What if we proactively design our games to facilitate positive human relationships? We propose that games built on a foundation of kind aesthetics can deliver greater player satisfaction, greater long term engagement, and richer human experiences.
Internal studio research increasingly shows that social features facilitating friendship are highly predictive of long term retention in online games. Despite this, many games are based on single player or competitive gameplay and only add friendship-focused social features as an afterthought.1
Let’s make kind games where players help one another in safe, supportive environments. We define kind games as multiplayer games designed from the start with systems that deliberately promote prosocial behavior. We observe this as an emerging design trend in hit multiplayer games like Sky: Children of Light, Sea of Thieves, Final Fantasy 14, Death Stranding and even distinctly uncozy games like Elden Ring. In this paper we hope to jumpstart the conversation by covering practical tools, constraints and real world examples. There’s a grand opportunity to design multiplayer prosocial games that bring out the best of humanity.
This paper is organized in the following chapters:
Over the past 30 years, we’ve personally witnessed two common practices for social systems design:
These historical design practices have substantial weaknesses. Especially in our modern world where games have moved far beyond close knit LAN parties and now can involve populations larger than many countries.
We propose a fresh approach. Kind games are multiplayer games intentionally designed to emphasize prosocial behavior (players helping one another). Kind games in our definition have the following attributes:
Kind games are games that adhere to kind values. These are the top-level contracts you, as a developer, make with players to promise a specific type of experience.
The primary behavior we want to see in a kind game is player prosociality: players help each other and behave in a generally altruistic fashion. They are less likely to engage in selfish or harmful activities.
The following secondary values help increase the likelihood of developing a kind game. While these values are related, or can exist in some form other sorts of games, we believe that these values have to be present to a degree for a kind game. Specifically, the more your game has each of these elements, the easier it will be for your game to attain kindness.
We’ll dig into each of these in more detail in Chapter 4.
Though we talk about an idealized ‘kind game’ throughout the paper, it is critical to note that kindness in games exists along a spectrum. It is a design ingredient, not an absolute classification. You’ll find individual systems that facilitate kindness, even within a game that has intense PvP modes. This is also a somewhat new space. There are historical games that showcase strong prosocial systems, but we suspect the fullest realization of a kind game has yet to be developed.
Here are a few canonical kind systems worth studying.
Why should we care about making kind games? Kind games actively seek to foster meaningful relationships between players through the promotion of the values we identified above. However, from a business perspective, they are also an effective approach to building high retention titles with deep community engagement. For a commercial developer, focusing on kind games is a win-win. You can make honest money and still sleep at night.
Games are one of the primary social spaces available to people in our increasingly fragmented world. With the erosion of traditional third spaces like playgrounds, bars, social clubs and offices, people have reported an uptick in loneliness, a decrease in trust within their community and a general decay of meaningful social bonds.5 It is high time for games to take responsibility for the role they play as modern social spaces. We can create:
In short, we want to build robust social systems that make the lives of our players better through increasing connection between humans. This is a goal that you as a game developer can feel good about dedicating your life towards. Game developers often wrestle with the thought that they are merely wasting a player’s precious time or creating a machine that extracts money. Kind games are a higher creative calling. Creators of kind games help our fellow humans thrive and that is a worthy end towards which we can dedicate both our labor and our lives.
If you are a working commercial designer, you know that any game pitch needs to survive some pretty serious business expectations. Consider the following assumptions:
Though there are many games that solve one or two of these factors, a kind game makes the following business bet: By building systems that reduce toxicity, foster friendships and cultivate a positive, trusting, highly engaged community, we lift key business metrics. Retention improves. Organic reach improves. Marketing efforts are more effective and lower cost. We build a valuable long term brand.
We want to make art that makes the world a better place, but we are also clear-eyed about the realities of surviving and thriving within the commercial game industry. The good news is that kind games align these two desires: we can make games with strong initial player appeal by building kind communities based on kind values. And in the process, we can build highly profitable and sustainable long term businesses.
When we talk about ‘kindness’ we are largely talking about prosociality from psychological literature. Prosocial behavior is the broad category of actions where a person helps another person (independent of intent or reward that might be involved).8
Prosociality is defined by two factors.
Humans are constantly judging the intention behind a positive interaction. Why someone acted in a particular way is as important to humans as the specific action.
Intention comes in a variety of flavors. Kind games are interested in facilitating altruistic and win-win intentions.
We also care about the perceived cost of any prosocial action. The higher the perceived cost, the more likely we’ll treat an overture as authentic since social cheaters are less likely to invest expensive resources in a deception.
Like most social behavior, prosociality is often in the eye of the beholder. Players care who receives the welfare. And it matters who judges an act to be helpful or unhelpful.
What is helpful in one context may not be seen as helpful in another. For example, in Les Miserables, the character Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread for his starving family. Jean considers stealing in this specific context a prosocial action–it is helpful to him and his family, and there might be a broader moral claim to not be hungry. However, society does not consider his behavior to be prosocial, and sentences him to five years of hard labor for theft.
Taking all this together, we can put together a strong definition of altruism as acts that satisfy the following:
So altruism is a subset of prosocial behavior. This is the true altruism found in stories of saints and grand selfless sacrifices. In our dream designs, we can hope to encourage authentic altruism, but it is worth recognizing that it is a high bar, one that is valued in society in part because it is rare and expensive. The realities of life make opportunities for altruism limited, and also undesired in most cases. Altruism can be considered a ‘boss level’ prosocial design problem because it cannot be incentivized in the way we generally incentivize behavior in games, because as soon as the player is rewarded for it, it is no longer altruism.
This is why we mostly talk about prosocial behavior throughout much of this paper and not altruism. Altruism is a great goal, but sometimes we’ll need to be satisfied with making games that deliver mere win-win situations9 where players are motivated by a very human mix of external and internal rewards. When making kind games, it helps to be pragmatic idealists.
Social theory helps us understand first principles, but there also exist proven prosocial design patterns. Patterns and anti-patterns suggest a path forward when you are facing a tricky design problem, but be aware that they are not blueprints. You still need to figure out how they apply to your specific challenge and then iterate towards your desired experience.
One metaphor is to think of design patterns as expressive musical instruments, like a violin or a trumpet. It is certainly a capable tool for making music, but you need to practice how to use it. And you need to adapt your performance to each and every new song.
We split kind values roughly into the following buckets:
Build win-win situations, where it is easy and rewarding to help others. This is where many games build toxicity generators into their core loops. They make it expensive to help others and easy to be selfish.
The ability design for Lucio from Overwatch 1 & 2 is an example of win-win interactions. As a Support, his abilities are an area of effect that boosts the health regeneration or speed of his teammates while using it for his own benefits. This makes it easy for players who pick this character to help others without the cost of making zero sum sacrifice.
The majority of players use a tit-for-tat copying strategy where they only behave in a prosocial cooperative fashion when they expect others to also behave in cooperative fashion. This has been extensively studied in the social sciences through experiments such as the Prisoners Dilemma and the Ultimatum Game. This strategy is inherently reactive: if someone signals they are going to act in a selfish fashion, other players will respond by acting selfishly in turn.
A developer can gain an upper hand by loudly declaring a player promise and code of conduct that signals the game is a cooperative space where players are expected to behave nicely. When you set up a positive initial expectation, players who engage in tit-for-tat strategies will find that they mostly engage with the community as cooperative players. You still have to manage downstream toxicity, but official kind community values are a great base to build upon.
You’ll need to reinforce this promise periodically with reminders and public demonstration of actions taken to reform those who fall into selfish behavior.
One of our favorite examples of an upfront player promise that shaped communal behavior was a horse riding community that sprung up inside Red Dead Redemption 2. The game, about grizzled outlaws in the Wild West, has almost no in-game affordances for kind behavior. However, it does have an amazing horse riding simulation. In this environment, players organized outside the game and scheduled group rides together.
By advertising who they were and what they valued, Rift Trails attracted like-minded players and set the standard for how the group would interact. Impressively, this was enough to overcome all the gritty individualist dogma of the setting.
In zero sum exchanges, one party’s gain results in the other party’s loss. Often this is a breeding ground for toxicity as players steal from one another. However with proper framing, zero sum is also an opportunity for altruism through visible sacrifice.
You need to engineer situations where players are primed to making costly sacrifices without the guarantee of being reciprocated.
One of the more useful tools when creating strong aesthetics is engineering contrast between a desired value and its opposite. This throws the desired value into sharp relief. So if you want to make an act of altruism stand out, pair it with a background of cruelty. This multiplies the impact of the prosocial signaling.
In Elden Ring, there’s a very difficult boss named Malenia who slaughters most players. Elden Ring is a world drenched in cruelty, full of characters who represent the worst of human greed and suffering. There exists multiplayer, but other players are as likely to kill you as help you. Enter a player named Let Me Solo Her. If you open up your server to helping players, you may be visited by Let Me Solo Her, an iconic naked character who wears a pot as a helmet. They will single handedly take on Malenia and beat her for you.
There are some excellent prosocial systems that help bring about this moment.
This is the formula to create a video game saint and it wouldn’t be possible without the backdrop of cruelty and failure. Notice how the design of the Furled Finger uses carefully limited affordances to set the context for a subsequent display of prosociality. A downside to the Elden Ring approach is that the impact of true altruism comes largely from its rarity. It can be all too easy to accidentally foreground the selfish aspects of the dark world and pollute the game’s community norms.
In many traditional incentive structures we see players hoard resources for themselves, but in kind games, we prefer players to give resources more freely to others.
One way of encouraging this behavior is to mimic the economics of historical gifting economies, a topic that has been well studied by ethnologists.
The basic economic setup goes something like so:
What happens at this point is an exercise in game theory. Selfish behavior simply results in the loss of resources due to decay. Valuable resources being let go to waste signals to others that you acted in a selfish fashion. Also due to the sunk cost of effort and energy necessary to complete a successful hunt, you likely broke some community norms around avoiding waste.
With a small enough group with persistent member reputation, the smart strategy is to therefore gift large amounts of the resource to other members of the group. You appear very generous! But also, you’ve created an implied reciprocation contract with others. If they are lucky in a future hunt, they will likely return the favor and share with you.
This pattern requires some initial setup with both your game economy and player group sizes, persistence and reputational tracking. It is however a scenario that was common across humanity for tens of thousands of years. Perhaps there’s something here worth exploring.
In various mobile and social games like Farmville, you could give a gift to a player on your friend list. This doesn’t cost you anything and often you get an immediate private reward for simply performing the action. The game makes being generous easy and rewarding.
There were downsides to making gifting too easy. Gifting is a reciprocal loop in which you give something as an overture and the other player responds by sending something back. All reciprocal loops carry a social energy cost, in addition to any economic costs. If you send out too many gifts to too many other players, you are essentially spamming them with low value overtures. This is exhausting and quickly turns into a low social energy transactional exchange.
We know from psychological research that recipients of help care about perceived intent, not actual intent. If your design can encourage the perception of selflessness, you’ll increase the rate of social capital formation, even if behind the scenes the game is slyly using more extrinsic motivators or UX nudges to encourage prosocial behavior.
Here are some tools for enhancing the perception of altruistic intent.
There is always a cost to authentic prosocial behavior. At the very least, it drains our social energy and in extreme cases can consume time spent on necessary self-care. When social demands are too high, some players give too much of themselves.10 We see this in non-profit and healthcare professions in the real world, and the same can exist in support roles in games. Over time, toxic altruism leads to burnout and churn.
Prevention of supporter burnout is a fascinating but largely unexplored prosocial design space. We can imagine some improvements:
Scarcity is a particularly powerful economic motivator. When a player perceives that a resource has limited availability, they’ll often hoard it for their own needs.
Scarcity is an explicit choice in game design, since it is trivial to spawn near infinite amounts of any given resource. Toxic scarcity tends to show up in your designs under the following conditions.
When these scarcity factors are present, the window for altruism narrows and the community shifts towards something similar to the hypothesis of dark forest: Other beings (and in our case, players) are inevitable threats who are both equally silent and paranoid.
However, it is worth noting that the opposite of scarcity–that is, abundance–is also undesirable. When every individual has overflowing amounts of required resources, they stop needing others, which limits interactivity and opportunities for prosocial behavior such as sharing and cooperation. The right amount of stuff is always a balancing act.
Broadly speaking, a selfish person is concerned only for their own welfare or advantage at the expense or disregard of others. The following factors need to exist for selfishness to be present:
Humans are constantly trying to detect selfishness. It helps us prevent potential exploitation or mistreatment, promotes group coordination, and allows for moral signaling. Yet selfishness (like altruistic intent) is ultimately a perceptual construct; where one person sees a behavior as selfish and another person may not. Never underestimate the awesome power of self-justification; surprisingly few selfish people imagine there was even the slightest opportunity for generosity.
Individual competition, in this framing, is defined as a desire to maximize one’s personal outcomes relative to others’. By over-indexing on the game systems that favor competitiveness and individual benefits we incentivize selfishness in players. Celebrating or glorifying only one player’s contribution over a team’s collective effort reduces the incentive for teammates to cooperate for the greater good of the group. We see the weaker teammates get blamed for poor outcomes as players focus on individual output, especially in a scenario of loss.
(Please note there will always be plenty of games that celebrate individual competition. No one is going to take competitive individual sports away from players! However, our argument is that this type of design rarely leads to kind games focused on prosocial behavior.)
One hack for making these systems kinder is to create an overarching communal identity that emphasizes fair play and shared identity between competitors. You often see intense levels of friendly sportsmanship exhibited within Olympic gymnastic or skating teams even though they are arguably competing against one another. The key factors to achieving this deep bonding include:
The Dark Triad is a set of toxic personality traits that are rooted in an inability and unwillingness to consider the needs of others above their own. On this common base of selfishness and disagreeableness, anti-social players can be split into three common variants.
A big challenge with Dark Triad personality traits is that they persist in a small but meaningful percentage of your player population (less than 5%). Most of the systems we’ve talked about actively help increase kindness in 95% players where griefing is just a momentary lapse. But certain anti-social players will always choose the selfish option even in the face of extreme incentives and social pressure. That’s who they are and you, as the game designer, can’t provide the decades of therapy necessary to alter their behavior.
Some design surfaces worth exploring
Social hostility is equated to the tendency to limit another person’s options purely as a signal of hostility or spite. Trolling, as an example of social hostility, is specifically one-sided in nature. The troll has full control of the situation, their actions, and if they want to take things seriously without those same choices extended to their targets. The nature of being anonymous absolves them of ownership and the consequences of their words.
Trolling or griefing behavior is difficult to pin down and define in online worlds because the rulesets employed differ from game to game. Stealing or looting a player is unacceptable in the Animal Crossing community but is par for the course in an extraction shooter like Escape from Tarkov or Rust.
Regardless, players who engage in socially hostile play ultimately inflict social, cultural, and economic consequences on the game they play.
Griefing often coopts systems that were designed to create positive outcomes. In Sea of Thieves, Alliances were added as a cooperative mechanic.
However, what happened is that griefers would use the alliance as a means of tracking other players. They could see exactly where they were on the map and engage in a prolonged stalking session. As a result, players would avoid the Alliance system completely.
Players need to be able to share their points of view and authentic self without risk of damaging their reputation or getting blowback from others. Players will watch for psychological safety and if they don’t feel safe, they’ll often fail to engage socially. Studies have also found that when people experience psychological safety in groups, the groups tend to perform better on coordination and problem solving tasks.
We should note that the concept of “safety” is enormously contextual and subjective based on a person’s personal values. It is also a complex topic and a technology field unto itself. However, safety is a critical part of kindness, and many problems in games arise from “throw strangers together too fast” approaches to social system design. When this happens, players don’t have a chance to establish shared values, or to understand the boundaries and values held by others. In this environment of high stakes social ignorance, kindness is virtually impossible, and negative interaction virtually guaranteed.
Your affordances can highlight positive interactions.
Often these systems rely on closed affordances, not more open affordances like chat.
When a player starts interacting with the community, allow the most minimal set of interactions that still result in them feeling they are playing a multiplayer game. And then, once they’ve gained trust, give them the option to opt-in to richer methods of communication and coordination.
By making more open social affordances opt-in, you let players engage at their own pace. They never feel rushed in forming relationships with others; they always feel safe.
Many games have block systems in place for removing contact with those who have become noisy or toxic in some fashion. This is a great system because it lets players engage in more open discourse with someone and then opt-out if they find it wasn’t all they hoped.
However, relationships are rarely so black and white. A social media site like Twitter allows you to turn off some permissions piecemeal. If you don’t like the constant retweets from an otherwise good friend, there’s a toggle to just block that aspect of your relationship.
Likewise, providing multiple levers of consent and control allows the game to cater to different player needs. Looking at safety through the lens of the most marginalized groups of people helps inform which levers can support control over personal boundaries. Providing safety options to the most vulnerable players benefits the rest of the community at large.
Apex Legends has a ping system and a voice chat system. At some point players may have opted in to voice chat only to find it not to their liking. If they can mute voice chat and still fall back to using the safer ping system, they are able to continue playing and communicate with others, but at a level of social safety they find more appropriate.
A game’s naive social systems often actively promote negative emotions and lack of safety in order to drive business metrics. Consider:
Negative emotions are often highly “engaging”. Where it gets tricky is when games shift from satisfaction of existing needs to generation of new needs by putting players in harmful situations. Think carefully about just pasting safety systems on top of a core that is actively and intentionally generating your lack of safety in the first place for the sake of “engagement” – clicks and time-on-site without awareness of emotional valence.
Interdependent players must rely on one another in order to achieve more than an individual can accomplish alone. Kind systems provide underlying incentives for players to cooperate and coordinate with one another in a positive manner.
One of the greatest challenges to the growth of kind games is the video game industry’s historical reliance on western individualist power fantasies. The player promise is one of independence and individual power. Players level up, they gain personal god-like abilities and ultimately don’t need anyone in order to effect change in the world. This is very appealing particularly to poorly socialized young males, a group that tends to see a spike in selfish motivations around age 16 to 25, though a small sub-group doggedly maintains these motivations into their late 40s.11 It is also compelling broadly to people who lack power in real life – which might be everyone to some extent. Video games have historically provided relief from powerlessness, which can be a great good – but too much of it, especially once games started to directly involve real other humans, turns socially toxic.
A classic example of this type of multiplayer game is DayZ where the world wanted to kill you, players wanted to kill you, and only by accumulating power and resources did you gain independence (and, by extension, safety) from others.
These kinds of games result from the extrapolation of historical game design patterns into contexts in which they no longer help us. In order to innovate into a future of kind games, we must scrutinize some of game design’s most tried-and-true value propositions – including the myth of the solo hero.
Give players complementary skills and weaknesses so that they need to cooperate with others to reach their goals.
For example, in MMOs, players specialize by adopting three interlocking roles known as the Holy Trinity.
The overlap in skills means that a group with full DPS, Tank and Support can handle much more difficult enemies than any one player alone. Each individual player earns better loot and progresses faster, but must rely on others.
There are many forms of skill specialization. In Mario Party, one person stands on a button so that another player may walk through a locked gate. In DOTA, players specialize in Carry, Midlaner, Offlaner, Roamer and Hard Support. Look for the skills necessary to complete a multiplayer coordination task. Then split those skills across multiple player types.
Another form of specialization is when one player has access to unique resources that another player needs. In turn, the other player also has resources that the first player needs but cannot access on their own. This sets the stage for mutually beneficial trade or gifting.
You can also set up your interactions so the mere presence of other players gives superior results then if you play alone.
In the bullet hell MMO Realm of the Mad God, the health of an enemy was a global property impacted by all players. The more players you have shooting at the enemy, the faster it dies and the less risk that any one player has of dying from the enemy attacks. Additionally all loot was shared with those who did damage to the enemy so there was no downside to others helping out.
There’s no specialization involved here, merely a focusing of communal action. But the numerical benefits of playing together in parallel creates an economic incentive to stay together and help one another.
One positive sum resource we often overlook is information. Information may be shared freely, often no clear loss to the sharer. To set up positive sum information sharing, ensure the following:
A small sampling of different flavors of knowledge sharing worth building into your game:
If you’ve set up your systems of interdependence correctly, the presence of other people becomes a delightful opportunity.
In Journey, players rarely encounter another player in the vast desolate landscape. But then they do spot another person, there’s an immense sense of joy and appreciation. This is further enhanced by:
Note the lack of competitive mechanics and the emphasis on safe interdependence.
The flip side of this pattern is flooding the player with too many people whose limited utility does not justify the cost needed to jumpstart a relationship.
In many exploitative Web3 pitches, dilettantes gush over the possibility of having “A million concurrent players” in a shared virtual space. This flooding of a human’s Dunbar layers merely results in alienation and a devaluing of human life.12 Our limited brains turn to rule-of-law, transaction-based simplification, apathy, stereotypes and toxic othering in order to deal with the overwhelming quantity of commodified people.
Players work towards something bigger than themselves. This helps players put aside selfish perspectives. In its most expansive form, life purpose is associated with human thriving and lower overall mortality.
Having purpose can be improved by several factors:
By orienting a gaming community towards a shared goal, players begin acting like one another’s social support. Players feel that they are helping one another when they see others contribute to the same goal.
One example of this is large scale building communities in Minecraft servers. The entire community works together towards the goal of creating some grand work. There are more individually focused building servers, but by creating communal goals you gain the feeling of accomplishing something immense together.
Altruistic goals, especially long term ones that involve helping or providing for others, are naturally resonant with life purpose.
Player guides in Destiny 2 are an example of how the most altruistic members of a community self-organize around a structured service of teaching players how to navigate the most challenging content in the game. r/DestinySherpa is a 90,000 member strong subreddit group where guides are connected with players who specifically need help through raids. Moderators of the community have strict rules prohibiting self-promotion or elitist behavior in an attempt to sustain a prosocial and welcoming environment.
Belonging is when players feel a strong sense of membership in a community. It is a fundamental social need and provides a source of intrinsic motivation to drive further kind behavior.13 Belonging often comes with a sense of shared group identity.
Dimensions of belonging:
The idea of stoking anxiety, resentment, or fear of the “other” is not a new strategy in real world politics. Real world influences seep into online interactions and can create biases that designers need to look out for. Self-expression is one axis that, if unmoderated, can unintentionally create a sense of othering, preventing connections between players from forming.
As humans, we are cognitively wired to form heuristics around the world which we perceive and this rings true socially too. The categories we create (especially in a virtual world): the content, definition, and meaning of those categories is not automatic – they are socially constructed rather than natural. The more cohesion in a group, the less anti-social behavior and higher generalized trust.14
We are trained by slick social media sites to treat joining a digital group as a utilitarian act facilitated by well-greased UX flows. But human groups often invest in elaborate rituals to signpost when someone becomes a member. Consider the following design surfaces:
Provide aesthetic items whose purpose is to loudly and proudly display social identity to others. Membership items let other players see in a glance which group they belong to. And they also make it easy to pick out allies in a crowded space.
For example, guilds in MMORPGs long made a practice of including abbreviations for their guild in their character name. Some also dye their clothing with special guild colors.
A common mistake made by planned communities is to give players a templated community space and assume that is enough for them to feel a sense of belonging. This approach tends to fail–it is the difference between inheriting a community that is presumed to fit, rather than creating something custom and specific to the needs of the community.
The plan and structure of the community needs to be driven by player investment and a sense of ownership. If you can encourage the player to invest their time, planning and hard work in bringing a community to life, they’ll feel a stronger sense of belonging. Give them opportunities to set the direction of the community. Give them problems to overcome. This pattern ties in nicely to shared goals.
When players seek to understand the perspective of others, they start to break out of self-centered behaviors and can take into account the needs of others. Empathy is a skill that is practiced through intentional listening and repeated perspective taking.
VR titles have done very intriguing experiments around trying on different bodies and identities. This can provide a certain lived perspective that is otherwise impossible to achieve in other mediums.
Consider adding systems that encourage active listening. In the game Kind Words, players send out thoughts into the digital ocean and players are encouraged to read the messages, reflect upon them and react in an honest fashion.15 The game creates a space for thoughtful pondering and composing of a response. This pattern is in direct opposition to attention hogging UIs that present the user with an infinite scrolling landscape of immediate, ephemeral stimuli.
Encouraging diversity and tolerance of diversity is a rather pragmatic tool for social systems designers. We want players to value diverse identities and perspectives not only because they inoculate them against stereotypes and groupthink, but also because they more accurately reflect the player base and an opportunity for players to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion.
Left alone, players naturally cluster into similarity-based groups. These small world networks have lots of strong ties between individuals in the group, but very few outside the group. This is your classic breeding ground for groupthink. If such a small world network is seeded with toxic norms, it has very little ability to correct and recover.
What you want to do is deputize highly connected hub individuals (super connectors) to build relationships with other outside groups. These weak, bridging ties bring members of a group into contact with others who are not like each other. Personal relationships with diverse people mitigates reliance on stereotypes and seed fresh new ideas.
In Star Wars Galaxy, there was a rich trade system between groups. Even though a player might have a home base within a player city, there was a constant cycling of traders between groups. This creates interactions between groups that might not otherwise have happened.
Friendship formation is the process by which players form strong, meaningful bonds with others. Friendships occur along a spectrum of trust. They start with positive interactions between strangers in spaces that enable repeat, serendipitous encounters. They use reciprocity over time to build stronger connections of trust, sympathy and support. Friendships are mostly likely to form in situations where there is strong similarity or group affiliation between two people. They grow in depth if there are opportunities for safe disclosure of weaknesses or needs.
Prosocial goals, especially long term ones, that involve helping or providing for others are naturally resonant with life purpose.
In Death Stranding’s Social Strand System, players build physical and social connections across a vast, challenging landscape. This is a great example of a modern friendship progression system based on reciprocal actions.
Not all deviant behavior is toxic. One way humans establish strong relationship boundaries is by playfully acting in a fashion that breaks or pushes typical social norms. The critical ingredient here is trust. When a player insults another player and they are friends, the correct interpretation is “I am doing something that isn’t allowed. But I know that you know that I know my intentions are friendly.”
The typical response here is laughter. A social boundary has been pushed; the relationship tested. But it emerges from the test more secure.
However, this same insult between strangers is often treated as a direct attack. Trust is lacking. There’s no established understanding that the other player is friendly. Any budding relationship is damaged, often irreparably. The typical response is a counter attack or defensive silence.
Consider subversive mechanics in Sea of Thieves. Players can abandon one another, blow each other up, steal and other actions that are usually considered griefing. However,
In this context, “griefing” is actually bonding. Hilarious bonding. If you were to change the context by increasing the number of players, adding more strangers or making the cost of actions more permanent, you’d rapidly see toxicity emerge.
Conflict between players is inevitable. We are political creatures with diverse needs, communication styles and expectations. A world with fuzzy feelings of permanent peace is a utopian fantasy. As social systems designers we need to be clear-eyed about the reality that conflict management needs to be part of our designs.
In kind games, the goal is to help players handle interpersonal conflicts in a healthy, productive manner. They should use conflicts as an opportunity for growth, either personal or communal.
Since players come from diverse backgrounds, they often have very different organically learned conflict management techniques. For example, in some cultures, you yell at people if there is a problem. In other cultures, you passively ignore them. It is rare that you find people who can execute thoughtful mediation.
With digital games, we can identify common conflicts (around resources, power, group formation, etc) and wrap them in a set of UI affordances. We create a standardized process for managing the conflict that offers fewer opportunities for toxicity.
For example, MMOs often have issues with trade where players cheat and scam one another. By funneling all trade through secure trading windows, most of these problems are removed. Players can offer up specific goods (verified automatically so there can be no lying) and set prices. These prices are then locked in with a double opt-in mechanism (which resets if any part of the deal is changed so there can be no last minute replacements.) Internally, we’ve seen complaints go from 5-10% of all transactions to substantially less than 1%.
Sometimes there is no right answer to a values-based choice, only community buy-in. Decision making systems (such as voting) help players reach consensus.
Decision making systems design is a deep field that is rarely studied by game developers. Such a system needs to cover the following areas to be effective:
Developers often take control of many of the above steps. When a guild decides who to elevate to a position of authority, the game developer has already set up the permissions for what each stage of authority means. The implementation of the new roles is taken care of by code.
In kind games, decision making systems should bend towards minimizing toxicity and maximizing player buy-in.
Now that you’ve made it to this point, how do you make a kind game? Making a kind game, much like making any game, is an iterative process: you build, you test, you improve.
Multiplayer games are built in a sort of co-authoring iterative loop between the developer and the game’s community. Who makes a kind game? It is hard to say. Much like a garden, the developer may seed the basic structures, but then the social norms grow and flourish in their own unexpected ways. Memes and rituals blossom and fade seemingly independently of the systems they are built upon. As soon as a kind game is live, serving a real community, the role of the developer changes to that of gardener who prunes the undesirable growths and helps along the interesting developments.
If you follow the gardening metaphor, you’ll likely see the following phases of development
Measuring kindness is a new topic for game analytics. Much toxicity results not so much from what we measure, but what we fail to measure because we don’t know how. Sometimes the most complex and important dynamics – such as warm sentiment, player attachment, positive player ROI sentiment – are the hardest to measure. Prosocial metrics largely represent breaking new ground. Some potential directions worth investigating are:
Something to keep in mind is that each social architecture and its associated community is unique. Your game likely has very different systems and metrics derived from those systems than another multiplayer game. It is unlikely you’ll find a common metric like retention or ARPU that is strictly comparable across different games, especially if you are interested in making targeted adjustments that improve kindness.
So be willing to use custom metrics as a means of thinking deeply and holistically about how to grow kindness. Create hypotheses specific to your game and validate them using speculative metrics connected to more concrete and known ones. Metrics are more of a soft tool that confirm suspicions or disprove wild ideas. The larger goal of kindness remains the ultimate guide.
Kind games represent a rich opportunity for passionate game developers to make the world a better place. We can lift up our players by providing them with safe, supportive spaces to build healthy friendships and communities.
Kind games are a timely solution for our current market and cultural trends. They fit elegantly within the intricate puzzle space of commercial game development. They promise immense value to players (ethics, joy, belonging, friendship, purpose) while still satisfying hard capitalist constraints (market fit, product differentiation, high engagement, long term value, low churn).
There are opportunities to extend kind mechanics to almost every aspect of human psychology. We have only been able to touch the surface in this paper. So much of this territory is unexplored! An individual game could dig more into any of the specific facets that we have outlined here, such as friendship and social network formation, ideal group sizes, social norms and reciprocity, trust building, and prosocial economics, to name a few.
Kind games are also part of a bigger project. How do we, as developers who impact the lives of millions, help humans thrive in this increasingly digital world? There are certain ugly examples where digital spaces cause harm. We need to lead a new charge to build better experiences that intentionally foster well-being, empathy, and joy.
Game developers are uniquely situated to meet this big challenge. We have both personal skills and capable teams. We have the design tools and knowledge of past mistakes. We directly shape the environments where people gather online and their experiences in our spaces. And, unlike most academics or theorists, we have the funding engines to iterate with real audiences towards a better end.
Take a moment, get yourself some tea. Think about what you want to do with your life and how you can contribute meaningfully to the world. As you ponder, we invite you to dedicate yourself to building kind games. It feels good to put something positive out into the world.
For folks who have followed previous papers, you may be confused at the difference between cozy games and kind games.
Coziness is about intimacy and reflection. Some attributes of coziness:
Kind games are about encouraging kind, altruistic, prosocial behavior in a community. Some attributes of kind games:
There’s certainly overlap between these two aesthetics. It is possible to have cozy spaces in a kind game. And it is possible to have kind moments in a cozy game.
However, while a large multiplayer game can be built for kindness, it likely will never fully be a cozy space (as we’ve defined cozy.) Kindness is about proactively mediating the harms of social scale, while cozy is about creating safe spaces by removing scale.
As discussed above, there exist hard design constraints that stem from friendship formation, group sizes and social networks. Social design is ultimately a highly technical engineering exercise that requires us to develop functional social architectures.
Humans from a similar culture exhibit a predictable spectrum of behaviors based on the contextual structure in which they are placed. As game developers, we can design, iterate on and balance these structures to achieve our designed aesthetic outcomes.
The following is a list of basic social variables that impact your social architecture. Change one and you are suddenly dealing with a different social system that may or may not work the same as your test environment.
There are a variety of contextual factors that shape if a player will engage in prosocial behavior. These are all frames you can design into your game.
The strongest factor for determining if someone acts in a prosocial action is whether or not we feel a connection with the person in need.
One of the contributing factors to the strength of ties for prosocial action is the size of the group or community to which the prosocial behavior is directed. While Dunbar’s number posits that a person can maintain about 150 relationships, the number for intimate, high trust relationships–such as those required for friendship– is actually considerably smaller.
These are hard constraints for most humans and need to be designed around.16 Flooding players with too many people results in them feeling alienated by strangers they don’t trust. Not providing enough friends can result in feelings of loneliness.
Free riding is behavior where a player benefits from the prosocial acts of others without contributing anything themselves. It occurs when expectations of reciprocity exist, but are not acted upon. Specifically, free riders consider themselves the exception to the rule to gain their advantage.
Free riding has the smallest effect of all these factors, so be careful of developing too many systems around it. Most social systems can actually withstand a small amount of free riding, but will collapse when there are too many free riders.17 American moralistic society is often overly obsessed with the impact of free riding.
Players who help others feel rewarded. When designing your prosocial loops, the following types of rewards act as your creative palette for providing feedback.
The types of rewards ultimately influence the type of relationships that result from prosocial behavior.
Transactional relationships: Involve short-term external rewards with clear intent on the part of each actor to benefit themselves.
1. For the purposes of this discussion, we are examining games that have been released in the last decade. The Steam Charts–which reflect the most popular games on the platform (as defined by most played and most purchased)–are commonly dominated by first person shooters or single player games.
2. Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff and Lindsey M. Rose, “Communication in multiplayer gaming: Examining player responses to gender cues”, New Media & Society vol 15 Issue 4.
3. See, for example, Chapter 4 of Kishonna Gray’s Intersectional Tech outlining the travails of voice chat at the intersection of race and gender. Additionally, this article highlights a consequence of ongoing toxicity.
4. Robert Putnam makes the point that specifically social isolation of the marginalized group is what causes an imbalance in the social dynamics of a community. When players have diverse social networks (not just diverse members of a community) it leads to higher levels of trust. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228241907_Segregation_and_Mistrust_Diversity_Isolation_and_Social_Cohesion
5. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is an examination of the decline of social spaces and their impact on opportunities for social interaction: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowling_Alone
6. 21% of players found mobile games via word of mouth. While 21% found them by social media channels, which are a digital version of word of mouth. https://midiaresearch.com/blog/quick-take-word-of-mouth-is-no-longer-the-single-most-powerful-games-discovery-tool
7. A study by Towers Watson found that it takes approximately seven months to build trust with people (and half that time to lose it). However, trust also requires maintenance, so that a trusting relationship will take years to establish: https://www.wtwco.com/en-US/Insights/2017/12/Video-Embracing-change-A-leaders-role-in-an-uncertain-world-Part-five
8. See for example, definitions at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4CfyLe0IlQ and https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-prosocial-behavior-2795479
9. Prosocial intervention in games. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/347175478_Prosocial_digital_games_for_youth_A_systematic_review_of_interventions
10. This is related to the Happiness Pump critique of utilitarianism in moral philosophy. The theory of utilitarianism suggests that we ought to maximize the most happiness for the greatest number of people. If one person’s suffering created immense amounts of happiness for others, then according to utilitarianism we ought to make them suffer so as to create the most happiness. But this is clearly objectionable. Likewise, even if someone can perform prosocial acts that benefit their community–even if they can perform them much better than anyone else–we should still restrict opportunities for them to do so for their own well being.
11. Adults become more prosocial as they age, going from roughly 25% prosocial on one test before age 35 to 75% at age 60. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0963721420910811
12. According to Robin Dunbar, humans have limited social budgets for different types of relationships, where the number of close (“kin”) relationships is quite low, but with an upper limit of about 1500 (for a “tribe”). A million relationships is outside the scope of any known Dunbar layers.
13. See, for example, Design for Belonging: https://dschool.stanford.edu/resources/design-for-belonging
14. Giovanni Ponti (ed.), “Social network cohesion in school classes promotes prosocial behavior”, PLoS One, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5884510/
15. Interestingly, data from Kind Words also indicates that “the average player makes four requests but writes eighteen letters to other people”, suggesting that people are giving their time to read and listen to other players: https://www.eurogamer.net/trolls-need-kind-words-the-most
16. See, for example, Social Design Practices for Human Scale Online Games for a further examination of the application of Dunbar layers.
17. See, for example, the Tragedy of the Commons, which is a consequence of too many free riders in an unmanaged system of shared resources.