Turning Strangers into Good Neighbors: The Positive Power of a Simple, but Transformative Game


Going Virtual with Casual Games:  Strategies for Teaching during a Pandemic

An Eight Part Series. Part 2

New Year’s Eve in 2020 showed a near empty Times Square in New York City. The usually boisterous, joyous crowd of a million celebrants from around the world singing, hugging kissing, blowing gazoos, as the crystal ball drops signaling a New Year had to celebrate in the separate ways in various places across the globe.  The pandemic wreaked havoc and brought unfathomable tragedy to so many families. In the United States Covid-19 was only part of a larger national struggle. Racial divisions and violence that echoed the race riots of the mid-1960s roared again exposing the citizenry’s long standing, festering wounds. Firmly entrenched partisanship displayed by the two political parties made a mockery of national unity. States seemed as divided as during the confederacy over a century ago. Moreover, the country had a sitting president who stoked divisions, used the “bully pulpit” to literally bully people who did not fall in line with his wishes, belittled and called opponents nasty names and mounted a concentrated attack on the vary foundations of American democracy by attempting to overturn a democratic election and impose rule by fiat. The mounting catastrophes reached a climax on January 6th, 2021 when the United States Congress experienced an almost unthinkable insurrection.  Such ugly circumstances breed cynicism, so how can we individually and collectively pull out of the public health, political and social crises of 2020 and before?

Let me turn back the clock to 2019, before the pandemic closed cinemas across the country. One of my favorite movies that year was A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Dir. Marielle Heller) starring the inimitable Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers.  Fred Rogers, Reverend Rogers or as best known Mr. Rogers, exuded warmth, and positivity. His show and his presence made any day beautiful. The TV show and its simple puppet stage represented a neighborhood, an extended living room- full of warmth, acceptance, and kindness. Approaching the world through kindness brings positive results. That is what Mr. Roger’s approach to life makes possible.

A few years ago, I was a virtual auditor in Yale psychologist Laurie Santos’ Massive Open Online Course “The Science of Wellness”. Dr. Santos now offers a podcast called “The Happiness Lab” and her Yale course, “The Psychology of the Good Life,” is the university’s most popular. Hint- the good life is not sitting on a million dollar yacht. The good life- Ancient Greek eudaimonia- has to do with kindness, gratitude, and mindfulness. That so many young students at one of the world’s most prestigious universities are enrolling in such a course says something not exactly kind about the state of our society.

Santos’ work draws on many people, especially the positive psychology of Martin Seligman (2002). Positive psychology inverts the medical-disease model of mental heath to stress strengths not weaknesses, i.e., what is right about the person, not what is wrong with the person. Let me give a concrete personal example. In the 1990s when I worked as a community social worker specializing in family systems theory/ counseling- which prefigured much of positive psychology we strove to re-frame troubled adolescents from being the family scapegoat to being a fully, and often, healthy member of the family and larger community.  I vividly recall a one time session with the family of a boy designed by family court as a juvenile delinquent and placed into residential foster care. The family reinforced the boy’s role as a troublemaker whom the system needed to fix. The parents were divorced, but amicable. They were middle class and highly educated. Both daughters were “healthy”, one attended the University of Virginia and ran track, the other worked and attended a local community college. They entire family along with the boy’s residential social worker and aide met for the first time in our Long Island office. The first question I raised, “What do you like best about Richard (not his real name) left the family speechless. For years they thought of Richard as a problem, the problem. Now they were on the spot and forced to think about him in a more positive way that also forced them to think about their own role in maintaining him as a problem. The family’s perspective changed, and things improved. Positive words, thoughts and actions matter and matter in a big way.

Games can help bring about such positivity in thought, action, and words. Just recently, the legendary Japanese game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (lead designer of Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers, the Wii controller, Legend of Zelda etc.) interviewed with the New Yorker’s Simon Parkin (2020). Parkin asks Miyamoto how he would design the world if such a fantastic opportunity arose and the response is telling: “I wish I could make it so that people were more thoughtful and kinder toward each other.” Well, the casual game Kind Words (Pocannibal, 2019) promotes this wish and helps make it a reality.

Kind Words: lo fi chill beats to write to (2019) encourages and enables all players to write kind words to strangers. Not random acts of kindness, but deliberate efforts to be nice. When the game opens the screen fills compelling the player to focus on the game, to be present. The game begins with the appearance of a Mail Deer- a magic deer who delivers your letters across the web. These beautiful, but innocent animals are perfect messengers. They immediately made me think of Santa Claus’s magic reindeer while they transport the jolly figure across the sky so he can bring to joy to others. The primary mechanic of the game is writing letters to ambient music conducive to thoughtful writing (hence the game’s subtitle). These letters are gifts. The game’s action, one of giving. What could be more positive?

The Mail Deer, Screen Shot from Kind Words

There are three basic game actions. You write a request and send in it out to an anonymous audience. You look at your inbox and respond to requests for help. Again, the audience is anonymous. Third, you can give thanks for response be giving a sticker. Stickers, in turn, can be collected to decorate your room. A minor but appreciated aspect of the game (based upon my students reports). Anonymity is an important aspect of the letter writing. You do not know who responds to your request and you do not know who you are responding to. Such anonymity cuts down on negative letters or trolling because there is no reward and no reaction when some ignorant troll makes a hateful comment. Designer Ziba Scott defines his purpose in designing against conversation, “The flow of conversation goes request, reply, and then a sticker is ‘thanks.’ No other words. In this way, no troll, no insult ever gets a rise from a victim. No one can ever get that satisfaction of having upset someone if that’s what they’re trying to do”(2019). The positive norms created by the game’s community produces an overwhelmingly positive environment.  In essence, the game turns the web’s anonymity on its head. So much of the web, especially since the emergence of social media consists of hate speech, ignorance, bullying, and nasty mean spiritedness, all protected by anonymity. The games use this anonymity to a positive affect by privileging and reinforcing kindness.

A final aspect of the game, which was not present with its initial release are “paper airplanes”. Remember middle school or, in my case, 9th grade Algebra, where you send paper airplanes around the classroom while bored to death by the class? Here the paper airplanes serve, to echo Sting, as messages in a bottle- little positive snippets from people, often inspiring quotes- that circulate positivity. You can grab one as it floats across your screen and smile.

In one way, the game reminded me of the old “Dear Abbey” newspaper columns popular when I was young. People around the country would mail in letters asking Abbey- real name Pauline Phillips- advice on various things. She had no professional experience or clinical training, but most people do not make it to formal therapy, nonetheless, they need help and that help, like in Kind Words, is not hours of therapy, but simply a caring presence, an active ear that really hears the writer’s concerns, and a compassionate, personal response. Yet what distinguishes Kind Words from these advice columns, as one reviewer, remarks, has to be the quantity of positivity: “It’s not any single message that leaves an impact. It’s the sheer weight of love and positivity being thrown at you. I’m not going to feel any better about myself because some random paper airplane told me to love myself, but there is something reassuring about such a large community of people all trying so hard to lessen the darkness of their peers” (2020). A community of positivity has power to improve lives and environments. A community of negativity has the power to destroy lives and communities. Kind Words moves us toward the former.

On of my students S.G. describes how valuable the giving part of Kind Matters, i.e., writing a letter, matters, “A lot of messages that I sent to people, I made sure to let them know how important they are and how everyone around them cares about them deeply. Some players are in worse shape than others, so it is really important to speak kindly to people. …The main objective is to help people, and after just playing for a short period of time, I can feel that I have made a difference in some people’s lives by just reaching out and writing a letter to them. Games like these save lives, so it [the game] definitely reached its main purpose, which is to simply help people through their problems.” What more can you ask from a simple little game?

Finally, as mentioned above, January 6 of this year we witness one of the worst days in American history. As Congress met to count the ballots of a free election certifying the next president Joseph Biden, the presiding president Donald J. Trump spoke before an angry mob of supporters- and encouraged them to march on the Capitol in protest of the fair election. His words stirred hatred, amplified divisions, and incited to no small degree an actual siege or attempted coup on our democracy with “insurrectionists” storming the building. For Christians, January 6th or the Twelfth Night is the epiphany, or the day three magi brought gifts for the infant Jesus. Contrasting the hate of a failed insurrection with the power of giving shows, on the one hand, how hateful words do hurt, and on the other hand, how kind words can heal. Play the game and you will see why.

Lesson Ideas

  • Encourage students to play the game for a week or two and reflect on their experience.  Follow up with an open discussion. Student sharing must be voluntary, but often one share leads to others. Ask students about the kinds of requests they received and how they responded. Ask others how they would respond. No doubt there will be common threads in requests that promote excellent exchanges that deepen social emotional learning for the entire class.
  • Have students watch either It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood or the documentary Won’t You be my Neighbor? (Dir. Morgan Neville, 2019) and write about what a good neighbor entail. How would they describe their neighborhood and how could their neighborhood be improved? Compare their definition with Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Mending Wall” with its famous refrain “Good fences make good neighbors.”
  • Read the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37 where Jesus, addressed as teacher, responds to the question, “And Who is My neighbor?” with his powerful parable. Debate the responsibility of bystanders. Are there any innocent bystanders? What does enable mean and how can you enable harm?
  • Have students write a lesson plan on kindness for grades K-2. The idea is to stress the importance of a positive foundation for a child’s healthy growth.
  • Ask students to find examples from their own experience or from history that represent how hate words cause harm and how kind words heal.

Key Resources

The Anti-Defamation League https://www.adl.org/education-and-resources/resources-for-educators-parents-families

This distinguished organization founded in 1913 has a wealth of information for understanding and fighting biases and hate of all kinds in all forms. There are trainings, lesson plans, action ideas and much more.

The Happiness Podcast http://www.happinesslab.fm

Yale psychologist Laurie Santos’ Apple podcast on various ways to achieve the good life including how the ancient Greeks understood happiness or scientific research on what factors lead to happiness and practical steps on living a life of optimism and hope.

The Positive Psychology Center- https: //ppc.sas.upenn.edu

Based at the University of Pennsylvania and featuring many articles, videos annotated resources on positive psychology and building resiliency.

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Next Up: Part 3 of the series will focus on 3 small games for math and science in the K-12 environment

*** If you want consultation, or professional development help with online learning, course design, game-based learning, games in the classroom, comics in the classroom, film, or Language Arts/Literature contact me at: davidseelow@gmail.com.

Purchase or recommend to your library out book Lessons Drawn: Essays on the Pedagogy of Comics and Graphic Novels (McFarland, 2019), a practical guide to classroom teaching with new literary forms.

Works Cited

Edwards, Tyler F.M. “Not So Massively: Kind Words is one of the most intense games I’ve ever played.” Massively Overpowered. May 11, 2020, retrieved from https://massivelyop.com/2020/05/11/not-so-massively-kind-words-is-one-of-the-most-intense-games-ive-ever-played/

Parkin, Simon. “Shigeru Miyamoto Wants to Create a Kinder World.” Interview, The New Yorker December 20, 2020, retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/shigeru-miyamoto-wants-to-create-a-kinder-world

Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. Simon and Schuster, 2002.

Valentine, Rebekah. “Kind Words: A game of lo-fi beats, letters to strangers, and feeling less alone.” GamesIndustry. Biz. July18th, 2019, retrieved from https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2019-07-17-kind-words-a-game-of-lofi-beats-letters-to-strangers-and-feeling-less-alone.

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