Games for Personal Growth: A Design Process

By iThrive Games
July 11, 2017

"When I think of my friends saying they want to 'grow and change' from the media they consume, I know they would find games designed around developing their strengths to be rewarding." - Brie Code

Editor's note: We were lucky to have Brie Code at our February 2017 design hive in Anaheim, CA. She told us that our discussion of positive psychology and strengths inspired new design approaches at her studio, Tru Luv Media, and she shares her insights here. Also check out our interview with Brie.


I love video games, deeply. Video games have been a resource for me at key moments of my life. They have been a safe space for relaxation, for meditation, for introspection, for identity experimentation, and overall, for growth.

But most of my friends don't like video games. In fact, when I talk with my friends, their biggest misconception about video games is that games are a waste of time and don't help them grow or change.

At my company, Tru Luv, we're making games with the intention of repairing this misconception. First, each project is designed with someone who doesn't like video games. This helps us break out of geek culture. And second, each project is designed with personal growth at its core.

The first step in our design process is the Why. We start by brainstorming around a specific meaning or purpose that comes from the heart of the creator.

The first game we'll release, a game called #SelfCare, is designed with Eve Thomas, a magazine editor and artist from Montreal. In early brainstorms with Eve the concept of self-care came up fast. Eve was seeing an increasing number of posts on Tumblr about self-care and it was resonating with her. When she first came across the trend, it annoyed her. Why should women need a medical-sounding term, an authoritative excuse, to take some time for themselves? Why not just take a bath and call it a bath?

Then Eve realized that for many of us, we need external permission to take care of ourselves. Women have been raised to take care of everyone around us. We've been taught to be polite when people cross our boundaries. We've been taught to do the majority of the housework, childcare, and care for aging family members. At the office we learn that our ideas get made when we give them to a man. In general we aren't used to demanding what we need. Eve decided if the concept of self-care helps women block off some time for that bath we may desperately need, then that's fine.

However, with so many external demands, even once the permission is there, not all women can find that time. So Eve wanted to make a mobile game that was a moment for self-care, a moment of relaxation and peace while boiling water on the stove or taking an elevator to an important meeting.

Tru Luv Media's design process for personal growth-centered games.

The second step is How. How can we convey that this game is a refuge for taking care of yourself? We decided that the game should calm panic, should bring positive energy, and should feel satisfying and not frustrating.

The third step is Who. Who are the characters in the game? Who does the player interact with? Who is the player? We decided that the game would have one character, a person who couldn't face the world and who stayed home for the day and stayed in bed—a person who is living the ultimate delicious fantasy of taking a mental health day.

The fourth step is Where/When. Where and when is the game set? We set the game in the bedroom of the person who stays home. The bedroom is welcoming. It's decorated in a familiar, current style for people who love Tumblr and Pinterest and Instagram. It's full of familiar, comforting objects. Maybe you can't afford that cute Tarot deck in real life, but you can have one in the game.

The final step is What. We design the game mechanics last. They emerge from all the previous steps. What game mechanics are calming, positive, and satisfying but not frustrating? What game mechanics feel like a mental health day? What game mechanics feel like a comforting, tasteful bedroom? We decided that for each object in the bedroom, there is a different meditative interaction you can do that is calming for the character and calming for the player as well.

Screenshot from #SelfCare. Clicking on books in #SelfCare opens an interaction of sorting letters into words. Phrases in the word game start out defeatist and become more constructive as the character's mood improves.

From there, we created a prototype of the design, gave it to Eve, worked with her to identify changes or next steps, and repeated. We are very flexible about trying new, strange ideas.

When we're designing the game mechanics we think a lot about what psychological rewards are relevant for the core meaning and purpose of the game. Video games are about managing rewards so that the player is never too bored and never too overwhelmed. Most games achieve this by managing the level of stress—the   fight-or-flight stress response triggers dopamine rewards in the brain and is very satisfying. But we're not interested in making stressful games. We consider other reward systems, ones that lend themselves more to understanding and growth.

First, we look at a different stress response, not fight-or-flight, but tend-and-befriend, mediated by oxytocin and opioids. I think often about managing oxytocin rewards instead of dopamine. Opportunities to display care in a game can be rewarding. Eve's game is very much a place for the tend-and-befriend stress response.

Beyond stress reactions, we think about other branches of psychology and what rewards we can find there. We think about Quantic Foundry's Gamer Motivation Model. We also think about personality psychology and the Big 5, and how people will tend to seek out situations to display their dominant personality traits and find it rewarding to do so. Customization and other opportunities for identity experimentation in games can be very rewarding.

And then earlier this year I attended an iThrive Games Design Hive and learned about positive psychology and the VIA Strengths. This was a key that was missing in Tru Luv's design process. While most psychology is about fixing psychological issues, positive psychology is about identifying your unique strengths and developing them—about personal growth. When I think of my friends saying they want to "grow and change" from the media they consume, I know they would find games designed around developing their strengths to be rewarding.

Right now we're busy debugging #SelfCare for beta release. But on each subsequent concept, we'll be experimenting with integrating strengths into the brainstorm process. If we were re-designing #SelfCare thinking about strengths, I would start by asking Eve to do the VIA Strengths profile. If Eve was attracted to the concept of self-care, it is probably because there are some interesting correlations or tensions between that concept and her dominant strengths. I'd ask her how her strengths relate to the topic of self-care. And then as we brainstorm the game mechanics, we could start with those individual strengths. What kind of game mechanics could develop those strengths? In the case of #SelfCare, I could imagine expanding it beyond the meditative interactions for calming stress. Once the character feels just well enough to leave her bedroom, I could imagine further rooms in her house that are designed around developing strengths that seem related to self-care, such as Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence, Humour, Creativity, Kindness, or Self-Regulation.


About the Author: Brie Code is a speaker, writer, AI programmer, and the CEO and creative director of Tru Luv Media, a video game studio making games with people who don't like games. Previously she was a lead programmer at Ubisoft Montreal on the soft, ethereal game Child of Light and three Assassin's Creed games. Her favourite games are This War of Mine, Skyrim, and The Colonel's Bequest.