Loneliness has become an increasingly visible problem in recent years. According to a report from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, there are nine million people in the UK who say they are often or always lonely.
It's been identified as such an important issue that last year the UK appointed the world's first minister for loneliness. Launching a government strategy several months later, the initiative offered up a pot of £1.8 million to revitalise underused areas and create community cafes, art spaces, and gardens -- which isn't very much to tackle what then prime minister Theresa May described as "one of the greatest public health challenges of our time."
With the government purse strings still pulled tight under austerity, game companies are also beginning to look at what they can offer. Copenhagen-based developer BetaDwarf last month announced it had raised $6.6 million through venture capital funding to develop a new loneliness-busting game.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, CEO Steffen Kabbelgaard explains why his studio is trying to tackle the loneliness epidemic, and how BetaDwarf's new game will be designed to facilitate friendship.
"Personally I've had a relative who has suffered a lot from loneliness and we're trying to help out there," he says. "The natural thing is to try to promote a community that people can join, but the issue is that lonely people have a tendency to have low self esteem, so it's a big challenge for them to show up at some small community like a ping pong club for example, because they have to face nine new people... That's simply a different story in a game where you can start out being more anonymous and then choose to take off your mask when you're confident with that."
Currently dubbed Project Haven, the game is targeting players older than 35 years, which is supposedly around the age the second-highest loneliness spike manifests. Obviously it's not excluding younger players, but BetaDwarf is leaning into a more methodical co-operative experience that relies on communication and collaboration, rather the competitive twitch game play of titles like Counter-Strike and League of Legends.
This is also important due to the increased time pressures that are typical among older gamers, who may be reluctant to spend an evening playing a competitive title and have very little to show for it afterwards.
"Lonely people have a tendency to have low self esteem, so it's a big challenge for them to show up at some small community [in person]"
The game's intentions do raise questions about how it will reach its target audience, but Kabbelgaard says it should be a fairly natural process, rather than actively marketing itself as a game that helps with loneliness.
"Lonely people have a very high tendency of shedding their loneliness, especially the upcoming generation, by playing games," he continues. "So it's not necessarily solving it for them, but it's kind of like shedding it. So that means they are already naturally attracted to games. This research shows also that they are four times more attracted to online games."
BetaDwarf intends to build intimate friendships between players with data-driven bonding. This means not only understanding how friendships are formed, but also using algorithms to match people with high friend potential, and give them reasons to continue playing together. Kabbelgaard cites figures that suggest two strangers can become casual friends after around 50 hours of shared activity, and beyond 200 hours they are likely to become close friends.
"The start of the journey is to get two particular people, or even three, to play together for at least 50 hours," he adds. "Some of the best games that create friendships nowadays are World of Warcraft for instance, and EVE Online. But you have some huge difficulties in the way that World of Warcraft accidentally divides players over time, because it has huge worlds and big level gaps between players. So if we don't play various synchronous hours, I will be somewhere else in a different level from you next week, making it hard to play together continuously.
"Whereas games like League of Legends have way less of that problem, but it is dividing players over time through skill gaps where you simply become better and start wanting to play with people of a similar skill level... You need the more friendly reciprocation World of Warcraft offers, without then dividing people over time."
"Psychologically, you tend to have a super positive reaction when you recognise another person's name so these things play really well together"
The whole endeavour essentially boils down to building "room for sharing vulnerability." Project Haven will be fully co-operative, but also see players join small teams of two or three as part of a larger 20 person squad where everyone has a role and a purpose but, more importantly, room to communicate.
The example Kabbelgaard gives is a mission that involves guarding a location for 15 minutes, with no indication when the threat might appear. This is intended to keep players focused on the task at hand, while still giving them time and space to communicate.
Players that communicate well will be asked to play a second match together. All of the data is stored in a "friendship tree" that identifies friend potential, ready for when they next login, and the game will always try to group compatible players with established relationships.
"Psychologically, you tend to have a super positive reaction when you recognise another person's name so these things play really well together," says Kabbelgaard. "So in all simplicity, it's storing playtime between specific people and building on top of that."
As friendships develop, the game will offer custom "dating quests" that appear for a limited time. The quests will be designed for players who have established friendship elsewhere in the game, and this presents an opportunity for them to make an effort arranging scheduled game time with their burgeoning in-game buddy, further cementing the friendship.
While BetaDwarf has thought extensively about how to foster friendship through simple yet clever design, the studio's approach to managing any potential toxicity appears somewhat lacking in its current form. Kabbelgaard suggests that the PvE and co-operative aspect of the game should make the community naturally less toxic than something like a competitive online shooter.
"If you scour the internet for communities, [PvE ones] have a tendency of being way more positive than competitive communities... But if you went to Warframe community, they are way more helpful, and it just seems to be the common denominator that it's not a competitive game," he says, adding that it's "definitely something we need to be aware of."