Killing, plundering, destroying, and otherwise being a scoundrel can be incredibly fun in video games, and there are plenty that afford that experience. But what can you play when you’re in the mood for a calm, relaxing experience? That’s where Wholesome Games comes in. Its aim is to showcase as many cosy, inclusive, and wholesome games as possible. We spoke to Jenny Windom and James Tillman, two indie developers who are part of the five-person strong team that manages the community built around Wholesome Games and curates the Wholesome Direct – an online showcase of all games cute and cuddly. So, what exactly is a wholesome game?
“Initially, we tried to put a definition to,” recalls Windom. “There were categories and rubrics where we tried to identify what elements make something wholesome. It’s been years in the making that we’ve come to this current conclusion of: There are elements that are indicative of wholesomeness, but it’s a broad spectrum and it’s something that will vary depending on who you talk to, their personal experiences, and what they find cosy.
“While there are not many hard and fast [rules], if a game contains harmful stereotypes, that’s a hard and fast for us. It’s not cosy, because it’s making people uncomfortable while playing.”
There’s a need for games that make people feel warm and fuzzy inside, especially after the year we’ve all had, but there’s a supply issue.
“When I was a teenager I was really interested in games, and I was thinking about [becoming] a game developer,” says Tillman. “It seemed like all the most acclaimed indie games were very dark and cynical – games like Hotline Miami, Super Meat Boy, or The Binding of Isaac. I felt it doesn’t seem like there’s much room in that space for hopeful games. What Wholesome Games represents is a [place] for players who’ve always wanted and demanded these kinds of games to find them.”
To fill this demand for hopeful, less cynical games, around two and a half years ago, the Wholesome Games Twitter account was born. Tillman recalls that the first few weeks involved him and his brother, Matthew, one of the other organisers, simply tweeting about wholesome games from their past. The community quickly grew, and a Discord server was made so that people could chat about and share their favourite wholesome games with each other.
“It grew a lot faster than we expected,” says Tillman. “Suddenly, we have this network of developers and journalists who follow us, and people on the Discord who are constantly talking about what they’re playing and what they like about it and what makes it wholesome to them. A big source of [the games we curate are] daily conversations with players and developers.
“One of my favourite comments was someone saying, ‘I’ve watched so many game showcases and this is the first one where it felt like it was for me.’ That’s what a community is.”
Since the establishment of Wholesome Games over two years ago, other spaces have sprung up to help people seeking out warmer gaming experiences. Cozy Games is a Tik Tok account that also shines a light on these types of games. Windom tells us that she loves being able to promote games made by developers who want to focus on wholesome titles. “We’re excited about what they want to create, and we want to help them because there aren’t very many places where that was happening for this type of game,” she says.
The medium of video games has matured a lot in the last few decades, but even now, games that aren’t oriented around violence or competition are often considered casual, girly, or not real games. Mobile games are especially looked down upon, even though their market was worth $98 billion last year. Wholesome Games is showing that the games it curates are varied, and challenge preconceived notions of what makes a game a game.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of the games that we consider wholesome have been stereotyped as for girls or casual games,” says Tillman. “I hope the conversation is starting to change. When I speak to developers who were pitching games a few years ago, I hear so many stories where publishers have said ‘This doesn’t fit our catalogue.’ That traditional infrastructure is about selling games to young white men. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that lots of these systemic problems are tied together.”
“Anything that’s girly or coded more feminine in the industry is often seen as less than,” explains Windom. “Even in terms of the skills that people bring to the table, often coding is seen as more proficient than community management, and they’re both, in different ways, very challenging and require a lot of talent to do. It’s this chicken and egg problem. Publishers often are saying we know the audience is male and white, so we’re not going to [fund games aimed at others]. I think the benefit to Wholesome Games is not only showing that all kinds of people play wholesome games, but that there is an audience [for them].”
As well as showing publishers that people are interested in genres other than shooters, Wholesome Direct showcases the innovative mechanics of wholesome games, often made by indie developers.
“We’re building on decades of games about combat, and it’s such a challenge to come up with, like, if I want to make a game about scrapbooking, what’s the mechanic for that?,” says Tillman. “Making games like that without this library of references is such a difficult thing, so it always excites me to see people recognise not just the community or narrative side of things but also [the] game mechanics. It’s work that is really hard and really needs to be done.
A misconception the team often face is the assumption that all of their games will be the same – Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon clones. In the last Wholesome Direct, there were games about a skateboarding bird, aligning wonky stationary and paintings, photography, a match-3/dating simulator, a game about a robot making sushi, and more. Though the games are all similar in tone, their content couldn’t be more varied.
“It absolutely is a benefit to have games that are similarly toned and have similar aesthetics either in their values, in their appearance or whatnot, all put together,” says Windom. “It’s really nice to be able to watch something and know that these games are catering to what you’re looking for.”
Now, if cosy and sweet games sound like your thing, but you absolutely, positively have to beat up some pixels to have fun, don’t worry, Wholesome Games even has an answer for that.
“One question we often get is on violence,” Windom tells us. “If there is violence and you’re overthrowing an oppressor or dictator, a negative force, is that wholesome? To some people, yes, because advocating for good, even with violence sometimes is wholesome. So, [while] there are a couple of things that indicate ‘Yes, this is wholesome or not’, for the most part, it’s based on personal experience.”
If you don’t feel like many games represent you or your interests right now, or you just want a bit of a break from endless shooters and action-RPGs, join the Wholesome Games community, or watch Wholesome Direct.
While you wait for the next Wholesome Direct you can watch the most recent showcase to see some great upcoming games.