Game Design Strategies to Support Nurturers

Workgroup Members

Nina Kim, Linsey Murdock, Maíra Testa, Tanya X. Short, Kevin Snow, Pat Kemp


Some players want to nurture. 

These players enjoy the act of taking care of something or someone. They gain pleasure from seeing their efforts (appear to) cause their nurturing target to thrive, grow, and/or recover. In multiplayer games, these efforts might target actual people, but in this paper we’re specifically focusing on serving the players that try to nurture non-players: plants, creatures, humans, or even inanimate objects.

From classic Catz (1995) to Little Computer People (1985), Black & White (2001) to Stardew Valley (2016), the idea of centered nurturing gameplay isn’t new, but these dedicated nurturers may seek to rescue, care for, or simply comfort others even in games that are tense or downright hostile. These players may even strive directly against the game systems to accomplish it, such as trying to grow a jungle in Dune (1992) rather than attack the enemy. Some enjoy nurturing as a unique challenge from a context of defiance, given the dominant gaming culture and context is often violent, as a slyly subversive playstyle. In the current games market, the nurturing population of players is underserved, lacking deep, mature systems. 

Dune (1992) is not what first comes to mind when we think of nurturing games, and yet… (Credit: Wikimedia)

To restate the problem, we have found vanishingly few experiences that feel meaningfully resonant with our fantasy of caretaking. We’d like to help you fix that.

“Now wait a minute!” you may be thinking. “What about farming?” 

It’s true that at time of writing (end of 2023), there is an explosion of successful “cozy” games on the market now, many of which feature basic nurturing. However, we were hoping to inspire nurturing gameplay beyond “water plants” or “talk to person” or even the dreaded “press interaction button”. Most of the examples of cozy games currently available are emotionally shallow or childish, uninterested in character development, or simply inappropriate settings in which to nurture as a mature adult, because the protagonist themselves is a child, or treated as one. Nurturing is currently sometimes seen as ‘childish’ compared to the ‘serious’ gameplay of violence and conflict, but these players are often adults.

As game designers, we want to inspire you to care more about this kind of player, who is already likely playing your game. The strategies described below aim to equip you with the tools you’ll need to ask the right questions about whether and how to increase the meaning and depth of your nurturing gameplay. 

These strategies are not appropriate for every game. Doomguy is not interested in nurturing and never shall be, except as a joke. 

However, more games and genres might be compatible than first appears. Many of us had the impulse, however rhetorically, of nurturing the Companion Cube in Portal (2007). Even shooters can potentially support nurturing, such as The Last of Us (2013) team prioritizing “a character you care for”[1], at least in the final 5 months of development. Further deepening the parenting simulation and mechanics of that “buddy AI” in The Last of Us series would certainly have massively disrupted Naughty Dog’s narrative pipelines, with a bonus of potentially alienating their core audience of mainstream shooter fans. But maybe if deeper nurturing had been prioritized over other developments, the designers could have told Joel’s journey into adoptive fatherhood even more effectively, for those players who opted in to the additional challenge.

The Last of Us Part II (2020), thematically but not mechanically about nurturing (Credit: Wikimedia)

Ultimately: we believe if you carefully deepen your nurturing gameplay, your whole fictional world can have more meaning and increase player attachment.

However, this paper’s focus is constrained. It is:

  • Not about player-to-player nurturing
  • Not focused on games ONLY about nurturing
  • Not advising every game should or could add nurturing support
  • Not suggesting all strategies below are required or even necessarily complementary to one another
  • Not necessarily about games for children or “casual” players
  • Not trying to define criteria to determine whether any given game or mechanic definitively “is or is not” nurturing, but rather a lens by which to see whether a certain player experience supports or does not support nurturing, and why

What is Nurturing or Caretaking then, exactly?

Nurturing is used throughout this paper to refer to when a player:

  • Tends to the unmet needs of someone or something
  • Forms an authentic attachment: they genuinely care about their nurturing recipient

For better or worse, this attachment can also occur based on character design alone, without any tending or nurturing. When a character is cute, vulnerable, injured, attractive, or some combination thereof, the player may already feel attached and tempted to nurture them, regardless of the game mechanics. This is often manipulated by game designers to encourage certain behaviors, especially through heightened loss aversion, even when the game is poorly suited to long-term nurturing due to its fundamental design goals and outcomes (see: Pikmin series, XCOM series).

Pikmin: easy to emotionally attach to, difficult to nurture (Credit: Wikimedia)

We’re not psychologists, so we cannot state definitively why some players want to nurture. But we can guess that perhaps more agreeable, extroverted, conscientious people (or those who want to see themselves this way) may tend towards seeking these pleasures in fictional settings as well as reality, even though nurturing actions may lack the excitement, glamor and spectacle as more action-oriented gameplay. Like any other fantasy, video games can offer these pleasures without the complications and tedium of real life. 

We believe the strategies in this paper will not just make your game more meaningful for current nurturers, but future nurturers as well — those with latent nurturing potential, as it were. Some players only discover they have a nurturing fantasy accidentally in the midst of playing other genres, realizing it was a joy they could pursue due to satisfying mechanics and dynamics.

So My Game Needs to Be Happy All the Time?

It’s actually the opposite! Surprise! 

In order to nurture in a deep, meaningful way, often the target must endure suffering in some way. Healing, for example, often involves sickness or injury. Parenting usually involves skinned knees. The subject does not need to be dependent on the player necessarily, but the player must be somehow crucial to achieving the subject’s full potential.

Furthermore, pure positivity and unalloyed sweetness doesn’t feel “real”, so for more mature audiences, may come across as inauthentic or unsatisfying. It’s unusual for a compelling story to involve no serious conflict, suffering, or negativity. For forming deep attachments and believable nurturing, high-quality writing lays the groundwork for multiple strategies below, likely due to this “usefulness” of struggle in the journey of a nurturer.

Even the deepest loss, a.k.a. death, can be meaningful for nurturers, or that meaning can be undermined, all dependent on context and player agency. Our group identified the ascension of characters in Pyre (2017) as an excellent example of loss that still feels nurturing, in that the player literally chooses which character they will lose, and narratively it is in the character’s best interests. As a counter-example, in the XCOM series, characters are lost without the player’s consent and seemingly ‘at random’, which is tantalizing in a gambling sense but dissatisfying for those trying to enact nurturing.

XCOM encourages becoming attached to your soldiers, but not too attached… (Credit: reddit user u/mralexalex)

Without further ado, let’s look at the strategies for actually supporting nurturers!

The Strategies

After analysis and reflection, we believe the following design strategies and approaches would better support players who have the impulse to nurture. They each examine the act of nurturing from a slightly different angle and offer a different advantage or solution to the problem of how best to enable that action and make it rewarding.

Strategy 1: Modeling the Subject More Deeply Over Time

Whether your subject is a character, place, or even an object, the player’s bond with them must form and strengthen. The more the player interacts with their subject (and the more meaningfully), the more they will care about the subject. A key element in this dynamic is time. Over time, enabled by gameplay affordances, it is possible to model the subject for more depth, which then in turn leads to a stronger bond. 

Depth = Interaction(Frequency * Meaning) * Changes-over-time

Reminder: while Interaction and Frequency may be measured objectively, the others are purely subjective, as perceived by the player, including the final intended result (“Depth”). As ‘depth’ can be interpreted in many ways, we will go through some considerations on how to model the subject over time.

A note on ‘good writing’

Much of what could be defined as a “deep” subject overlaps with character development and/or worldbuilding, both of which fall into the realm of Narrative Design and storytelling. Which is to say: yes, good, quality writing is one way to increase the depth of the subject. 

However, even if sometimes viable as a fallback, good writing is not necessarily the most effective solution for forming a bond with the subject. For one, the writer or narrative designer should not be solely responsible for evoking emotion in the player, as they often are, without the ability to (re-)design the mechanics the player is actually interacting with. This expectation is especially distressing when the other designers didn’t put in any thought into how their mechanics might enhance or provoke emotions in the first place. At best, this “triage” is stressful; at worst, it can cause deep incoherence in the game experience.

Furthermore, the subject of quality writing for nurturing dynamics could render an entire separate paper on its own — believable dialogue, effective foreshadowing, well-paced plotting, etc.

So while we recognize that there are overlaps between writerly contributions to deepening a subject’s modeling, we will not focus on them for this paper but rather on the more systemic and mechanical approaches.

The nurturing cycle

Designing systems that require action based on the subject’s needs help establish the nurturing bond through a simple cycle:

An important part of this cycle is to repeat and reinforce it. Meeting the subject’s needs renders results through a variety of signals, and the more you do it, the more unmet needs surface. The displaying and deepening of this cycle is in itself a reward for nurturers. More than a transactional action, where the player responds to a request as a means to get a resource, the meaningfulness here lies in how the repetition models the subject as a deeper entity. 

To put it into actionable verbs, the player is helping a subject, watching them blossom, getting to know them better, earning their trust. This marking of their improved physical or emotional state is the payoff, it is what makes the actions feel meaningful.

Another relevant aspect of the cycle is to allow room to develop empathy. The nurturing cycle is more efficient in enabling empathy if the unmet needs refer to an interior state of the subject (emotional development, rather than say food or other basic physical needs). Take Unpacking (2021) as an example. The subject here is a person who needs help moving. The player’s understanding of the protagonist’s internal state and their unmet needs happens through the deepening of the nurturing bond – the more boxes the player unpacks, the more they get to know the person in that given moment, what they like, who they are, what struggles they go through. This repeating cycle over time not only strengthens the bond with the subject but builds empathy for them. The game allows for the player to choose where to put things, making decisions based on their growing understanding of this person’s internal life and of their unmet needs. As empathy and the bond grow, so grows attachment. It is worth pointing out that the subject in Unpacking is never depicted on screen, never showing any statuses for unmet needs, and yet the nurturing cycle allows for attachment to them.

Animal Crossing series allows deeper nurturing of the land than of your neighbors (Credit: Nintendo)

A counter-example is the Animal Crossing series, in particular Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020). Seemingly, the characters in Animal Crossing follow the nurturing cycle: they present needs that should be met by the player, then there are signals given as result to meeting the needs and the cycle repeats. Here, however, the results don’t reveal meaningful additional interiority to the characters. In such a way, the characters feel flat, with immutable personalities and the cycle ends up feeling more transactional, rather than any nurturing attachment forming. The actual island in Animal Crossing is a much more fulfilling subject to nurture as it deepens over time with the aid of new mechanics and systems to support the player’s caretaking.

Signals and results of nurturing

When thinking of results in the context of the nurturing cycle, consider the nurturing fantasy deeply. We defined at the beginning of this paper what nurturing means for our strategies, but look for a second at real-life contexts. Nurture is a verb to care for, encourage and assist in the development of a subject. It is a verb used for parenting or cultivating. That is the fantasy of nurturing. The payoffs of the nurturing cycle are more meaningful to the player if the rewards are internal (to the subject) instead of external (to the system). The fantasy translates to the subject reacting to nurture with signals that reveal more about their interiority.

Signals can take a variety of forms, from dialogue that reveals more about the character to tokens of affection. Yet how relevant the result will be for nurturers depends on what needs led to this payoff. A subject with motivations and needs that are different from the player in the context of the game, but which the player can intuit, can lead to results that are fulfilling even if presented in simple terms. The act of attuning to these unmet needs, and opening up possibilities for new needs to surface, is a reward on itself. Note the use of active verbs in describing this interaction, in the subject opening up to the player. 

Harsh game environments can be a shortcut to quickly introducing unmet needs. In Pathologic 2 (2019), a spreading deadly plague immediately motivates nurturers to seek nurturing actions to engage in. Despite not presenting an explicit goal to save people, you as a player feel the need to, partially due to the scarcity of other subjects to relate to, and partially due to the protagonist’s identity as a doctor. The game encourages such behavior by deepening the interiority of subjects the more the player interacts with them. Although the player cannot possibly hope to save everyone, the gameplay loop becomes nurturing because the player decides to do it themselves, independent of player instructions. 

This freedom of choice is essential in this scenario, as it is for most nurturing cycles. Repeating the cycle is also a choice, as is observing or engaging with the evolving interior life of the subject.

Pathologic 2’s nurturing systems work especially well because they aren’t mandatory (Credit: Ice-Pick Lodge)

In summary, consider how best to help the player better understand their subject over time, as a consequence of meeting their needs.

Strategy 2: Increase the Challenge of Nurturing

Another way to enhance the nurturing fantasy is to increase the challenge the player experiences. In Pathologic 2, both the player and several core characters are at an increased risk of plague infection when their immunity levels drop too low. The only methods to cure an infection are incredibly rare, almost secret, and limited even once discovered. The player can increase another character’s immunity with scarce resources at the expense of their own safety. As the days continue and the plague spreads, it becomes more difficult to keep characters alive, and story scenes with them reflect the mechanics-established feeling of desperate care.

While this type of design is often seen in survival horror games like Pathologic 2, increasing the challenge of nurturing doesn’t need to be macabre, and can be accomplished in a variety of tones. Additionally, challenges can include mechanical mastery as well as resources.

In A Short Hike (2019), the player character is Claire, a bird who wants to scale a local mountain for personal reasons that are only revealed to the player at the summit. As the player helps out various locals, Claire’s traversal abilities are enhanced over the course of the game by Golden Feathers that represent stamina, and all of these abilities are tested in the difficult climb. 

One of these locals is a young fox who is an aspiring photographer. After returning from the summit, the player can give the fox a significant amount of their own Golden Feathers, making it possible for the fox to follow them to the summit but making the climb more difficult for themselves. Although the player starts their journey by performing simple tasks for their neighbors, the challenge grows until they’re capable of mentoring others in their own hikes.

A Short Hike allows but does not require mentorship, which is an added challenge. (Credit: adamgryu)

Challenges in nurturing can also be achieved by embracing failure and bad outcomes, even unexpected ones. In Citizen Sleeper (2022), the player encounters Ethan, a bounty hunter who, instead of returning them to indentured servitude, forces the player to pay his tab at a local bar. Over time, it’s shown that Ethan is in dire straits himself: bounty hunting is precarious contract labor, and he’s prone to impulsive, self-destructive behavior. If the player feels empathy for his situation and tries to help him, it doesn’t lead to mutual understanding: there are mechanical consequences as Ethan lashes out at the player, trying to maintain control over the situation. It’s only after several failed attempts that the possibility to form a tenuous alliance toward a better path might open, imitating the messiness of trying to help someone in crisis.

In contrast, the trend of allowing players to “pet the dog” is a simple model of nurturing. It’s a popular and effective technique, especially when placed in games where being the only means of nurturing makes its presence stand out, but most cases involve no long-term fulfillment, increased interiority, challenge, cost to the player, or other techniques we explore here.

In summary, consider how to make your nurturing more difficult and intentional to successfully accomplish.

Strategy 3: Increase Authenticity of Rewards

Providing relationships that are based on more than transactional rewards can help to foster a deeper sense of caretaking and nurturing qualities in players. To be truly nurturing is to caretake selflessly. This should come from an innate desire to offer help to those in need or to have a positive impact on another being without expectations of any entitled, measured or monetary payback.

Standardized transactional rewards not only direct the player to approach these actions through a lens of profit or self-gain, but also fundamentally undermine the modeling of the subject and flattening them into a vending machine, weakening the desired nurturing fantasy.

A hypothetical example of this would be if the cat from Stardew Valley (2016) rewarded you with money every time you interacted with it. This would break immersion from the model, as cats would not realistically give you money every time you pet them, nor would you expect them to. As in most games, money is a valuable commodity in Stardew Valley, often allowing players to purchase items that increase their efficiency. Gaining this sort of transactional player progress would make any interactions with your cat a reliable source of income, as opposed to a method of satisfying the desire to nurture.

Are you truly nurturing if you expect to be paid for it? Clearly not. Thereby, when the focus shifts to status advancement or monetary gain rather than remaining on the emotional value of these actions, the game is failing to emulate a true nurturing experience.

However, this does not necessarily dictate that any and all types of rewards weaken the emotional experience of caretaking. It is worth exploring a few instances of rewards that serve to strengthen the nurturing experience, rather than undermining it. In relation to Strategy 1, if the offered reward adds to the emotional resonance, deeply modeling the subject and its agency, this can actually support the authenticity of the nurturing experience.

Having a reward that leads to a systemic “dead end”, meaning one that does not directly feed back into the main player progression systems, can actually help give the interaction a more meaningful shape. This can show up in the form of unique items or even bits of narrative dialogue. Doing so makes this reward feel like a special case; one whose sole purpose is reflecting back to the player the effects of their nurturing actions. This helps distinguish between what might be viewed as a strictly transactional task and a more benevolent, voluntary action. This also potentially opens the door for a new track of items to support and reward this playstyle. 

For example, in Persona 5 (2016) you may be given decorative trinkets or other items from your inner circle of “confidants”. These often mark advancements in your relationships, sometimes received after an important date or other memorable events of significance. To illustrate, after chatting about a character’s fear of crowds and musing about the overwhelming presence of tourists at a street market in Asakusa, they bring you a novelty shirt with “I ♥ Tokyo” printed on it. It’s a sort of thank-you gift for nudging them out of their comfort zone and an acknowledgement of your deepening bond. While these rewards meaningfully reflect each character’s personality and their relationship with you, they do not provide any systemic gameplay advantage.

If the reward is authentic to items that the character would value themselves, it can also help to create this emotional tie of the subject sharing favored objects with the player. For instance, when players use the petting action to advance their relationships with the cat and dogs in Spirittea (2023), these animals will offer rewards like a Bent License Plate, Newspaper, Tennis Ball, Dead Mouse, or Dead Bird. Clearly, these items do not contribute to the main source of currency in the game, but they do successfully model the subjects. One could easily imagine a dog playing with a tennis ball, or a cat hunting down smaller animals as tribute. These characters are demonstrably giving the player something important to their existence in response to actions of affection.

Spirittea’s pet gifts feel insightful to the nature of the character. (Credit: Cheesemaster Games)

Then there’s Poogie in the Monster Hunter series, a little pig that only rewards successfully-timed petting interactions with a happy animation and a heart particle effect. If the player repeatedly pets the Poogie with the correct timing, it will happily follow the player around for a while. Aside from the function of teaching the player about this type of timing interaction, (one which is also used for cooking), its presence serves as a way to encourage this caretaking relationship through emotionally rewarding reactions.

It can also be effective to separate the input from the output a bit, placing some duration between an interaction and the moment where a corresponding reward may be received. This should be accomplished without giving hints to the player as to when or even if a reward might be received, training them to not expect anything in return; at least not immediately. Doing so allows the player to enjoy the purity of a kind action or the meaning of a benevolent interaction while staying in the moment and avoiding distraction from any potential gains.

This approach is evidenced in Dark Souls III (2016) and personified by a chain of events involving a character called Siegward of Catarina. Encountered several times over the course of progression, Siegward is almost always in some sort of predicament that the player can choose to help with. In one instance, he has fallen into a well and is trapped at the bottom… without his clothes. Players can ignore this situation entirely, or choose to help him by tracking down his stolen armor and returning to him. This takes time and effort. Doing so does not provide any immediate reward, and the player may leave this encounter believing they’ve simply done a good deed and that is that. 

However, this action perpetuates his presence in the game, and when encountered much later, he does offer the player a hearty drink, along with a gesture that allows you to both raise a warm toast to one another. Although the consumable drink provides the player with a small temporary HP gain, it more effectively illustrates the growing bond between the player and character.

In summary, ask yourself: does this nurturing interaction truly need rewards? If so, how can I make them as authentic to the subject as possible and avoid a ‘vending machine’ feeling?

Strategy 4: Find Compatible Cross-Pollination

Be aware of how nurturing motivations and playstyles are compatible (or not) with other playstyles your game encourages and supports. In Mass Effect 2 (2010), every character aboard Commander Shepard’s party eventually unlocks a loyalty mission. They each had a personal problem they needed help with, and the storyline was optional to pursue. There is a clear nurturing setting established here: a subject has an unmet need and there is a choice to nurture them. While completing their loyalty missions, a player would get to know the character better, learn more about their history and unlock a special power to use during combat. More importantly, though, gaining loyalty had a direct impact on the final mission of the game, defining who survived and who perished. That is where the loyalty system walked a fine line. For a player who cared enough about a character to help them and pursue their story, it was likely they would also care enough about them perishing on a mission. However, if a player didn’t fall into the nurturing archetype but had any other goal of unlocking all powers or not losing any party members, they would be forced to complete every loyalty mission for it. Arguably, the Mass Effect series strength lies in introducing lovable characters and moral choices to make, but the genre itself will attract different archetypes of players, from power-fantasy seekers to nurturers. 

Fallout 4 (2015) begins with showing the kidnapping of the protagonist’s child, then opens up the world and encourages freeform adventuring and building. This theoretically creates a nurturing motivation, yet it is laid on top without any focused gameplay follow-through that makes it feel like a rich or character-driven storyline. The gameplay itself almost feels incompatible to the original narrative motivation of being a parent. 

But then again, Fallout 4 reintroduces the Fallout (1997) fan-favorite companion character Dogmeat, a German Shepherd, with additional mechanics. Dogmeat’s core mechanics in the later edition are all about how much he loves and cares for the player unconditionally like the best good boy he is. The virtuous motivation of caring for your beloved dog in return doesn’t even need to be communicated to players — they will intrinsically want to. Mechanics like healing Dogmeat in combat with medkits could be taken a step even further with some other simple reciprocally nurturing mechanics that allow players to love on Dogmeat in return (petting, treats, fetch, etc) and build an even greater sense of attachment to the world of Fallout as a byproduct. These form two contrasting examples of opportunities to express love in a very harsh game world, but one flows intuitively with the gameplay and the other serves as a wrapper over less compatible gameplay. 

Look for opportunities like caring for Dogmeat, where it simply makes sense that the player would be driven to nurture, and provide compatible mechanics or roles. Steer away from forcing cross-pollination as it is best serving your game when it is scratching an itch the player will intuitively have. Let soldiers protect civilians. Let doctors try to heal people. Care for your home. Pet the dog.

Strategy 5: Improved Nurturer Agency

Agency is a powerful motivation that we account for with game players at large, but may not immediately associate with nurturers. The decision itself to be kind and help is a key part of the nurturer fantasy, especially in the context of an unkind world.

The potential for neglect is often a critical ingredient for the nurturer. The expectation is that the unfed animal will suffer and the unwatered plant will wilt. If the subject simply waits unaffectedly for the player’s help, it doesn’t really need them in a convincing way. The nurturer wants to choose to help, and to choose to do so continuously and consistently, to make real change.

If the scope of the game allows for it, including other activities or play styles alongside nurturing can further enhance the nurturer’s agency. If the choice to nurture is weighed against other priorities, it makes the experience all the more impactful. Deferring a quest for a rare item in order to tend to an injured animal constitutes a strong declaration of the player’s values and their identity as a nurturer.

Nurturing as a Skill

If a designer wants to include nurturing mechanics in their game, where do they start? Virtual pets are a common reference point– they are explicitly about nurturing and offer well-established solutions for signaling the pet’s needs and how the player ought to meet them. However, virtual pet games are typically geared towards younger audiences and simply porting their approach to other games will not often not suffice. While a “hungry” icon and a “pet to make happy” button technically qualify as nurturing gameplay, it will not engage more mature players for long.

Nurturers want to feel skilled at what they’re doing, just like any other player. Thankfully, there is no shortage of skill-centric mechanics or systems from other games to draw inspiration from. 

A well-proven approach are habitat systems from games like The Sims series, Viva Piñata (2006), or Spiritfarer (2020), where the player is decorating a virtual space for a nurturing subject to inhabit. The player observes the subject’s needs (often a list of likes/dislikes) and chooses decorations to suit them. As decorations vary in price, size, availability and other factors, the player must exercise spatial and logistical planning to optimize for the subject’s well-being. Often these systems leave plenty of room for aesthetic choices, allowing for creative expression as well.

Cooking games are another mature genre that involves nurturing. The characters you cook for show up hungry, and your job is to prepare the dish they crave. Common skills include completing mini-games, often in parallel and under time pressure. The Hungry Hearts Diner series adds a subtler level to the modeled needs of certain customers – when you feed them certain special dishes, they reveal a cherished memory associated with the food. You are not only satisfying their hunger, but fulfilling an emotional need as well.

The Shelter series novelly adapts the often-maligned escort mission as an evocative nurturing mechanic. You play as a mother guiding her cubs through a dangerous wilderness, securing food, scouting for hazards, and keeping a close eye on the well-being of your offspring. Players must be skilled at navigating a 3D space and deftly observing the surrounding environment.

What other mechanics or systems could be adapted to create deep nurturing gameplay? Perhaps detective game mechanics could be used to model a nurturer intuiting their subject’s needs. We believe this is an exciting area of game design ripe for experimentation.

Conclusion: How to Implement These Strategies 

These strategies are not, by any means, exhaustive. We believe this list could go on and on the deeper you get into different game genres. Besides, aspects like multiplayer and social play were not covered here, which would increase the dimensions to which nurturing and types of nurturers could apply.

That is to say: this paper is a toolbox.

We hope to have provided a starting point to encourage design teams to discuss how your game is supporting or could support nurturers. We believe nurturers have natural tendencies to become the social glue even in single-player experiences, as they are more likely to engage with your community and tend to be the players who choose to stay for the benefit of the subject of their nurturing. They engage to get the nurturing fantasy in return.

When thinking about how to apply these to your day-to-day work, think about engagement. What hooks can you leave for players who are interested in deepening their connection to the game world or its systems, and what affordances can you build to supply their innate nurturing urges? 

If you are building a game or system that revolves around nurturing, how can you strengthen it and give it meaning? And if you aren’t, what could you do to allow players to choose to be subversive, to play in a caring way that goes against the rules? 

We hope these tools and strategies help bring this conversation to the Design round tables. We won’t try to make a business case here per se – as some of us have experienced firsthand, nurturing by nurturing’s sake is a hard case to make when there are deadlines coming ahead. But what about caring? A good system is a good system, but a good system that creates emotional connection, that turns programmed characters and objects into beings with wants, needs, and inner lives? That is a memorable experience, as proven by the near-hundred games we collectively sourced when discussing the contents of this paper.

We encourage you to think about design using these lenses so the future brings more games, of all sizes and genres, that allow room for nurturers to thrive.

For Further Reading

Directly Referenced

1. “Buddy AI in The Last of Us”, Max Dyckhoff: 

2. Designing Feelings of Companionship with Non-Player Characters  (Horseshoe Paper) (

3. Poogie, from the Monster Hunter’s Wiki:

Additional Suggested Reading

Notes on Polaris

This paper was produced by a workgroup of senior game designers at the 2023 Polaris conference. The non-profit Polaris Game Design conference seeks to gather the industry’s top designers in order to first, discuss our toughest problems and second, share this deep wellspring for the benefit of game teams everywhere.

In 2023, this work was made possible in part by our sponsor Xsolla and others.