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An experiment in anonymous altruism (?)

Kind Words (lo fi chill beats to write to) is a game… well, it’s a game only in the sense that it’s sold on Steam, which is a virtual video game store,1 but the actual loop of it hardly fits in most definitions of a game.2 But, for the sake of brevity, I will call Kind words… a «game» throughout this review and leave the discussion of it for a more appropriate time.

Kind words… then, is a game about requesting and writing kind words from anonymous stranger through the internet. That’s the core of it. Your avatar is a nondescript person sitting in a cozy room, reading and writing letters while a radio is blasting playing soft music.

Game loop

Upon starting the game, you’re greeted by a mail deer, responsible for delivering everyone’s mail and discovering lo-fi music. After asking a few basic questions about yourself, you’re thrown into the main menu, which consists of the following options:

Do nothing
You’re presented with an isometric view of a small bedroom. An orange-haired guy wakes up and immediately gets to his writing desk. The radio on the shelf plays some calm music. A few paper airplanes fly by, and if you click on them you’re greeted with an inspiring message or quote, written by another player somewhere else.
Relax, chill out.
Do nothing
View requests
When selecting this, you’ll be shown a randomly chosen assortment of small (about 10 lines) letters written by other people.3 You can, if you so choose and desire, reply to them in no more than 14 lines of text. You’re encouraged to be empathetic and to understand what they may seek, whether that may be advice, experiences from others or maybe even a shoulder to cry on. Be kind.
Every day or so, after replying to requests, the mail deer may greet you with a new song for your radio to play.
Make requests
You have the option of sending a request of your own! With only a few lines of text, you’re encouraged to share one thing that’s bothering you, your fears, or whatever you’re going through. All of this is done anonymously4 and trusting that your correspondent will be empathetic to your words and will, if they wish to, reply in kind.
Say nice things
This is where you can write a small message that will be sent through a paper airplane to anyone on the main hub of the game. You’re encouraged to send general messages of affection, of courage and inspiration.
Inbox
Where you can see any replies to your requests
Decorate
Every time someone gives you a «Thank you!», it comes with a fancy sticker5 which can be magically turned into a decorative item for your room: a fish bowl, a mug with coffee or a plushy deer. Here you can switch on/off these items to give your room a unique vibe.
Help
General messages from the devs
Resources for those seeking help with their mental health and well-being
Advice on how to reply to requests
Expectations from players
How to spot content against the spirit of the game and how to report it
Feedback forms

Is that really it?

Yes.

Kind words… is not so much a game as it is an experience, as cliché as it may sound. It’s a way for people to share their worries in a somewhat controlled and anonymous way, and to lend a virtual ear to those worries.

What do you think, Andy?

Ever since this game appeared on my radar, I was immediately intrigued and wary of it. Not in a dismissive kind of way, but…

Can it be abused?

Well, first of all there’s the risk of cyber bullying. When I first saw this game discussed prior to its 1.0 release, the dev team didn’t share much about how they would curtail or prevent people purposefully logging in to the game to harass, mock or otherwise mess with those pouring their heart out into the wild.

I mean, is it possible? Yes, at least in theory: the internet (and life in general) have several examples of people being mean for no good reason; even for some perverse enjoyment. If you add the possibility of directly and anonymously addressing someone expecting a nice reply… well, it’s possible someone would enjoy the shock value of it all.

Has it happened? Not to me. But I can’t speak for anyone else.

Now, I must admit I haven’t followed this game on social media since its launch, so it’s possible that these concerns have been explicitly addressed and I’m over here looking like a complete fool.

It’s entirely possible (and very much plausible) that there are are such measures happening backstage: word blacklisting, human- or robot-based moderation, what have you. But whatever the measures are, they will only live for as long as the game does, which means that this experience is highly dependent on a reduced population of players…

Isn't it extremey niche?

Of course it is. But being niche isn't necessarily a bad thing or a perfect predictor of success or failure. Moreover, given the kind of «experience» that this game is aiming for, a niche population may be exactly what is needed.

According to the available stats, after an initial release peak of about 240 concurrent players, the playerbase has settled at about 30–50 concurrent players at any time. These are quite small numbers.

Now, much like any other multiplayer-only game, it’s entirely dependent on people actually playing it. The small playerbase is, in this case, both a blessing and a curse. Given the nature of the game, it’s understandable that it will never attract a large population of players, but those that are attracted will hopefully be the right kind of people for this experience, people looking to give or receive kind words.

But such a small playerbase is a candle in the night. While I applaud the concept and ideals of this game, it’s possible that this game was born with a short shelf life, given the anonymous aspect of it.6 I would love for this dynamic to stay alive and well years from now, but it’s impossible to predict how well it will fare into the long dark of time.

What about the spirit of the game?

I write about this because… well, I’ve seen several messages that, while not explicitly forbidden, go against the spirit or the intended experience of the game.

The lesser of all I’ve seen is some degree of virtue signaling and humblebragging. The odd message here and there can be reduced to «I’m having a good day, ask me how!» or «You can do it, just look at me!». While I can’t really know anything about the people who write those messages, I do know that even with the best of intentions they can sound dismissive or even condescending towards those looking for a kindred spirit.

Then there’s the whole anonymity thing. The devs advice against identifying oneself through the messages, but I’ve seen messages asking for some «external» communication, whether to an email address7 or some other forum.

There’s the… misuse? Of the whole ‘requests’. Messages here and there that ask for the reversal of the dynamic: «I’m fine, but you can reply me with whatever…». Once again, the intentions may be good, but the end result is not. You see, Kind words only allows one message between correspondents. Maybe I wish to be proactive and lend my virtual ears to your problems, that is good. But those who reply to me are essentially shouting into the void: I can never message back. Contrast this to actually putting a “valid” request yourself: you can send your worries through the mail deer and you can have one or more replies!

What about your own well being?

Hoo, boy. First of all, I recommend reading If you don't love yourself, you can't love anyone else. Go and come back once you’re done.

My own personal problem with this game is not the game’s fault: I need to be in the right state of mind to read and empathize with whoever is sending requests.

Ever since I got this game, I have only sat down to seriously read and reply 3 times, in 1-hour stretches. I’ve started this game many, many times, but after a while I realized that the situations described by other people would cut too close to home and I would remind myself of my own demons; which in turn would make me wary of what I was thinking, while spending some time in writing and rewriting a reply that would never be sent.

Alternatively, I would ignore the message entirely. None of those situations were helpful to anyone.

I realized something about myself. I can be supportive of my loved ones, at any time, in-person or at a distance. I can be supportive of strangers in need, especially when their need is so evident. But being supportive of an anonymous stranger through such a disembodied means is… difficult. It requires of me a very particular state of mind, in which I am able to put away my own troubles far enough for me to also form a link to the situations and feelings described by words alone.

What this game doesn’t do and can’t do is help you (or me) to put yourself (myself) in that particular state of mind.

Why then go through writing all this, Andy?

Mark this as one of those things that I wrote down so it would stop nagging me.

As mentioned, from the moment I read about it to my uninstalling it a few hours ago, I always had this thought about the game: but….

«I like the idea, but…»
«I like this feeling, but…»
«I like helping, but…»
«I like expressing myself but…».

Almost every time I caught myself with these feelings I would ask why. If it’s something that can help someone else at virtually no cost, why am I doubting myself? What is it that’s bugging me? Why?

I had to write this down so I would have a little more clarity. These feelings confused me even to the end: I felt bad about having the game collecting dust on my virtual shelf, and I felt bad about uninstalling it. Once it was done I felt a lot lighter.

Do you recommend it, Andy?

I seriously don’t know how to answer that:

  • I greatly applaud the ends of this game
  • I thank its dev team and players for maintaining this goal through the months since release
  • I hope to see this dynamic replicated: in other communities (that is, outside the gaming sphere), in neighborhoods, colleges and universities, support groups, et cetera
  • I’d love for this to become an exercise in empathy IRL

But, do I recommend this game? I think so, but…


THE IRON NODER CHALLENGE XII: WE'LL RUST WHEN WE'RE DEAD


References

Rowe, M. W. 1992. “The Definition of ’Game’.” Philosophy 67 (262): 467–79. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3751702.


  1. That is also not entirely true, since Steam also sells music and it used to sell movies and series, but let’s not deviate too much from the point.

  2. I’m not an authority on philosophy, but I stumbled upon the work of Rowe (1992) and found it an interesting approach for a beginner like me. I’d appreciate any and all reads on this subject that you can share with me.

  3. Presumably, I haven’t actually checked the game isn't run by a super-trained AI.

  4. At least, that’s the spirit of the game. The devs encourage everyone to never share any kind of identifying details, but I’ve seen a few requests with a full name on them.

  5. It’s worth noting that the sticker collection is relatively small and can be completed with ease. After all, the purpose of this game is to exercise kindness and not a collect-a-thon. The room decoration is a secondary aspect of the game and has no bearing on the rest of it.

  6. Or rather, a shorter shelf life. While practically all multiplayer games are born with an expiration date, many of them have a strong enough playerbase to keep them alive for years with no foreseeable end based on their popularity. E. g. Team Fortress 2.

  7. I admit I’ve never seen these messages with an ‘@’ sign, which lends to my theory that there’s some kind of regex-ing behind the scenes. Also, some people are quite creative when it comes to bypassing those systems.

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