Imagine a better internet. Not a faster or more far-reaching web, but a more positive one — an online world that, instead of amplifying our real-life fear, anger, grief, frustration, and self-doubt, offers relief from those troubles. A place where strangers provide support rather than try to tear you down.
This is precisely the type of daydreaming that indie game developer Ziba Scott and artist-designer Luigi Guatieri were doing in 2019, as they watched the internet continue its downward spiral of toxicity and negativity. They thought a solution could lie, paradoxically, in an online game. So they set out to design a video game that doubles as a gentler social media platform — something that would accentuate the positive aspects of online interconnectivity while shutting out the trolls, bubble-builders, and other trappings of the almighty social algorithm.
They call it Kind Words.
The gameplay takes place in a virtual bedroom. There’s a desk by the window, where your cartoonish avatar sits. A boombox on a nearby shelf fills the space with soothing instrumental lo-fi music. By the warm light of a swing-armed desk lamp, you pen an electronic worry to no one in particular:
“I’ve been looking for a job for 2 years.”
“My parents would disown me if I came out to them.”
“I’m afraid I’ll be alone forever.”
You send the letter into the ether. But instead of being mocked, bullied, minimized, or perhaps worst of all, ignored, you receive responses — usually within hours or even minutes — of sympathy and encouragement from real, anonymous people all over the world. Some have been through what you’re going through and offer perspective (“Sometimes I never figure it out”); some may be in the same situation now (“You and me both, friend”). And others have no idea but try to lift your spirits anyway (“I hope you feel better”). Sometimes it’s a little bit of all of this.
Released for $4.99 in September 2019 to rave reviews, Kind Words won the 2020 British Academy Games Award for “Game Beyond Entertainment,” for delivering a “transformational experience” through emotional impact, empathy, or problem-solving. Three years into its existence, Kind Words draws 1,200 unique users a day. Its players have exchanged more than 5.3 million letters, responses, and messages. Perhaps that’s because it has touched on a need for a deeper human connection — or at least a more affirmative one — than the internet tends to provide.
“Most people go through the same inner challenges in life,” says Rachel Rodgers, a psychology professor at Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences. “We will all experience loss of a close relationship and self-doubt.” A game like Kind Words, she says, “provides a sense of common humanity.”
The search for social connection led Scott to game design. Like countless other kids of his generation, he’d grown up playing video games on PCs and on consoles like the Nintendo and PlayStation. But as an adult, he had parlayed his passion for code into a seemingly more practical career: developing financial forecasting and enrollment software for The Linux Box Corporation in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“I loved programming first, before games,” says Scott. “And I still do. But after years of doing that, I was looking for a way to make my work connect me more with the world of ideas and people. I got a lot of satisfaction from my days as a webmaster and consultant, but no one wanted to talk about that at parties.”
On the drive home from his corporate job in 2006, Scott heard a radio ad for a master’s program in “serious game design” at nearby Michigan State University. He enrolled in night classes and graduated in two years. He moved to Boston and, in 2010, started a game company called Popcannibal.
“Kind Words” uses anonymity as a protective shield from judgment and ridicule. As a result, players are free to talk about everything.
One of his first products was Fish Listening to Radio, a downloadable Xbox game in which players scored points for protecting their underwater radio from fishers’ hooks. Girls Like Robots, his first collaboration with Guatieri, was an online “puzzle game about seating arrangements,” in which players “make friends and break hearts” by choosing which girls, guys, and robots sit near each other, all to the sound of string-band music. Both games won wide praise for their originality and charm.
But it was Popcannibal’s third game that really channeled a wider sector of the zeitgeist. In Elegy for a Dead World, released in 2014, players explored distant virtual planets and created written histories about the people who once lived there. The game was successful: users created hundreds of thousands of stories and poems. The only problem was, once they published their own original works, no one was really interested in reading anyone else’s. “There was a disconnect,” says Scott. “If you don’t want to read anyone else’s story, no one’s going to want to read your story. We wanted to complete that loop.”
The duo started to ponder a game that would inspire a mutual response, but they set it aside to chase a different dream, a sailboat-building game called Make Sail. It took four arduous years to make, but upon its release, the game didn’t catch the commercial headwind Scott and Guatieri had hoped for. In fact, the financial situation of Popcannibal was such that Scott was seriously thinking about interviewing for regular workaday jobs.
So when, in 2019, Scott and Guatieri returned to the notion of Kind Words, they were not only trying to cordon off a space on the internet — they were also in desperate need of encouragement themselves.
Kind Words starts with a deer named Ella, who introduces herself to the player. “We wanted them to meet a character that inspired respect and empathy,” says Scott. “Deer are elegant, resourceful, independent survivors — there is no joy in teasing them.”
Ella is a newly hired mail carrier who is uneasy about starting the new gig. She asks the player, identified only by the first letter of their name, to pen some words of reassurance to her. That interaction sets the tone for the entire game.
From here on out, players have three options. They can send out a request for responses to a specific problem or issue a vague vent, like I thought it would be easier to make friends in college. They can respond to another player’s call. They can send a virtual paper airplane with a blanket message of positivity to the broader community — the plane just floats across the screen, waiting to be clicked and opened. All the action takes place in that virtual bedroom. The player types in a box; the avatar, seated at the desk, fills out short cards or longer letters to the soothing and simple background music — the full name of the game is Kind Words (lo fi chill beats to write to).
The key ingredient here is anonymity. Elsewhere, the ease of obscuring one’s identity online can become a ski-mask that emboldens online bullies and even casual commenters to say things they’d never dare utter in person. But Kind Words uses anonymity as a protective shield from judgment and ridicule. As a result, players are free to talk about everything: a bad day at work, a tough breakup, coming out to their parents, grief over losing someone close to them.
Communication in this world is strictly a one-time event. Once someone responds to a request, the only direct answer allowed to their letter is a virtual sticker (of Ella the mail deer, a cup of coffee, a sailboat, or a gelatinous pile of goo wearing a party hat). Players collect the stickers and pass them on as thanks for a random act of kindness.
To moderate exchanges and weed out bad actors, Kind Words relies on machine learning that targets keywords. But Scott says that only about 3% of messages are pinged for possible inappropriate content, and much of it, when reviewed, turns out to be completely benign false alarms. Scott and Guatieri personally monitor a lot of the activity and respond to messages flagged by users — a task that, with the game’s popularity, takes up about half of Scott’s working hours. If a player becomes a repeat offender, sending messages that don’t fit the game’s mission, their future submissions might get a closer look or be deleted altogether. But Scott says would-be trolls can’t trigger the responses they crave in this format — since questioners can’t reply to an answer — so they tend to steer clear.
This is part of the game design as well, Scott says. “We wanted a place where you could be your best and help others and discuss what’s hard in your life, but not get caught up in the distraction of winning internet points, the allure of having a following, or being right.”
While monitoring the traffic, Scott sees plenty of anonymous cries for help, but he also sees the exponential flood of affirmative and encouraging responses each plight receives. Of course, an animated mail deer is no substitute for a trained mental health professional, and for those people who might need more than kind words, the game includes links and phone numbers to emergency hotlines.
But Northeastern’s Rodgers says this on-demand, peer-based support network could fill an important gap. In many cases, she says, difficult experiences are more easily shared in an anonymous format with social support. “And since social media is global, there is always someone up to help, even during those late hours,” she adds. “You can tap into it whenever you need to.”
The positive feedback outside of the game, along with its success, has also left a profound impact on the creators. Scott is no longer interviewing for other jobs. In fact, he’s more certain than ever that game design is his career path. All it took was a few million words of reassurance.