'Cozy' video games showcase the calmer side of gaming

A new genre of video games are approachable, stress-free and bite-sized.

July 11, 2021, 3:14 PM

The Electronics Entertainment Expo, commonly known as E3, is one of the biggest video game conferences in the world -- a place for developers to pull out all the stops and build hype for some of their most anticipated titles.

This year, Microsoft marked the long-awaited return of the Halo franchise with a preview of the sci-fi shooter Halo: Infinite. Gearheads, meanwhile, got a look at Forza Horizon 5 - a racing game that features a Mercedes supercar that isn't even available in real life yet. Bethesda, the studio behind sprawling epics like Elder Scrolls and Fallout, announced their next big title is headed to space with Starfield.

But modern gaming isn't all fast cars and space shootouts. Kennedy Rose runs a YouTube channel where she plays games that aren't as high-strung.

PHOTO: Attendees take photographs while waiting to enter the Nintendo Co. Pokemon Sword and Shield display during the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, June 12, 2019.
Attendees take photographs while waiting to enter the Nintendo Co. Pokemon Sword and Shield display during the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, June 12, 2019.
Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

"When you typically think of gaming I feel like a lot of people think of maybe shooting games and kind of competitive shooting games," she tells ABC Audio. "And cozy games are probably on the exact opposite of that spectrum."

Rose, who goes by "Cozy K" on social media, says a community favorite in this genre is a title called Stardew Valley, where players cultivate a farm and connect with virtual townspeople. Another popular title in the genre is Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which sold more than thirty million copies last year according to Nintendo, the game's developer.

Gaming is a big part of Rose's life, and she says it started early.

"My family, like, collected video game consoles and so, from like, as early as I remember, I played video games with my family and that's how my brother and I bonded," she says.

Rose graduated from law school this past spring, and she says while she's been studying for the bar exam, gaming has become a way for her to de-stress after a long day.

"School was, like, my priority for most of my life, and I would say halfway through law school, you know, just normal stress - I was like 'I need a better coping mechanism.'"

Soon after, Rose started an Instagram account, where you can find pictures of her Nintendo Switch, gaming laptops, and keyboards; alongside incense, mugs of tea, candles, and earth-tone blankets. She says while on Instagram, she discovered she wasn't the only one cultivating a cozy feed.

"I saw this little community on Instagram and I was like 'I want to be a part of that,'" says Rose. "I just want to get in this community and I just want to share my love for these games."

Matt White is the CEO of Whitethorn Digital, which publishes independent games like Beasts of Maravilla Island, where players take on the role of a wildlife photographer on a tropical island, and Beans, which bills itself as a "coffee shop simulator."

"The purpose of our brand, as a company, was definitely to help people just chill out," says White.

This fall, Whitethorn plans to release Lake, where gamers play as a postal worker named Meredith who returns to her quaint, lakeside hometown. The choose-your-own adventure game lets players talk to various characters, drive a mail truck, rekindle old relationships, or simply stay home and read a book. At the end of the game, players are faced with a final decision: have Meredith return to her demanding job in the big city, or stay in the town where she grew up.

"I mean it's literally about driving postal mail around the lake," says White. "It's as stress free as it possibly could be."

Cozy games aren't limited to farming simulators and Hallmark-style stories. Some people find the horror genre relaxing, says White.

Carrion, for example, lets players inhabit an amorphous, tentacled monster terrorizing an underground facility full of unsuspecting humans.

"A violent game can still be a casually played game," White says. "Something like Carrion... I mean it's violent and gross but the way you play it is tremendously casual and fun and silly."

White says, regardless of subject matter, his criteria for a cozy game ultimately comes down to three things: the game must be approachable, stress-free, and bite-sized.

PHOTO: Gaming fans play during E3 2019 at the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 12, 2019.
Gaming fans play during E3 2019 at the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 12, 2019.
David Mcnew/Getty Images, FILE

"Anybody anywhere can play this -- from your grandma to, like, your ranked Halo player son -- it has to be the same kind of approachability. We also say that it's stress-free, so this means that even though you might lose, or it might be challenging, we're not gonna, like, delete hours of your progress or give you poor rankings." says White, adding, "We also say bite-sized. This doesn't mean the game itself is necessarily short - you can put hundreds of hours into Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley, but rather it means that the game is designed in such a way that you can have a super whole, complete experience in a relatively short sitting."

White says the games his company publishes are designed for the "anxiety economy," which also includes products designed for aiding in relaxation, like CBD drinks, weighted blankets, and fidget spinners.

He says the games target players who don't have as much time to dedicate to the hobby as they once did.

"It lets those of us who ultimately built the industry to what it is right now - you know, millennials by and large - it lets us keep playing in a way that it's hard for us to otherwise do if we - if we've kind of, you know, grown up."

Cozy independent games are usually cheaper than big titles like Ghost of Tsushima or Cyberpunk 2077, which can run in excess of $60. They're also available on more accessible devices, like the Nintendo Switch, as opposed to more expensive consoles like the Playstation 5 or the XBox Series X.

The comparative accessibility of cozy games stretches beyond economics. According to White, the audience for cozy games has struggled to find themselves represented among mainstream games.

"Unfortunately for anybody in this world who does not look like a straight, white, able-bodied man -- there's not a lot of representation of you in games."

White says the industry has made strides in recent years, but stresses there's a lot more work to be done in terms of including portrayals of different genders, races, and sexual orientations in gaming.

"As the audience shifts and changes, I think it's also growing and becoming more inclusive. And I think that's super important, not just because it's the right thing to do, but also because it's the health of our industry."

If her Instagram messages are any indication, some of that work could be starting with Kennedy "Cozy K" Rose.

"There's a lot of people that contact me who are, like 'I never knew other people only like to play these types of games and I feel so seen. Like, I had never felt seen in the gaming space before,'" says Rose.

Hear ABC Audio's Mike Dobuski report on cozy games: