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Kind Words is a bright spot in a dark world

ILLUSTRATION BY NOGA AMI-RAV/STARS AND STRIPES

By ELISE FAVIS | The Washington Post | Published: January 29, 2020

For many, video games are an escape or respite from day-to-day problems, a way to absorb yourself in a virtual world. Kind Words, a game about sending positive messages to strangers, isn’t just a safe haven for players, but also an escape for its creators.

“This game may not feel overtly political, but it is,” Kind Words developer Ziba Scott said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It’s in a lot of ways our reaction to the Trump administration.”

After finishing an exhausting four-year project in 2018 called Make Sail, a game about building sailboats, Scott and his long-time creative partner Luigi Guatieri wanted to pivot to something smaller in scope. As they did so, they couldn’t ignore what was happening in the real world.

“It is a response to Trump’s politics of fear and exclusion,” Scott said. “And there’s a lot of rising xenophobia around the world.”

Scott said he noticed a politically divided country and wanted to help bring people back together through the power of words. His game “gives people a chance to think about what is scaring them, and to hear other people’s stories.”

Both Scott and Guatieri are American, though Guatieri also holds citizenship in New Zealand and Greece.

Released in 2019, Kind Words has a simple premise: Players send out anonymous requests (virtual letters) to vent, ask questions or talk about a problem. These words are circulated to a global inbox where they are read by different users. Then, a handful respond. Communication, outside of sending stickers to signal appreciation for someone’s answer, ends there. Though the game may have been inspired by a response to present-day politics, and it is a talking point, most of the discussions center on other topics. Players talk about all sorts of subjects: mental health, sexuality, relationships and more. They talk about bad days and good days, like buying a house or expressing grief from a break up. Some just want to talk or be heard, despite limited back-and-forth communication.

It’s a therapeutic experience that counters loneliness. And it aims to help in a country that faces a nationwide mental health epidemic. According to data from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 17.3 million American adults, which is 7.1% of the country, experienced a major depressive episode that year.

Scott compares Kind Words to social media, but without the ability to like, subscribe or go viral. It gives players a virtual shelter where you can tell a group of strangers your secrets, worries and desires without fear of judgment. It’s like a modern PostSecret, an art project kick-started in 2005 that asked people to anonymously mail their secrets on a postcard. But this time, you get a response.

“[Kind Words is] without any of the pressures to be consistent with yourself or to worry that, you know, your mom is going to see this post or your friends are going to overreact when you talk about how upset you are,” Scott said.

Anonymity, especially in the gaming world, can often foster toxicity with users spouting off fearless of repercussions. About 74% of adult gamers have faced harassment while playing online, according to a study published last year by the Anti-Defamation League. But with Kind Words, keeping identities hidden is part of its private and secure nature. Players identify themselves only with a single letter and the only other information stored by the game is a user’s IP address and their messages. It has been surprisingly effective: to date, 60,000 people have played Kind Words and over a million messages have been exchanged between players.

A several-hour exploration of the game showed a community bursting with kindness, and only occasionally revealing gibberish posts or content that seemed dubious, like a post discussing drug use. Scott and Guatieri make on the fly decisions with that kind of content. If they can pinpoint that it’s likely a sincere concern that isn’t harmful to the user or others, they leave the content alone.

“We thought that this would be something that in a small, small way would make the world a tiny bit better,” Scott said. “Something seemed to be missing from people’s lives: the ability to be honest about yourself, share the scary parts of yourself, spend time meditating on what’s bothering you and be part of a community that does that.”

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