A video game for people who don’t play—or even like—video games.
BY: CHRISTINA PALASSIO
In the world of the #SelfCare app, it’s perfectly okay to want to stay in bed all day—in fact, the world of the app is a bedroom. There are no scores, goals or rewards in this game. Instead, the app has been programmed with rituals meant to be anxiety-free, maybe even a little boring: a tarot card deck you can draw from, a plant you can care for, a cat you can pet. For anyone who struggles with the stress caused by compulsive phone use (and, you know, the world), #SelfCare is an alternative to the techno loop, a safe space to recharge for a few minutes.
“Before, I’d reach for my phone out of instinct, and I would do the cycle: Twitter, email, Instagram, Snapchat, the news and then start again,” says journalist Eve Thomas, who co-created the game with Brie Code, a game designer. “I’d get to a point where I was scrolling and I’d feel anxious, and I didn’t even remember what it was related to because it was a few stories ago.”
So the two set out to design an experience that soothes. Together, they developed the concept. “I had a few sillier ideas,” Thomas says, “but I realized that if this was going to be a long-term thing, it had to be a topic I really cared about and something I’d want to explore more deeply. I felt like lying in bed with your phone and feeling bad about wasting time on social media were things that weren’t going to go away anytime soon.” Thomas took on the role of the potential user, while Code created initial prototypes. All told, 15 people were involved in the app’s creation, including three game designers and five programmers.
The duo recently launched a new ritual in the app: a ’90s-inspired zine called Tru Zine, with pink lightning bolts on the cover. Inside the zine, there are quizzes, tips and how-tos. It also acts as a message board, a place where Code and Thomas can connect with the app’s users.
Code and Thomas have a lot of users to talk to. Since it launched in July 2018, #SelfCare has been downloaded close to 1.5 million times—with a marketing investment of exactly zero dollars. Its popularity proves a theory that Code developed over years of working in the video game industry and talking to people, many of them women, who don’t typically play video games. There’s a huge untapped market out there for games that diverge from convention and, particularly, from the common shoot-and-kill format. TRU LUV, Code’s studio, is on a mission to connect with that untapped market.
“Much of the mobile industry is about getting you in a compulsive use pattern and then blocking you from using an app by asking you to pay, and we just won’t do anything like that,” says Code. “We designed #SelfCare so that it takes three to five minutes to do the experience and then you want to put it down. We don’t try to hold you there.” Though it deliberately steers clear of characteristics that would make it addictive—typically in the form of strategically dispensed frustrations and rewards—users keep coming back.
“I did lots of focus groups before launching my own studio,” says Code, who previously worked on the Assassin’s Creed team at Ubisoft and was fascinated by why so few of her female friends played video games. “What I heard is that people weren’t playing because the portrayal of women is terrible, they don’t see their own cultural touchstones represented and they want to change and grow as a person—they’re not interested in consuming media that’s just about getting a score up.”
Most video games target our fight-or-flight stress response. When people who exhibit that response get stressed, playing a first-person shooter game can be relaxing. With #SelfCare, Code decided to make a game that targets people who exhibit a tend-and-befriend stress response instead. “They’re looking for situations they can learn something from and apply in their life, and they want to express caretaking behaviours.” By creating more of those opportunities, Code and Thomas want to expand the gaming industry and the ways people play online.