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Slouching toward relevant video games

People respond differently to stress, says Brie Code. Design for it

I wrote a thing a while ago about how I love video games but my friends find video games boring. I made the case that the multitudes of white masculine gamers who dominate the games industry have made experiences that are relevant to them but not to most people.

I made the case that life is really difficult, that our world has changed fast, and that what my friends are looking for in art is a relief from the constant overwhelming shock of capitalism (and now the looming reality of fascism). I made the case that video games that are about care and characters would be more culturally relevant to more people.

But I think it's not only for cultural reasons that my friends prefer care to shock. I think there's also an underlying physiological reason why this is so. I think it has something to do with stress reactions. And I think this holds the key to the future of the industry.

I feel love

When you're playing a video game, and there are a lot of things flashing on the screen, and there's danger and it's shocking and it's fun, that's a fight-or-flight response.

"My friends and I don't like adrenaline, but there's something similar that is probably going on with us. It's called tend-and-befriend"

With fight-or-flight, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and releases adrenaline followed by dopamine. If you like games like this, it's probably because adrenaline and dopamine are very enjoyable. Your pupils dilate. Your heart beats faster. Your airways open up. And you feel exhilarated. You feel alive. You feel powerful.

But not everyone likes these kinds of games. I don't. My friends don't. And I think my friends find games like this boring not only because they aren't interested in more stories about callous white men, and not only because they don't know how the controls work or don't get the references to geek culture, but also because they don't get an adrenaline high. They have a different response to stress.

My friends and I don't like adrenaline, but there's something similar that is probably going on with us. It's called tend-and-befriend. Like fight-or-flight, tend-and-befriend is an automatic, physiological reaction to threatening situations.

If you experience tend-and-befriend, it's because your body releases oxytocin or vasopressin when you're stressed, followed by opioids. This calms your sympathetic nervous system so you don't get the flood of adrenaline. Instead of wanting to fight or to flee, you stay relatively calm, but aware. Your pupils dilate, you become fearless, and you are less sensitive to pain. You instinctively want to protect your loved ones, to seek out your allies, and to form new alliances. Oxytocin intensifies social feelings, and opioids feel extremely warm and lovely.

I don't like adrenaline but I really, really like this. This feels delicious. Luscious. Powerful.

And the oxytocin/opioid thing isn't limited to threatening interactions. It's also there when you touch or even think about someone you love. It's very much there during sex. It's there when you play fetch with your dog or chill out with your cat. It's there when you look at a cute baby. It's even there when you exclude someone you don't like.

A revelation

When I first read about tend-and-befriend, I suddenly understood myself so much better. Oh my goodness, I thought, this is how I usually react to stress. Most of my friends do too.

"Like much other research, most stress research had been done with men and male animals. Prior to 1995, only 17% of stress research had been done with women"

Most women and many men have this reaction. It's possible it could be our dominant stress response in general. But had you heard of it before? Maybe not. It's barely been studied. It's barely been discussed. It's barely just been identified.

In 1998, a prominent stress researcher was giving a talk in which he said, "we shocked the animals and, of course, they all attacked each other." This statement struck some researchers at the UCLA Social Neuroscience Lab as not descriptive of humans, and by 2000 Dr. Shelley E. Taylor and her colleagues had identified the tend-and-befriend response.

Why so late? Blinkered researchers and their bad samples.

Like much other research, most stress research had been done with men and male animals. Prior to 1995, only 17% of stress research had been done with women. Throughout many fields, when female bodies don't fit the data, the researchers blame menstruation, throw the female data out of the sample, and keep going. I'm not even kidding. Oops. Way to go guys.

What's more, when it comes to studying humans rather than animals, many researchers only access what is known as the WEIRD sample: White, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. This is also not a comprehensive sample.

I grew up being taught that fight-or-flight was my stress response. But it's not. What else do I not understand about myself?

Maybe everything we know about ourselves is wrong. We see these kinds of mistakes in the design of cities. Until 2011 we saw it in the design of air bags. Until 2009 we saw it in the understanding of the shape of the clitoris. We see it in the "typical" symptoms for heart attacks.

This is so freaking boring. It exposes a lack of imagination. And a lack of care.

I understand how it happens. A casual dismissal of other perspectives comes easily when someone has had his own perspectives validated throughout his life. When bodies like his have been studied by science. When his confidence has been repeatedly interpreted as competence. But this dynamic doesn't lead to good ideas and it's not good for the long term health of any industry.

"A prominent games researcher once told me that he too doesn't try to study women because 'you can't predict women'"

A prominent games researcher once told me that he too doesn't try to study women because "you can't predict women". I was horrified.

I see multiple teams searching for new kinds of gun-free gameplay, but not thinking outside of re-creating the same natural and quite rightly beloved adrenaline high. They're missing some data. They're missing some perspectives.

A boss of mine once declared in the face of focus groups and research proving otherwise that my target market craves only Vogue magazine and not also deep character systems. Finally, I laughed my way right out of that job and into my own studio.

A woman I very much respect told me that you can't change the world, but you can make your little corner of it better. This is my little corner. I'm bored of patriarchy and its lasting effects on my life, but I'm very interested in looking at the gaps in research and in design and fixing them. Are you?

Our hour come around at last

What is game design missing? I ask this question not just in terms of cultural elements. Not just in terms of diverse protagonists. Not just in terms of references beyond fantasy and science fiction and modern day warfare.

I ask this question in terms of game mechanics and game systems. I ask in terms of adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin, opioids, and other reward systems. I ask in terms of gameplay that helps a wider range of people understand themselves and their responses to stress and to the world.

"Agitating young men's fear makes money. Slot machines make money. But it's the coward's choice and it's a boring choice"

What do we take for granted about play styles and about player motivation and other frameworks that we use to think about games? Could some of this be wrong or incomplete?

What does it take to induce a flow state in the player? Does it always require frustration?

Who designed all these rules? What players are we studying?

Who should we be talking with?

I know who I'm talking with.

Slouching toward relevant video games

As the wealthy ascend further and the weather turns unfamiliar and our jobs flounder and we gaze with horrified fascination into our phones, we are all overwhelmed with shock.

Capitalizing on this fear by continuing to make games that drive this fear is a short term strategy. Agitating young men's fear makes money. Slot machines make money. But it's the coward's choice and it's a boring choice.

I want to be very clear that care is not weak, simple, or cute. It doesn't only belong in simple or cute games. Caring for your chosen loved ones and the formation of new alliances are sophisticated actions and can be acts of warfare. It requires bravery to speak up, to reach out, and to build towards something new. Care is stronger than brutality or fear.

Care and characters will make games that are both culturally relevant and physiologically stimulating to more people. These are games that will help us understand ourselves and our lives. These are games that will carry us into a more respectful, more respected, and strengthened future. This is where video games can shine not just as bright as but brighter than other media. This is an industry I would want to work in.

Question your assumptions about yourself, other people, and games. Get the real data. And if you are under-represented in this industry, look into your own heart: maybe everything we know is wrong, but you are right. Let's find each other and let's work together. Maybe we're here to take away the boys' games after all.

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Brie Code avatar

Brie Code


Brie Code and her company Tru Luv Media make video games with people who don’t like video games. Previously she led programming teams at Ubisoft Montreal on Child of Light and some Assassin's Creeds, and wrote AI code at Relic for Company of Heroes and Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @briecode or @truluvmedia.