Photograph courtesy of TRU LUV
“We’re never going to go backwards but how we go forward in ways that empower and enable everyone?”
In 2015, Canadian programmer and CEO of TRU LUV Brie Code noticed a gap in the games market. After having spent almost eight years at Ubisoft as an AI programmer, Code – and yes, that is her real surname – began to wonder why so many of her friends and people she knew didn’t like video games. “I tested different games on my friends and I pitched different game ideas to different friends and saw a very clear pattern that my friends seemed to want things that centered more on care and connection rather than domination or violence,” Code tells FASHION. This prompted research into the psychology behind game design, as well as flow states “which are when you get really into something and lose track of time,” Code explains. “That’s what game designers design for.”
During her research, Code discovered that there are two key responses to stress in humans. The first is ‘fight or flight’ which is the most commonly known response whereby adrenaline is released in your body fueling your desire to win. Game designers, explains Code, deliberately create “a sense of danger, or challenge or pressure or shock and this triggers that response of wanting to win and they give your opportunities to win and that creates engagement.” The second is “a little known but very prevalent” stress response called ‘tend and befriend.’ Code explains, “If you experience this instead of adrenaline, it’s oxytocin which is the love hormone and it instead drives behaviours of care and connection, looking at who is more vulnerable than you and protecting them, seeking out your allies or your friends and talking with them about the problem and finding solutions that work for everyone instead of trying to win.”
Code says that around 50 per cent of humans react to stress via the ‘tend and befriend’ response, with “the general tendency that this would be the response of more feminine people.” We suggest that it seems odd, then, that the games industry doesn’t provide experiences that speak to this response. “That’s because of the lack of diversity,” says Code, who tells us that only about three per cent of game programmers are women and that in the first five years of her career she was the only woman on any development team she was part of. This is something that she has actively sought to change – beginning with her AI company, TRU LUV. Based in Toronto, TRU LUV centres marginalized voices in the design process. By doing this, Code – who was the first Canadian to attend the 2020 Apple Entrepreneur Camp (a female-focused startup accelerator where women can “feel seen for who you are instead of just being seen as a stereotype”) – says it allows them to further solve how to bridge the gap in the games market, as well as “continue to innovate and solve very interesting and necessary things in the industry.”
#SelfCare is the first product from TRU LUV that speaks to those with the ‘tend and befriend’ response. The app was designed with Code’s colleague Eve Thomas and included “mini games that instead of going from easy to hard, like games do, went from awkward to smooth, or empty to full or disconnected to connected so they actually get easier as you play them but you have this sense of being more and more connected to it.” Ahead of the app’s launch, Code says they “got a lot of people telling us that were wrong, and that this couldn’t possibly be right.” As such, Code says she hoped that they’d get “a few thousand” downloads and could then work with those users to “get to the bottom of this [issue].” When it launched in 2018, it had 500,000 downloads in the first six weeks with zero advertising.
“For those first few days, I couldn’t get off the couch because I didn’t know how to process this,” shares Code of her response to the overwhelming success of the app. Once she began to read through all of the emails and comments – “what people were saying was exactly what I would want to hear if we were right” – she toyed with the idea of scaling the product out immediately. However her team persuaded to think otherwise. “[They said] no, we’re on to something. Let’s build the whole model for a new form of human computer interaction. So that’s what we’re doing.”
This new model is what Code refers to as “Companion AI” and they’re only just getting started. Recently, the company has secured funding from a group of global investors and is building a model that helps to “build your natural resilience and compassion [as you interact with it] so that our interface with technology and the internet can be something that can be nourishing for us as people.” Code understands that for many of us our relationship with our phones is best described as tumultuous and so she and her team are actively looking at ways to reframe the relationship in a way that is healthy for us as humans. “We’re never going to go backwards but how we go forward in ways that empower and enable everyone?”
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Code says downloads of #SelfCare have doubled – and her team is already looking ahead to how they can help people next. “We all had to go through this shocking change of going into isolation and all of the change that will continue to happen, these are all potential traumatic episodes for people so technology that helps with the processing of trauma and even helps potentially create the conditions for post-traumatic growth is something that we’re thinking a lot about right now,” she shares.
As for her hopes for the future of Companion AI, Code says the eventual goal is “opening up social interfaces where people can create community mediated by technology, potentially across distances, that feels nourishing and good and where people can help each other.” In a world that is technology-fatigued, this can’t come soon enough.