How Kind Words 2 Gives Players ‘An Opportunity To Be Nicer’
‘More than you feel our design, you feel the other people.’
No one expected the success of 2019’s Kind Words, a game about writing supportive letters to other real players. Creator Ziba Scott may have been the most surprised of all.
“We didn’t think anyone would care about it,” Scott tells Inverse. “We didn’t even submit it to any shows.”
Now four years later, the BAFTA-winning Kind Words is getting a sequel, revealed at the recent Day of the Devs: The Game Awards Edition showcase. With Kind Words 2 currently in playtesting on Steam, Scott spoke to Inverse about how the original built one of the most positive online spaces in gaming and how developer Popcannibal is approaching the sequel.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Where did the idea for Kind Words come from, and how did you get yourself to finish a game you thought no one might play?
Kind Words artist Luigi Guatieri and I were distraught at the political climate of the world. I still am, but it was somehow keenly new in 2018. We wanted to give people an opportunity to be nicer to each other. There seemed to be a lack of opportunities to do that.
The other, more direct origin comes from a 2015 game we made called Elegy for a Dead World, where people write things and share them online. It was reasonably successful, but we had the backend stats to see that nobody was reading other people's stories. That was kind of sad. So we thought, how could we make sure people read other's writing? And the answer was to have something written just for them.
With Elegy, were you also thinking about the themes of kindness and community that you were with Kind Words?
No, Elegy was entirely this high-minded artistic experiment about poetry and British romanticism. We didn't put a whole lot of time into the community, which is where I think Elegy hit the end of its reach. If we had spent more time exploring the idea of how all these writers affect each other, I think that game actually would've had more legs.
Then what do you attribute the much greater success of Kind Words to?
The players. When you play the game, more than you feel our design, you feel the other people. People saw each other through the game and made it the space they wanted it to be.
What about the design encouraged such behavior in players?
A game signals what parts of yourself to bring to it. Luigi and composer Clark Aboud set the tone that puts you in the right place to play the game.
My contribution was figuring out what I could safely cut from a communication loop. How much feedback do we need for the game to be satisfying?
When you approach any popular social media platform, there are immediate numbers that tell you if you're popular, if people are paying attention to you, if you've had an impact or not. And through a combination of design and sloth, I put none of that into the original Kind Words, so you're just free to talk to people. You don’t have to wonder if you’re doing it right.
It’s very rare for an online game to have as little toxicity as Kind Words. Whether it’s through design or moderation, how did you keep that out of the game?
The small paywall is important to make people feel committed. We've done very few promotions with giveaway keys, and we don't do deep discounts. Commercially, it would be better to do that, but I think that would cause a real moderation headache.
And we do a lot of moderation. So much of my development time is spent on the moderation systems, both automated tools and manual decisions.
The limited capability for response also cuts down on trolling. If you can say something mean to somebody, but you'll never know if they got it, then you won't get the satisfaction of causing it a shitstorm online.
Kind Words struck a chord with people in the early days of the lockdown. Did that and the post-lockdown period have an effect on developing Kind Words 2?
There's a bit of a nod to the end or late lockdown stages by being able to go outside, but the main influence on Kind Words 2 is what players have been trying to do with Kind Words.
There’s a feature wishlist players can add to for Kind Words that has grown to 40 pages, so I was getting these clear instructions on what to do with the next one. So Kind Words 2 tries to answer the demands that have already been put forth by the players.
Are you worried that by giving people what they want, they will somehow then realize they didn't really want it?
Absolutely. Sometimes in game development, when you take feedback and someone says, ‘So X,’ you don't do X. You examine why they wanted that, and then try to satisfy that need in the way that best fits your game.
For example, one of the requests we would get is for people to be able to reply back and forth. When you get into conversations, it's a much greater opportunity for an exchange of identity, which can lead to outside contact.
We want to avoid being a good place for predation. We are signaling for people to be vulnerable, and that brings in a lot of people who are in bad mental states or are possibly not thinking clearly. People who want to take advantage of folks in those situations could abuse that.
So the request that we get for pen pals is a problem, but the simple, safe joy of just having some back-and-forth banter is part of the human experience. That's why, in Kind Words 2, we're not doing full replies, but we've got this asynchronous chat system where you can walk through town and start little text messages with everybody. You can only exchange three couplets between each other and then the conversation is done. That's how we balance requests from people with keeping them safe.
Have you done any consultation with outside groups about how to keep players safe? Or were these all ideas you arrived at through developing the game?
Most of it is just years of moderation and being very close to this community. We have talked to some therapists to affirm that we're not doing more harm than good because we do have people coming in with really hard feelings.
We've had some feedback from players who are worried that people can discuss these feelings in an anonymous space where nobody can reach them directly to give them help. But I've talked to enough therapists to feel confident that giving people a place to talk without fear is valuable and that we aren't creating a harmful space.
The most important thing I did was to make sure that, at the bare minimum, we're not making people's worst feelings worse. Aside from predation, my other concern is someone will come to Kind Words with hard feelings and leave feeling worse.
Is there a particular message you’ve seen when moderating that really sticks with you or encapsulates what Kind Words is about to you?
One that really stuck out to me is a troll who came in and posted some mean, juvenile stuff, and then posted a request that was like, “I don't have any friends and I feel alone.”
And the fact that they could break character, because there is no character you're maintaining in Kind Words, felt like something worth providing to that person. When they came to troll, we stopped that from going through. Then when we saw that message, we were able to let that go through so they could get responses.
When I think, “Moderating all of this is a lot of work,” remembering that we may be giving people a chance to calm down and find a way to constructively interact with people motivates me to keep going forward.