You’re finally here. Come in! The warm cafe is bustling with clusters of artists, developers, and designers in boisterous conversation. You hear people sharing ideas about their passions in gaming and worldbuilding, putting up discussion topics on a wall of sticky notes, and inviting both collaborators and oppositional opinions. Even after the symposium patrons have trickled into the autumn night, the electricity around Autonomous Worlds remains. There is some magic afoot here, and I suspect it is coziness.
As reality becomes more precarious and unpredictable, we get by through carving out cozy spaces of refuge. Nostalgia seen in the revival of retro aesthetics, pixel art, Neopets, cyberpunk, and other 1990s icons hints at the zeitgeist of returning to a more innocent and comforting time and space. Writer Venkatesh Rao describes this trend as an age of “domestic cozy” and homeward withdrawal.1 The concept of coziness also appears in Maggie Appleton’s “cozy web,” which she describes as the antithesis to the manicured, publicized “dark forest” fraught with predatory bots and trolls instead of real people.2 The cozy web is not a treacherous forest, but a secluded garden consisting of direct messages, private servers, family photo albums, and invite-only group chats that you tend to and share with your particular niche. Coziness might be characterized by some as an escapist retreat from reality, but really it is a way of finding each other.
To get a feel for coziness’ ability to empower rather than merely insulate, we can look to the recent popularity of “wholesome” or “cozy” games. A working group at the 2017 Project Horseshoe game design think tank produced a report on cozy games, characterizing such games as those centered on maintaining a fantasy of safety, abundance, and softness.3 The authors posited that through strategies such as providing familiar, safe, and warmly lit environments, befriendable NPCs, collaborative leveling and gifting, and a plethora of optional side quests, developers can foster a space for trust, authenticity, and autonomy. Cozy games encourage players to linger and chat, form meaningful social bonds, and engage with the mechanisms and systems of a game with open-ended curiosity. This is not to say that coziness must entirely define a game to be productively incorporated. More competitive, high stress games can benefit from small interludes of cozy safe zones like campfires and calm towns free from danger. The cozy qualities of these areas—access to an abundance of supplies, safety from mobs, socialization—allow players to prepare and muster courage to venture out into more challenging parts of the world. By removing immediate threats and allowing players to achieve higher order needs, cozy games might compel a player to explore what a world might be, rather than just try to survive what a world already is. By fostering “coziness,” we foster participatory agency in games.
Autonomous Worlds are uniquely compatible hosts for cozy games. Autonomous Worlds promise assets and servers that run forever and with consensus, providing a sense of stability and continuity—key features of coziness—on a technical level. Decentralized Autonomous Worlds offer a place for people to put down digital roots and find refuge from the risk of their platforms being shut down or subject to changes in corporate control. In addition to technical guarantees, coziness can help cultivate the qualities of an Autonomous World that make inhabitants want to stay there long-term. Autonomous Worlds are anchored on the fact that players are simultaneously their inhabitants and creators. Anyone can contribute to the evolution and flourishing of an Autonomous World, but this affordance means nothing if the world itself doesn’t invite such participation. Coziness may serve as such an invitation. Cozy games are often associated with the pleasure of seeing emergent interactions unfold from a player’s initial inputs. Farming and gardening, for example, are hallmarks of the genre. What marks out these mechanics for the authors of the Project Horseshoe report is that they are intrinsically motivating. The joy of watching flowers bloom itself is sufficient for players to plant seeds. In the case of an Autonomous World—where players tend to the world itself rather than just a system within it—coziness can drive the care and cooperation needed for inhabitants to design and build systems geared towards emergence and interestingness together. A cozy world is a world that you want to share with others and take care of.
We can see then how coziness can serve as a catalyst for the emergence of complex systems in Autonomous Worlds. These systems, consisting of many interconnected parts, are characterized by self-organization and the spontaneous emergence of behaviors and dynamics. The satisfaction of watching these dynamics take shape provides intrinsic motivation for players to tend to them and evolve them into new directions, which in turn provides more intrinsic motivation for further evolution. A virtuous cycle emerges where caring for the world creates a world that feels worth caring for. The comfortable and secure environment created by the world’s mechanics enables players to engage in sustained interactions with one another and with the world’s systems. Free of external threats and pressures, players can explore non-urgent but important tasks, take more risks, and perhaps be more creative. By fostering sustained interaction and emergence, coziness can be a means of creating complex systems that are dynamic, rich, and meaningful.
As creators of new worlds, in which longevity and liveliness are keystones, the questions often become philosophical. “How do we get players to want to play our game?” veers into “How do we find meaning?” Some ideas around this include introducing mechanics that promote emergent gameplay such as lively artificially intelligent NPCs, massively multiplayer experiences, decentralized servers, and blockchain-verified consensus. All of this, however, is moot if players don’t feel cozy enough to actively participate and play with each other, and to keep tending to the systems and inhabitants of these worlds. The artist Ian Cheng says that the goal of his open-ended simulations is to make those who encounter them fall in love with complex systems.4 Perhaps a similar goal can steer us in attempting to incorporate pockets of coziness into Autonomous Worlds.
This text was originally published in Autonomous Worlds N1, 2023.
- Ian Cheng, Emissary’s Guide to Worlding, Metis Suns, 2018.
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