Ahead of the Game

By age 35, following a career of “firsts” for women in the video game industry, Brie Code was feeling burned out. She had been a lead AI programmer on Assassin’s Creed II and III, helping oversee a team of 60 at Ubisoft, before becoming the first female lead programmer on the company’s other wildly popular action role-playing game, Child of Light. Despite her relative youth, Code was one of only a handful of women among 2,500 employees at Ubisoft’s Montreal studio experienced enough to be considered senior. “I didn’t want to pave the way anymore,” she says. “I was exhausted.”

So she quit.

Brie Code and Eve Thomas, creators of the #SelfCare app
Brie Code (R) and Eve Thomas, creators of the #SelfCare app

After 12 years in a male-dominated field, Code yearned for a professional community that included women, provided female mentors and supported game concepts that flouted the conventional conflict- and goal-oriented paradigm, where players are rewarded for overcoming increasingly dangerous challenges. This ubiquitous architecture, says Code, who studied psychology at UBC as well as computer science, exploits the human fight-or-flight response by purposely placing players in a stressful state as they conquer new levels of difficulty. Research shows that this appeals to a particular kind of player, often male but sometimes female, who “likes to stay home and master a challenge.”

“What gaming has refined is this feeling that it feels good to win,” says Code. “Such stimulation works well for some persons’ psychology but it doesn’t work well for others.” One of those “others” is Code herself. “Men tend to be stimulated by danger and things flashing, and I’m not personally interested in that.”

Some see her as subversive — a threat to the industry itself — and she has been abused online and criticized in public.

A lesser-known reaction to stress is “tend and befriend,” a theory that entered the psychology lexicon in 2000. Tend and befriend describes an almost polar opposite reaction to stress than fight or flight and is more typically associated with women. This means that some girls and women have less physical aggression in reaction to stressful situations and instead seek close stable attachments with their friends as part of their response. For Code, it was revelatory. Here was a theory upon which to develop new video games that suited her and friends who dislike the intensely competitive nature of gaming. “It’s not about winning but taking care of things or people, seeking out allies and finding solutions,” she says. The stimulation, in this case, is a “mutually beneficial outcome to a socially significant situation.”

Out of this rose Code’s new company TRU LUV, so named because “tend and befriend is a stress response about love.” This innovative start up, consisting of Code and a handful of psychologists and friends, created the free interactive app #SelfCare, an artfully designed prototype that, she says, is still a work in progress. After designing the app — and delaying its launch when Code fell prey to a loss of confidence after her male mentors told her it wouldn’t fly —  #SelfCare went online last summer. It belied her naysayers and, within six weeks, had garnered 500,000 downloads without advertising, while being declared one of Apple’s Best of 2018 Trends of the Year. It currently has one million downloads, a “very high” number for a non-advertised app, says Code.

#SelfCare was born out of a collaboration with Montreal magazine editor Eve Thomas, who noted that personal well-being was a growing trend on Tumblr, especially among women looking to escape the cultural pattern of neglecting self while catering to the demands of others. On her website, Thomas describes it as an app “that lets you pretend you’re in bed all day.” And indeed, #SelfCare offers a bird’s-eye view of a body snuggled under a duvet. There is relaxing spa music with faint Tingsha meditation bells, deep-breathing exercises, a friendly black cat and tarot cards, among other accessories, as well as sage insights about life and quiet admonishments to take a break from smart phones and laptops. As #SelfCare states, the app is “a safer space to take care of you.” (A player can also accessorize the room, such as changing the duvet pattern according to personal taste, for $1.39 via the App Store.)

Developing a video-game app based upon the concept of self-care brings “authority” to the idea that technology can be used for stress reduction, rather than stimulation, says Code. It also challenges the win-at-all-costs concept, which is tied to the socioeconomic sphere. “Capitalism is about winning — businesses getting bigger and dominating the market. When masculine people feel stressed they want to dominate something.” Code believes the gaming industry can break away from such entrenched conventions. “Most video game progression is about getting bigger and better at something; #SelfCare is about creating a deeper and deeper connection to the self and the greater good.”

#SelfCare went online last summer. It belied her naysayers and, within six weeks, had garnered 500,000 downloads without advertising, while being declared one of Apple’s Best of 2018 Trends of the Year.

Code spreads her message globally by speaking about the tend-and-befriend approach to gaming at industry conventions or to groups of young women who are just getting into the field, as well as consulting with studios who are warming to the concept.

As a result, some see her as subversive — a threat to the industry itself — and she has been abused online and criticized in public. A podcast declared her a “terrible person.” People said “vile” things on Twitter, prompting Code to install numerous computer tools preventing her from seeing the harassment. And — while some audience members would sometimes cry with relief during her discussions about tend and befriend, saying to Code afterwards that the talk gave them insight into their own preferences — some men lambasted her for daring to challenge the status quo. “They make bad faith arguments trying to make me feel like I’ve done something wrong. They don’t like having something made that doesn’t cater to them. You’d think it’s just teenage boys but sometimes it’s 45-year-old men.” What is making these men so resentful? Code shakes her head. “I can’t understand their motivation so I can’t say what it is.” The irony of focusing their abuse upon someone who advocates friendship and compassion as a new paradigm for the gaming world is apparently is lost on them.

Innovators and changemakers who forge new paths will always, at some point, meet resistance. While the naysayers catch up, Code has found the gaming community she yearned for by creating it herself. And as she uses her AI skills to increase the interactivity of #SelfCare and develop new apps, that community will only grow larger, deeper, and more supportive.

Download #SelfCare, now available on the App Store for iPhone and Google Play for Android

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