Game Developer Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren’t really that simple at all.
Earlier installments cover topics such as how art director Olivier Latouche reimagined the art direction of Foundation, how the creator of the RPG Roadwarden designed its narrative for impact and variance, and how the papercraft-based aesthetic of Paper Cut Mansion came together with the developer calls the Reverse UV method.
In this edition, Xu He, senior game designer Ustwo Games, discusses the effect of altruism in games and how designing for empathy reshapes online communities, citing Popcannibal's 2019 anonymous letter writing game Kind Words and Thatgamecompany's 2019 open-world social title Sky: Children of the Light.
Online multiplayer games are notorious for the long-standing toxic culture on one side. But, on the other side, we also hear people talking about having positive social interactions in those games, like making friends and helping other players. So, how can we create a more positive and less toxic social experience for players in online multiplayer games?
According to a survey report from Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published in 2019, about 74% of adult gamers in America have faced harassment while playing online. And this number grew to 83% in their 2021 survey. However, on the brighter side, in the 2019 and 2021 surveys, about 90% of online multiplayer gamers also experienced positive social interaction, like making friends and helping other players.
Safety controls, like the restriction of public chat, words filter, and report systems, will reduce toxic behaviors, but that is not enough to build a warm and connected community in the game. It’s just like how laws and police will not make your neighborhood more friendly. A warm community needs players to care about and support each other genuinely. It requires altruism.
When I play online multiplayer games, I barely have any social interactions with other players, because of the risk of being harassed and the indifferent attitude between players. In most multiplayer online games, players focus on making their character stronger than anyone else, and they often only collaborate with others when there is a benefit. However, Sky: Children of the Light (Sky) and Kind Words changed my negative impression of multiplayer online games.
While playing Sky, I felt so touched by something other players did for the first time. It was also the first time in years I felt comfortable chatting and making friends with other players. As far as I know, Sky is the first online multiplayer game in which social features are designed around altruism.
If we say altruism is at the core of Sky, Kind Words is the rare little gem built totally upon the belief and practice of altruism. When I first heard about Kind Words, I was in doubt about the concept of writing nice letters to strangers, but that doubt vanished right after playing it. I enjoyed replying to other people’s requests and was so moved by the replies I received.
You might find Sky and Kind Words look very different—one is a multiplayer adventure game, and the other is a casual letter-writing game, but they have a shared set of values—they both show, at their core, that we humans can be selfless and kind to each other. Interestingly, I only noticed that both games were released in July 2019 once I started writing this piece—just a few months before the pandemic started.
In this article, I’m going to talk about the dominant altruistic behavior in each game, the scientific evidence behind them, and what we can learn as game developers.
Altruism in Kind Words
Kind Words is a game about writing nice letters to real people. It was first released as a Humble Bundle Original in July 2019 and arrived on Steam in September 2019. In the game, players can anonymously send a letter request or reply to other players’ requests. All the conversations are one-offs. You can send a sticker to the player who replied to you to show your appreciation, but you can’t reply with another letter. The game is simple, and almost like a social app. It won a BAFTA Game Beyond Entertainment Award in 2020 for the positive impact it brought to the players’ lives.
Kind Words is a perfect example of pure altruism, as players support strangers without expecting anything in return. Up to July 2022, Kind Words had received more than 7500 reviews on Steam, and 98% were positive. In the developer’s recent update post, it said over 4 million letters have been sent between players anonymously through the game.
Other than the positive reviews, the letters in the game have also been surprisingly positive. As the game’s designer and programmer, Ziba Scott, said, “Out of well over half a million letters written, we’ve had to address just shy of 3% of that content, and most of that is off-topic—not trolling. ”
The first time I played Kind Words, I wasn't convinced by the idea of writing letters to others until I opened the requests I received. I was moved by people’s openness about their struggles and empathized with them so strongly. I remember a letter in which the writer said they struggled with socializing and felt disconnected from other people. I really related to that, and I always felt the same. So I replied to them about how I felt the same as an autistic person and that they were not alone.
Reading and replying to those requests made me feel this is an open, warm, and supportive community, and thus I felt comfortable opening my heart and sending my requests too. After sending out my first request, I received a couple of replies shortly, and the replies were really warm and touching. I can feel the writers put a lot of heart into the letters. I was so surprised that people could be so patient and kind as to write such a long letter (most of them reached the maximum length of 7 lines) to comfort and encourage a stranger.
Kind Words is a perfect example of pure altruism because there is no motivation for reciprocity, building reputation, or pressure from social norms. The conversations are one-offs, and players have no information about who the person on the other side of the letter is or where they are. Players are writing comforting and supportive letters purely for the welfare of a stranger.
How Kind Words brought altruism out of players’ hearts
Before Kind Words, developers, Ziba Scott and Luigi Guatieri made another message-writing game called Elegy for a Dead World. Players travel through three worlds in the game and write poetry that will be shared with other players. “People wrote over a hundred thousand poems, but nobody seemed to enjoy reading anybody else’s amateur poetry,” Scott said. Players’ different reactions to Elegy for a Dead World and Kind Words showed that while amateur poetry might not move people, they do empathize with other people’s pain.
Empathy plays an essential role in Kind Words’ success. And what triggers empathy are the requests where players share their worries openly. Nature built us to be empathetic to others. Altruism is in our genes. But we can’t empathize with others if we can’t see what others are worrying about.
However, in our daily life, it can be an enormous struggle to get close to people and really know them, and social media can be a hindrance as often as a help.
For example, Twitter is a place where people mostly shout about their opinions. It’s designed to be noisy, and opinions often lead people to arguments. On Instagram, people usually only share the glorious side of their lives. It’s all about pretty images, and it looks like everybody is having a great time. There is no place designed for us to share the downside of our lives, or where we can ask for help. But we need that badly, and I believe that is why people love Kind Words so much.
In Kind Words, the game explicitly asks the players to share things that they are worried about and ask for help:
The anonymous nature of online video games is well-known for fostering a hostile culture, as players can get away without the fear of repercussions. However, in Kind Words, anonymity helps players feel more comfortable sharing the most vulnerable and soft part of their hearts. The game also creates a quiet, cozy, intimate atmosphere through its relaxing background music and the visual presentation of a child in a cozy room. All these elements help players to open their hearts and be vulnerable.
Once players get comfortable sharing feelings, it kicks off a chain effect—seeing others being honest about their worries gives players the courage to open up. And once a player receives a comforting reply, they will be more open to sharing and more willing to support other players. So it becomes a virtuous circle.
When reading other players’ requests, it’s difficult not to be compassionate. You don’t know who they are, and your conversations with them are one-offs, but when reading their letters, you feel strongly connected to them. You might be on different sides of the earth, but your hearts are so close at that moment.
Regarding trolls, The one-off nature of the conversations in the game actually helped a lot to keep them away. It leaves trolls with no ‘rewarding’ feedback, which discourages them from toxic behavior. As developer Ziba Scott told Launcher, "[Trolls are] not going to be able to know the effect they had and we find that’s pretty effective. They get bored quickly. They come, and they’ll spend an hour saying awful things, and then they’ll disappear and never come back because there’s really no reward for them to be doing that."
Altruism in Sky: Children of the Light
Sky: Children of the Light (Sky) is an open-world social adventure game developed by Thatgamecompany. It was first released for iOS in July 2019, followed by the Android version released in April 2020 and the Nintendo Switch version in June 2021. In the game, players explore seven unique realms, unlock lost spirits’ stories, and make friends along the way. For example, a player can offer another player a candle to become friends, and friends can hold each other’s hands to explore the world together. Each player has a cape that works like a battery to provide players with the power to fly. And players can help each other to recharge the flying power.
As Jenova Chen, creative director of Sky, noted, “At its core, Sky is a game about compassion and generosity... It’s about connecting people and nudging them to do good for each other.”
Prevalent altruistic behavior in Sky
Sky has fascinating art and moving stories, which makes it appealing enough, even if being played alone. However, its multiplayer features are what keep players around for months or years. I have been playing Sky for more than a year. The most important thing that kept me playing was the kindness I received from other players, who helped me without expecting anything in return.
When playing the game for the first time, I didn’t understand it very well and was a bit lost. And suddenly, a veteran player offered me a candle to become my friend and took my hand to take me to a breathtaking hidden area. That veteran player spent about an hour showing me around and helping me get all the collectibles nearby. It was also obvious that they were not expecting anything in return.
After playing the game for a while, I found that unselfishly helping others is quite common in Sky. One of the most touching moments I had in the game was when a player chose to help me rather than finish their own quest.
That time, I worked together with another player (who I only met for the first time) on a quest, but when we finally got to the end of the quest on the top of a mountain, I fell off the cliff and didn’t have enough flying power to fly back to the top.
The other player could just finish the quest alone as they were just one step away from the reward, but they didn’t. Instead, they jumped down the cliff, offered me a candle to become my friend, took my hand to fly back to the top, and we completed the quest together.
There are so many of these moments. Sometimes, it could be a very small thing but still really touching. I remember there was a time I ran out of flying power and was standing next to a torch to recharge my flying power, but the recharge was very slow. Suddenly, another player flew to me and used deep calls to help me recharge much faster. Before I managed to find the thanks expression in the game’s UI, they had already left.
To understand how common altruistic behaviors are in Sky, I posted a poll on Sky’s unofficial subreddit about how often players get help from veteran players. The poll received votes from 563 players, and 62% of them had been helped by veteran players.
Under that poll, many players shared their stories:
Even though this poll only included the cases of veteran players helping new players, I believe it speaks to the universal altruism in the game's design.
How Sky is designed to encourage altruism
Why is altruistic behavior typical in Sky?
Similar to Kind Words, empathy plays an essential role in players’ altruistic behavior in Sky and is triggered by players’ need for help. In Kind Words, players request help based on real-life struggles. In Sky, the game creates situations where players, especially new players, will find it challenging to get through and need some assistance from others.
In Sky, you are a vulnerable little kid in a massive world full of beauty and danger. The first challenge a new player faces is finding their way around the world to get to all the collectibles and unlock all the hidden areas.
Unlike most MMORPGs, Sky doesn’t provide players with a map or clear clues about where to go. So, new players easily feel lost. This successfully creates a situation where new players need help from experienced players. And from the veteran players’ perspective, seeing a new player struggling to find their way could remind them of their own experience of getting lost and maybe the help they received when they were new.
This builds empathy from the veteran players to the new players, and the empathy eventually leads to altruistic helping behavior. That can explain why so many veteran players help new players.
Some might argue that the fact that new players can easily get lost in the game might hurt the game, as not every player will receive help, but doesn't that feel like the real world? We are all fragile little creatures living in a formidable world where we need to help each other to survive.
Another design element in Sky that creates the need for help is the limitation on flying power. Flying is vital in the game because many areas can only be reached—or reached much quicker—by flying. To fly further and higher, players need to flap their “wings” like a bird, and each flap costs a fraction of flying power. Players can recharge their flying power in several ways but there's a maximum and the meter depends on experience.
Without another player’s help to recharge their flying power, players need things like lights, fire or clouds, which are not always easy to find. If they get stuck in the rain or polluted water, they can lose their flying power or even winged lights quickly.
All these create a situation where players, especially inexperienced ones, are frequently in need of recharging power. The game then gives the recharging power to the players themselves. While they can’t recharge their personal flying power, standing near another player will help them recharge theirs (if they make deep calls, the recharge will be even quicker).
To alert them to the needs of others, the game also enables them to see how much flying power the other player has, even before they can see their outfit. When we see another person struggling with low-flying power or losing winged light in the rain, our empathy makes us want to help them.
Imagine seeing someone stuck in the polluted water, losing flying power and winged light, there is no fire or light around for them to recharge, and there is no one around but you. Now it’s all up to you whether they will be saved. At this moment, your empathy and a feeling of being important motivate you to help them.
Even though I believe empathy is the foremost reason for prosocial behavior in Sky, it might not be the only reason. Players won’t get any reward directly when they help others, but they will be rewarded indirectly in several ways. For example, candles are often given out in appreciation. And players who consistently help others will have more friends, which is a big advantage in the game, as friends can exchange a fraction of a heart (a limited currency in Sky) every day and team up to finish quests.
Findings in research about altruism
When talking about altruism in multiplayer online games, we shouldn’t ignore what scientists have found about it in real life, as human altruism is such an important topic in social psychology. These research findings can help us better understand the altruistic behavior we have seen in Kind Words and Sky and help us to know how we can better encourage altruistic behavior in multiplayer online games.
Research has found that not only do we make decisions that benefit others more than ourselves, but these decisions are also driven by natural preference rather than reciprocity or complying with a social norm (Matthew Lieberman, 2013, Social: Why our brains are wired to connect). It was shown in the fMRI research by James Rilling etc. (2002, 2004) that our brains make us feel rewarded when we make altruistic decisions. It suggests that altruism is built in our genes and wired in our brains. And that is the foundation of the common altruistic behavior seen in Kind Words and Sky.
But why don't we often see altruistic behavior in real life and most multiplayer online games? Daniel Batson’s research (1991) found that empathy plays a critical role in triggering altruistic behaviors. In the experiment, the observers had to watch the victims receiving painful shocks and decide if they would take their place.
The study found that the observers were very likely (91%) to do so if they had been induced to feel empathy for the victims. As primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal concluded in his review article Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy (2008), “without the emotional engagement brought about by empathy, it is unclear what could motivate the extremely costly helping behavior occasionally observed in social animals.”
Although we are born with altruistic motivations, our decisions are rarely only driven by pure altruism. As Ernst Fehr and Urs Fischbacher said in their article, The nature of human altruism (2003), we are always motivated by a combination of altruistic and selfish concerns. The chance of altruistic behavior increases with the additional reward and decreases with the cost of the altruistic decisions.
The data show that both altruistic rewarding and reputation-seeking are powerful determinants of donors' behavior. Donors who cannot acquire a reputation help in 37% of the cases whereas those who can gain a reputation help in 74% of the cases.
—Fehr, E., Fischbacher, U. The nature of human altruism (2003). Nature 425, 785–791
Pure altruistic decisions are precious, yet to increase the rate of helping behaviors, it might be a good idea to implement some rewards and reduce the cost of helping.
How can we catalyze altruism in multiplayer online games?
The altruistic motivation in our genes is like a seed in the soil. And turning altruistic motivation into altruistic behavior is like growing a seed into a plant. You can’t see the seed before it grows out of the soil, but you need to believe that it is there. Seeds can only germinate and grow under certain conditions. So too, with altruistic motivation.
Seeds need the right amount of water, appropriate soil, and sunlight. Altruistic motivation needs a trigger for empathy, the cost of altruistic decisions not to be too high, and a few additional rewards.
Empathy is like the dormant biological power inside the seeds that can make the seeds germinate. For germination, the first and foremost thing is to use water to wake up the dormant biological power inside the seeds.
To trigger altruistic behavior, we also need something like water to wake up the dormant empathy inside people’s hearts first. In Kind Words, the water is the players’ request for help. In Sky, it’s players’ helplessness when getting lost, trapped by lack of flying power, or opening a multiplayer gate.
Driven by empathy is also what differentiates altruism from cooperative play, as cooperative play is motivated by shared goals. To encourage altruism, only having a shared goal is not enough. Empathy needs to be involved.
A little sprout growing from seed is not strong enough to break through compacted soil. When cultivating altruism, we also need to reduce the friction or cost altruistic behavior faces. In Kind Words, the anonymity and one-off nature of the conversations give the act of helping players a better sense of security and reduce the stress of responsibility.
When replying to the requests, players are not expected to solve the problem for the person on the other end but to provide some comforting and encouraging words. In Sky, it doesn’t cost the players anything to help others recharge flying power. And hand-holding only requires one candle to be unlocked.
After getting out of the soil, some sunlight is needed for the sprouts to grow bigger. Similarly, to encourage players to show altruistic behavior constantly and turn it into a pattern, we could use some help from additional rewards—the sunlight. Research has found that the human motivation behind prosocial behavior is always a mixture of pure altruistic pleasure, reputation-seeking, and direct and indirect reciprocity.
If altruistic behavior can lead to some rewarding feedback, it is more likely to happen. In Kind Words, the reward is a thank-you sticker from the player you helped and a decoration for your in-game room. In Sky, the reward is sometimes a candle from those you help or the benefit of having more friends.
However, be aware that too much extrinsic motivation damages intrinsic motivation. The reward should be a side consequence rather than the main reason players help others.
Lastly, remember that you can’t germinate a seed by pulling the epicotyl and the radicle out. You will only kill the seeds by doing that. It is the same for catalyzing altruism. If you give players a task to help others and they can’t progress in the game without finishing the task, you are damaging their intrinsic altruistic motivation.
What you need to do is to provide the right amount of water, good soil, and some sunlight and let it grow by itself. Oh, and first, you need to believe the seed exists.
Both the developers of Kind Words and Sky decided to create a game to let players help others unselfishly because they wished to make the world more compassionate inside and outside the game. Catalyzing altruism in multiplayer games is not an easy job. I believe the developers’ determination and vision also played an important part in helping them achieve.
As a bonus, other than making a more compassionate world, altruism can also benefit your game’s long-term retention. Research from Kang A.R. et al. (2014) found that having experience of being helped or helping others in the game can significantly increase players’ 90-day retention for the game.
In short, encouraging altruism in online multiplayer games can create a positive social experience for the players, which will keep the players staying longer in the games and bring a profound positive impact to the world beyond the games. I hope this article encourages more developers to consider altruism in their games.