You should consider who gets to wield it
If you want to understand my general scepticism towards the idea of “Cozy Games”, you have to walk through a particular part of the city I grew up in. On first glance, the buildings that line its street don’t look particularly special. They just look like regular late 19th century European town houses, with nicely coloured neoclassical facades. However, if you were to walk into one of those buildings' inner courtyards, you could see that these facades immediately give way to the naked brick construction underneath it. The aesthetically pleasing facade was just meant for the outside world to see, not for the people that actually inhabit these buildings.
This quirky characteristic only makes sense, if you consider that the district in question was almost right next to some of the richest parts of the city and that it itself was meant to offer housing to low-income families. However, since liberals back in the 19th century were about as comfortable with visible poverty as they are today, they constructed buildings that contained the poverty of those living inside of it, while projecting an image of relative affluence to the outside world. That district with the fake facades, was at least until the early 2000s still one of the poorest parts of one of Germany’s richest cities. I assume it too has been gentrified by now, but I’m not sure.
Either way whoever planned these buildings was never interested in giving people with lower incomes places to live that actually suited their needs, but they also didn’t want to stare in the face of Capitalism’s refuse every day. So in order to keep the rich people comfortable in their excess, they gave their poor people houses a layer of aesthetically pleasing coat and called it a day.
For me these buildings symbolise liberal society’s general obsession with appearances over actual material improvements. Again, the problem for liberals is rarely that poverty exists, it’s when they cannot ignore it when it becomes a problem. Same goes with anything that disrupts their perspective on the world being an okay place to live in. It’s something I personally had to suffer quite a lot under, when I was growing up. With a dysfunctional family that was unable to sort out its problems and was pathologically afraid of conflict. With a school that was incredibly good at weaponizing the language of tolerance and openness against marginalised people, especially when they were identified as potential troublemakers.
These experiences made me understand how much trauma and suffering you can create just with the desire for things to be peaceful. They also made me very sceptical of anything that looks like it’s more interested in shoving existing conflicts to the side, in favour of some non-descript feeling of comfort.
That doesn’t mean that a desire for places of relative peace and comfort is somehow wrong. However, it is always worth considering who that feeling of comfort is meant to serve, what means are used to maintain that comfort, and who is being made uncomfortable in the process.
So when I say, I have issues with the notion of “Cozy Games”, it’s not that I’m a grumpy old clown who doesn’t want people to enjoy things. I’m concerned that this focus on cozyness, when applied uncritically, can create some incredibly harmful structures and messages.
I’m mentioning this now, because earlier this week, I accidentally stumbled over this paper by a bunch of game developers that in my eyes might be one of the first big write-ups on what constitutes a “Cozy Game” and that also offers strategies to developers, to help them make their own games feel more “cozy”.
It’s a fairly long read and I don’t have the energy to go over every single argument, because it’s a lot and I’ve already spent one and a half days yelling at it. However, I do recommend you skim through it at least. Some of the stuff it mentions is actually quite okay, and I think there are some things that you could take away from it.
However, a lot of what it talks about made me deeply uncomfortable and I would like to talk about those in more broad terms.
To sum it up, the Authors define “Cozy” as a situation where a person is secure, has abundant resources and that have “soft” aesthetic signifiers that kind of relate to those other two parts.
For a videogame to be cozy, it then has to have the following characteristics:
- A gameworld that is completely and always centered on the player and their desires
- A strong divide between a secure,“inside” world and an unsafe/uncomfortable outside world.
- Aesthetic signifiers that mostly deal with different flavours of “white liberal suburban nostalgia”
- A desire for individual actualisation and improvement.
Furthermore the authors clearly state that any kind of game can be considered “cozy”, if it roughly does these things, since “cozyness” is mostly understood as a shared aesthetic.
I found several things in this piece deeply concerning, chief of all the author’s insistence that “cozyness” is mostly a series of shared aesthetics, without any underlying series of shared principles.
It was also really strange how much the paper talked about the need for the players to be secure and to be able to push away whatever it might be that encroaches on their desire for comfort. It talks about the need for security, but never about who creates that security, what means are being used to create it and who is supposed to be kept out.
If you combine the general lack of ideological guidance, the emphasis on keeping discomfort away from the players and their overreliance on using predominantly white, liberal suburban aesthetics as markers for “cozyness”, you can quickly see how this could get very bad, very quickly. It’s very easy to create a cozy game, that is about creating a gated community full of affluent, but not overly rich people. You can have old houses, big trees in Autumn and at the very edge of the map that players get to explore while going to their neighbour’s knitting club, they can see the fence that keeps the refuse out.
I find this all deeply frustrating, because when applied critically, scenes of comfort and safety can be incredibly powerful.. There’s value in people seeking and finding comfort and connection in a world that wants to deny both to them, but for that to work, you have to be very precise about who is seeking the comfort and who is being kept out in order to maintain it. You can’t just shut the door behind you and call that an act of radicalism. Coziness and comfort are a weapon and have been used as a weapon by capitalist society since its beginning. If we want to use it as a weapon to subvert the very power structures that pushes so many people into a permanent state of discomfort, then we need to be very clear about who it’s being used against and for what ends. It has to be more than a set of aesthetic markers that can be slathered on top of every kind of game, or piece of media.
It has to be political.
The people who wrote up this definition of cozy games, don’t seem to understand this and because of that, it’s no wonder that so many games that nowadays carry the “Cozy Game” moniker seem to be more interested in selling people on the fantasy of running a small business in a rural community. Like those facades, they sell people on the idea of a world, where poverty doesn’t exist, without really touching the systems that create it in the first place.
They understand that the world can be an uncomfortable place, but are only ever interested in offering refuge from it, and are not interested in who gets to take refuge from the unpleasantness of the world, and who is being kept out. They want places where you can shut the door and forget about the fact that the person who is currently serving you coffee so that you can work on your self-actualisation lives in abject poverty. Where you can look outside at the Snowfall, while two streets further down, someone else is desperately trying not to freeze to death, because our world doesn’t deem their existence worthy enough of even offering them a place in the building with the fake facade for rich people.
They claim that “Cozy games” in the way they define them, are anti-capitalist, because they offer a world where one’s individual needs are fulfilled and cared for, but in offering a completely apolitical, individualist and cowardly fantasy, all they do is reinforce the status quo. The piece assumes that “cozyness” is something that everyone can achieve and desire in the same way, when in reality both are very often restricted to only a handful of people. It is a deeply reactionary perspective on the world.
There’s a lot more to be said about this piece and the general disdain it has for human beings at large. I could write a whole second essay about their uninformed use of popular psychology. Their completely business focused perspective on videogame creation. Their neurotypical perspective on what is and isn’t considered comfortable for human beings.
But I don’t want to, so let me try and wrap this up in some way:
Comfort should not be something that is only being reserved to those that own everything, but should be something that everyone can seek out, in whatever form they need. However, our current world only provides comfort to a small group of people, while those it has deemed to be unfit have to pay the price for it. When you live in a world that denies you your right to exist, existence itself is an act of rebellion, and so is your desire for comfort.
The desire for comfort for those who Capitalism has pushed to its margins automatically creates discomfort for those that profit from it; it's an act of violence, even when it’s performed in a non-violent manner. Unless the structures that maintain this status quo have been dismantled and replaced by something where everyone is being taken care of according to their own needs, we need to work as hard as we can to provide comfort to those who are currently being denied of it, and deny it to those who are currently comfortable.
Any work of art that aims to offer comfort to people, should do so in pursuit this goal.P.S.: Parts of my line of thinking came from this very good piece by Amr al Aaser about the aesthetics of Cyberpunk. Please go and read it, it's good!