Thursday, June 13, 2024

What Are Cozy Games? How The Cozy Gaming Community Has Blossomed

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When Kennedy R. was a child, there was one fix that could cure almost any stressful situation: video games. She can remember spending hours after hard days at school playing Harvest Moon, a Japanese farm simulator built for the blocky Super Nintendo console. Through the thick of grad school, games like Stardew Valley and other open-ended pixelated worlds became a way to escape the pressure. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that her love of calm, simple games went from nostalgic pastime to an active growing online community. Now, Kennedy is best known as Cozy K., a streamer with half a million followers on TikTok and over 200,000 subscribers on both YouTube and Twitch who are all dedicated to watching her play one of the fastest-growing gaming genres: cozy gaming. 

Even if you’re not aware of the moniker, you’ve probably played a cozy game before. They’re defined by their ability to learn quickly, low-stakes, casual vibe, and often mimic familiar, real-life situations. This makes the production simple and the premises endless — in Unpacking players move into new homes, in Venba, gamers learn how to make a variety of traditional Tamil dishes. Kris Alexander, an associate professor of gaming at Toronto Metropolitan University, tells Rolling Stone that there’s been a rapid rise in interest in these kinds of games in the past three years, something experts say shows people’s desire to play games that are specific to their own cultural and personal experiences. As a genre, cozy games are often discounted as inferior to AAA offerings, considered the option for people unable to commit to or learn difficult gameplay. But cozy gamers tell Rolling Stone it’s not about finding the simplest option. Instead, in a gaming world that’s become known for celebrating exclusion, gamers focused on peace say they’re done waiting for acceptance — and are carving out their own space for community. 

Since every player’s definition of a low-stress game is different, there’s no exact number of how many more cozy games have been downloaded since the genre’s rise. But online communities centered around cozy games have seen exponential growth since 2020. Felicia W. is one of the moderators of Reddit’s r/cozygamers. What started as a small meeting ground for interested gamers quickly grew into a major subreddit, with over 137,000 members, and dozens of similar offshoots. 

“I’m seeing a lot of women in their twenties and thirties, some in their forties even, this different generation that’s always liked gaming, but never felt included,” she says. “So now they see this community where they can talk about gaming and share pictures without being shamed or pushed out for their age or gender.” 

According to Alexander and other experts, the rise in interest first began during the Covid-19 pandemic, when everyone from middle schoolers to adults had plenty of free hours to spend on video games. According to Verizon, video game usage went up 75 percent during 2020. Around the same time, Animal Crossing New Horizons was released on Nintendo Switch and sold over 30 million units that year alone, more than all other Animal Crossing releases combined. (That type of success isn’t singular to Nintendo— the 2016 farming simulator hit Stardew Valley was created by an indie developer, but has also sold over 30 million units after a pandemic-era jump.) Alexander points to the ease at which cozy games can be made by developers, the low learning curve for players, and how tailored their premises can be as major factors in their appeal. (Indie game developers focused solely on the genre have also begun popping up more in the past four years as larger companies continue to lay off full teams.)

“The draw for old players and new players, specifically when it comes to cozy games, is this idea that it’s more accessible,” Alexander says. “I know that I could just sit there and I’ll be able to get it quite quickly. I think folks just didn’t know that this was a genre. And for the development side of things, people are gravitating towards [them] because you really [just] have to come up with a smooth core mechanic that feels good.”

Kennedy tells Rolling Stone that games that qualify as cozy or calming aren’t new — some of the earliest examples, like Little Computer People and Harvest Moon, were first released in the Nineties. What she believes is new is the community around these types of programs. Even the title of cozy games was “community built,” Kennedy says, which has allowed the genre to become an entry point for people later in life who might be interested in starting to play but unclear on how to begin.

“Sometimes you just want to dilly dally in a cute little town that you painstakingly decorated. I and a lot of other people don’t necessarily love to, after a long, hard day, skyrocket our heart rates in a competitive, first-person shooter,” she says. “Before, it felt like ‘I’m just a person who happens to play games sometimes. And the games I personally like no one really talks about. And now it feels like there is a place in the gaming world for me to actually identify myself as a gamer. Now it’s more of a communal experience.”

And taking on the mantle of cozy gamer doesn’t have to begin and end with purchasing or downloading a new game. Em W., the creator behind cozy gaming TikTok @wisteriem, says that the popularization of cozy gaming has allowed the genre to infiltrate other aspects of gaming like aesthetics in gaming setups. Now players have begun creating personalized gaming monitors and desk setups — think less Darth Vader glowing red lights and more calm garden chic — a trend that accessory companies are now leaning into. 

“I feel like a lot of us who are really into cozy gaming, are kind of chasing that nostalgic feeling of the games we played as a child gave us,” she says. “We finally have adult money, and are using that to be able to heal our inner child by creating our dream gaming setups to enjoy these wholesome games as a form of self-care and de-stressing from all the anxiety that being an adult brings.”

It wouldn’t be an internet subset if there wasn’t discourse, and the current topic of discussion is what deserves to be called a cozy game. Does a game count if there’s farming but also a timer? What if it has simple mechanics but involves something not related to nature or cooking? Michael Wong, a psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience professor at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, believes there’s a neurological reason why so many people reach for cozy game alternatives — one that could also explain why what one person considers a cozy game might not meet the same criteria for someone else. 

In a 2021 study exploring stress in undergraduate students, Wong’s research suggested that students who played a cozy game for 20 minutes experienced almost identical calming effects (lower heart rate, blood pressure) as students who spent 20 minutes doing a mindfulness meditation session.  

“I chose cozy gaming [because] you don’t have to be a gaming expert to pick up your phone or to pick up some device to play,” Wong explains. “This study sort of confirms that stress is highly subjective. So if meditation doesn’t work for you, there are other strategies.” 

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Since stress differs from person to person, it makes sense that debates about what games can be considered actually homey is entirely dependent on who’s holding the controller. But while each of the gamers who spoke to Rolling Stone described different favorite games they consider deserving of the title, they’re all hopeful that this new fascination with comfortable programs will create a space for the game industry to be less exclusionary. 

“Gaming is very male-dominated, from the marketing to the aesthetics of gaming peripherals, to which game publishers actually choose to put money behind,” Kennedy says. “There’s [been] a stigma in gaming around cozy gaming. But now, because there’s this identity, there’s this ownership over it, and this pride around cozy gaming now, and I think that’s a really important thing, especially for people who haven’t been centered in gaming for all of these years.” 





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