to combat the loneliness of quarantine

With the world in various stages of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kind Words is more relevant than ever.  It is the best of what games can offer in making people feel less isolated and more heard in a time of increasing loneliness and growing fear.  It connects people without the pressure of being a dating app or a way to meet friends online.

advertisement


Scott talked about how Kind Words was created as a response to the Trump administration, which highlighted the role of games as a reaction to and a means of dealing with real current events.

This game may not feel overtly political, but it is… It’s in a lot of ways our reaction to the Trump administration. … It is a response to Trump’s politics of fear and exclusion, and there’s a lot of rising xenophobia around the world.

– Ziba Scott, game designer of Kind Words2

Indeed, the comfort of another person listening in a time of global chaos is reassuring, especially as we practise social distancing and shelter at home.

Kind Words gives me hope for the future of games

In this context, one can argue that Kind Words isn’t even really a game at all.  Its lack of a progression system and its undefined goals, as well as its tangible real-world influences, may place it in the nebulous category of “interactive experience”, and that’s okay.

For me, it’s really encouraging to see experiences like Kind Words crop up to push the boundaries of what games mean and how they make an impact in the real world.  We could always use more kindness, especially right now.

References Cited

  1. Anti-Defamation League. “Free to Play? Hate, Harassment, and Positive Social Experiences in Online Games.” ADL, 15 March 2019. Web. 26 April 2020.
  2. Favis, Elise. “Trump’s rhetoric agitated two game designers. They responded with Kind Words..” The Washington Post, 23 January 2020. Web. 26 April 2020.