I’ll start off by saying that if you aren’t up to speed on the generational awakening right now regarding the notion of practicing daily self-care amid a global health crisis, you might want to catch yourself back up for your own good. Self-care is our welcome phenomenon from the millennial obsession (NPR) to new trends (SF Gate) to wellness as big business (NYT) to VR as a way to radically improve health (Forbes). Further to that, at this year’s annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a company fusing fitness and virtual reality into an all-new cyber gym was awarded ‘Best Startup’ of the year. Rumor has it they had a pretty okay cheerleader crafting their storytelling efforts. ;)
I’ve been deep in the games industry across the longer span of two decades now working on everything from Grand Theft Auto to Pac-Man, and from The Walking Dead to Minecraft. Without pointing to anywhere specific, it’s fair to say that the culture of making video games can be both joyous and rewarding one minute, and the next minute, it can be aggressively detrimental to one’s own mental and physical health. Long and demanding hours of persistent crunch, toxic management, and time spent away from friends and family making video games, plus constant travel to trade shows and industry events — it all adds up.
In my case, it added up to the worst shape I had ever been in my life back in 2016. My physical and mental health was so bad from being constantly stressed out, anxious, overworked, and frankly, depressed, that I was told by my doctors that if I didn’t get my health in order, I was likely going to die. I took this advice to heart, and got to thinking about the changes worth making when I returned home from a trip to Lucerne, Switzerland after a long and exhausting Gamescom showing off the latest Batman game series.
With fitness on my mind while overseas, I asked the front desk of my hotel if they had a gym. They gave me a pass to the ‘Health Center’ behind the building, and I walked on over to look for somewhere to exercise. I expected nothing but fitness equipment up and down the multi-story building, but when I signed in, I was told to go in one direction for the “Fitness Center” and in another direction for the “Wellness Center.” As an American, I was completely unaware of what that meant. The attendant walked me over to the ‘Fitness’ area and I noticed the usual bikes and treadmills. Curious, I took a peek over at the ‘Wellness’ area, and I was *not* disappointed. Salt caves, aroma therapy rooms, saunas, massage stations, and the biggest Olympic swimming pool-sized Jacuzzis I’ve ever seen in my life! These people weren’t here to shred their abs, they were here to relax and center themselves, shredding their worries and their anxieties. It was a radical idea. Focus on your ‘WELLNESS’ in addition to your ‘FITNESS’ as two equal but important sides of the same coin called your ‘HEALTH.’
It was an eye-opening concept. So much of the attention at ‘Gyms’ and ‘Health Clubs’ in North America is focused on the aspirational goals of physical fitness. But what about our mental fitness? What about of our *overall* health and our emotional stability? Why wasn’t ‘Wellness’ as much of a cultural norm in practice in the US as it was in Europe?
I’ll let someone far smarter than myself explain the reasons for this being the case, but I’ll bring it back to my point in that it highlighted for me how little I myself had been focusing on that aspect of my health beyond my physical fitness. I came home to Northern California later that week and continued to ponder this realization.
Separately, I was lucky enough to have been using an early version of the HTC Vive at home from some friends over at their studio looking for developers to make some amazing content. After hours and hours of R&D on seated, narrative-driven experiences in VR, I found that it was nice to stand up once in a while and get my blood flowing. I managed to get a hold of a small indie VR game project called ‘Soundboxing,’ which I quickly fell in love with. It’s like playing Guitar Hero with your arms, but the game was originally built to be used as a VR Reddit browser which turned into a boxing game with all tracks designed by the players using YouTube a content source. Technically it’s not really a game with music ‘in it’ so much as it’s a virtual video browser that you can workout to. Brilliant stuff from Mr. Eric Florenzano.
I worked out to my favorite music in VR. I began to feel amazing, and my depression and anxiety took a backseat. Weight started to disappear, and being connected to so many friends in the games industry, *I* started to appear on their websites. It was like some strange freak discovery that no one in the games industry was really thinking about. A virtual reality game helped someone sweat, get in the zone, feel great, have very little trouble coming back for more, and ultimately, experience what it means when designers begin to refer to immersive VR technology as a ‘flow machine.’
The news focused on my weight loss. I suppose it’s an easy sell for editorial clicks, a before and after photo, that is. But what aren’t you seeing in the picture? What does that scale fail to really illustrate in a single image? It didn’t show what was going on in my head, or my heart, emotionally. It didn’t show what it was doing for my mental health, or my general well-being beyond my physical fitness. To me, that was the most important revelation. Not the number it gave me on a scale, it was the way that playing this content made me *feel* when I played it, and when I did, I felt truly ecstatic.
Fast forward to Spring of 2018. I eventually went on to speak on a panel at GDC called ‘Mental Health and Making It’ as arranged by my good friends at Take This. I spoke passionately to an audience of games-industry hopefuls, and victims, looking for some light in the tunnel towards successfully balancing a career in this too-often brutally demanding business. (Video.)
It was an incredibly humbling experience, and I sincerely appreciate all of the love and support that was in that room, and from everyone that came up to talk to us afterwards. Behind my story on stage, while my physical health was feeling good, my mental health had taken a turn. I was enrolled in deep outpatient therapy at the hospital, regularly sitting down with doctors as they tried their absolute hardest to help people out of the darkness they had fallen into. What I noticed throughout this experience was how hard it was for doctors to convince people to want to take good care of themselves. To get up and go outside for a walk, to dance, or exercise. To sit down and relax, clear the mind and meditate. To pick up a paintbrush or some clay and express oneself creatively though any artistic medium you choose. To breathe. To find confidence in oneself, to love oneself, and to do everything they can to take care of themselves first, so that they may be able to care for others. That was, and still is, the fundamental lesson that doctors across the country are trying to teach our society. To practice proper self-care. The problem with that premise? Unfortunately, to all-too-many people, it just feels like work!
Jump to a phone call from my longtime friend, Robin Arnott, seeking advice on how to prepare for his upcoming TEDx Talk entitled, ‘Designing Video Games for a More Mindful World.’ Robin had been working on a meditation video game since 2012 called ‘SoundSelf’ whenI had met him as an independent developer showing off his brand new project in the corner of the IGN cafeteria during GDC. We had become friends over the years, and constantly thought about what to do with SoundSelf once it was actually finished. The project has been experienced by the press over the years, and even they have had a hard time explaining what it’s like...
“It’s hard to describe the intensity of the experience … Absolutely sublime.” — Chris Persons, Kotaku
“I was blissfully lost.”— Ben Kuchera, Penny Arcade
“SoundSelf may be the hardest VR project to describe. Maybe it’s the hardest thing to describe, period.” — Caty McCarthy, Versions
“The game induced a beautiful and seamless trance that made me forget that I was in virtual reality.” — DJ Pangburn, VICE
Regarding game design, Robin said in his talk, “The thing I see everywhere is the place where rules meet attention. When you rest your attention on a set of rules or mechanics, you’re consciousness shifts, and you change. And what you are when you are playing a game changes. And when it’s done well, a good game will help you change into something that is deeper than your normal narrative of yourself. That is deeper than your personal experience.”
This message stuck with me. It reminded me of Soundboxing. It reminded me of my consciousness shifting away from my worries and my anxieties, and the feeling of my brain and my body dissolving into flow. It reminded me that games can be more than running around and shooting people. It reminded me that I’ve changed, and my tastes have changed. It reminded me that in my thirties, I’m not the only person beginning to ask themselves more and more what is the net-positive for their minds or bodies by sitting down and playing that latest FPS or MMORPG for hours on end without moving. What do our games *really* do for us in terms of genuine gains for our well-being for our time invested?
Cut to May of this year, and I see Robin again in person at VRLA, the biggest immersive entertainment expo in Los Angeles. Robin was showcasing SoundSelf alongside a whole crew of small, indie developers hoping to bring their creative arts and wellness projects to the marketplace in a big way. I brought a loved one in to try SoundSelf for the first time, and as they laid meditating on a vibro-acoustic bed, we looked around and we started talking.
Why has no one ever had the guts to go all-in on and form a developer-publisher of embodied interactive experiences designed to harness the power of mindfulness and video games? Focus on the art of allowing the player to effortlessly achieve positive results for their mind and body through meditation, dance, artistic creation, and more. How can we create immersive experiences that combine traditional self-care practices with radical game design, making sure that taking care of oneself never feels like work? If doctors around the nation are prescribing better self-care for people around of ALL ages, how far off could we be from doctors prescribing video games with a scientifically-proven net-positive effect on the mind or body?
The answer? We’re already there.
We believe in crafting a digital space with a deeper consciousness. One that can play a significant role in improving and elevating emotional, physical, and cognitive states. Ours are the tools of transcendence.
Rave Runner and our other games are under scientific research to validate their effect as activities that are a net positive for your mind or body. Recently we went to a science lab at San Francisco State University for a story on CNN! We worked in partnership with my old friends at the VR Institute of Health & Exercise.(Note: I volunteered for them late last year before focusing on Orpheus.) Our objective was to get as much data as possible and a preliminary fitness rating for the game so we can make sure we’re making the best Rave Runner possible.
Seemed like taking this one in for a scientific study was in order, especially after is was benchmarked on Fitbit to have burned over ONE THOUSAND CALORIES PER HOUR OF GAME PLAY!
After years of working in the industry at some of the most crunch-intensive, toxic, and stressful environments in the games business… this project with Orpheus Self-Care Entertainment is the most fulfilling and exciting endeavor I’ve ever been a part of, and my co-founders feel the same way. As creators of entertainment now with the will to harness the power of mindfulness and the most immersive advancements in interactive technology, we find that it is our responsibility to create and deliver the best experiences possible that can allow a generation of people to find their best selves in the entertainment they indulge in.
Furthermore, we are creating a culture and a brand around the concepts of radical self-reliance and radical self-expression, as well as a company that cares. We aren’t a fitness company, we’re a self-care entertainment company that seeks to affirm *literally everyone* that they have the power within themselves to do amazing things, and that their time spent consuming entertainment can truly work for them, delivering net-positive wellness experiences that are truly ecstatic.
We’re also rolling out a long campaign that — I promise you — looks like something no other game publisher or developer has ever truly committed to in the past. Our focus isn’t on VR. It isn’t about exercise. It isn’t about feeling ‘less than’ and comparing yourself to a message that is aspirational.
It’s about affirming people that they shouldn’t be ashamed of who they are already, and there can be genuine joy in radical new entertainment experiences that can truly give back to you in meaningful ways. That’s really the kind of relationship we want to have with the world. There’s an entire blue ocean of people out there, many of whom don’t consider themselves ‘gamers’ that we want to reach, letting them know there is a bold movement being shaped around creating radically positive entertainment experiences for one’s own well-being. We also want ‘gamers’ to know we’re here for them, and that thinking positively about oneself is one of the best ways to take care of yourself.
After my long tours through an incredibly intense industry on both the creative/development side, the publishing side, and everywhere in-between… I’m more than excited to be creating a culture that wholeheartedly commits to the health and emotional wellness of its development teams, just as much as it does in its focus on its players. It’s disappointing to say that level of commitment isn’t more prevalent in this industry, but that’s a big part of the reason why we’re taking matters into our own hands.
It occurred to us that as game makers and marketers, we have a responsibility to help people in the position that I and so many other people across the world can fall into with their mental health. Doctors work SO HARD to convince people to partake in these joyous, basic, and fulfilling activities. We felt that we as artists could work towards building a better future where the more these concepts are woven into our entertainment, the fewer people may fall into hopelessness and despair with a lack of joy in their lives. Joy is so very important to have, and we want to commit to providing experiences that will make people feel truly amazing! It’s not about creating a company that wants you to change the way you look — we want to help you change the way you feel. Along with our co-founder Heather Ray, we simply knew that we wanted to pour our passions into inspiring people to learn to love themselves, take great care of themselves, and deliver experiences and a message that could help them do both.
And here we are now. Orpheus Self-Care Entertainment. It’s a real thing. We’re putting two VERY BIG ideas together in the interactive space for the first time in a major way, encouraging players to consider the net positive effects of their entertainment on their wellness, and know that there will always be projects that can truly contribute to their well-being when consumed responsibly.
While we’re excited about the space that’s open for us in the current VR market now, we aren’t simply relegated to developing for VR. We have projects in development in all immersive and even non-immersive mediums in the mobile space, and these projects promise the potential for net-positive experiences on mind or body as well.
Current VR market aside, we are beyond excited and focused on the coming generation of all-in-one, wireless, stand-alone VR units that ship with two 6DoF controllers. These will usher in a new era of take-anywhere room-scale VR… allowing for embodied experiences anywhere on the planet. You won’t just be playing Beat Saber or Rave Runner solely in ‘the VR room’ anymore — hardware like Oculus Santa Cruz will have you playing your cardio in a Hotel Room, friend’s house, living room, or most literally anywhere you can go. It’s really feeling like the first true VR console, and its secret power is the same as Nintendo Switch…. you can take this game console ANYWHERE!
We see technology like this as one of the most important advances in both entertainment and self-care history. The VR business *ignites* with untethered hardware like this, as well as fantastic wireless support on the horizon for existing VR setups like the HTC Vive wireless adapter. It’s truly going to shift what’s possible when you can start dancing and raving in VR, online, with anyone from anywhere in the world, on devices that fit in a small bag. We see it as an absolute game changer for the industry. A paradigm shift. The ‘Aha!’ moment that happens when you wear a room-scale, fully embodied immersive ‘take anywhere’ VR headset that tracks your hands is truly something special. We will no longer be tethered to PCs in the home. This changes…everything.
In addition to the software development and publishing side of the business, we are already seeing interest from health care groups in the medical field, and are already looking at requests to have projects like SoundSelf deployed into over 8,000 hospitals worldwide overseas in an effort to help facilitate meditation and relaxation for patients in need.
Along with our creative partners on Microdose VR, which is lead by METROID PRIME CONCEPT ARTIST Android Jones, we are also engaged in a research study of the brain as people play to understand the pure joyous flow state that is observed as users are swept into a world of unimaginable creative expression. The team is also looking at how we can take biofeedback from the brain and the heart to alter the experience even further and have players manifest shapes and sounds with their MIND as well as their bodies.
…In short, we believe this is some of the most exciting and ground-breaking work happening in both the fields of entertainment and healthcare technology at the same time. A sea change is about to happen, and we’re ready to move to a higher ground.
Thanks for reading, thanks for listening, and thanks for sharing this post and our story. We can’t wait to help the world help themselves in radical new ways, and we hope you’ll join in on the fun along the way yourself!
Job J Stauffer
Co-Founder, Chief Creative Officer
Orpheus Self-Care Entertainment