A Game To Fall Asleep To

A while back, I became interested in the design problem of making games that would help you fall asleep. It's slightly unlikely - a common model for games is for high-intensity and high-engagement, the addictive pull of just one more turn that keeps you up too late. But there are many other charms that games can have - stories, comforting repetition, good sights and sounds, for example - and they're not incompatible with drifting off to sleep.

So. What are the basic design criteria?

So, those are pretty sensible, but: why a game? Why not just… go to bed? Or, if you really have to, read a book, or play white noise?

When I think about the reasons I don't sleep, they're pretty stupid. I don't have issues falling asleep when I'm trying to - I have problems deciding to go to bed. I spend my evenings in this hyped up, simulation-seeking (ultimately comforting) state from which it's difficult to unwind. So I seek something that provides those anxiety-deflecting distractions, but gently winds me down until I drift off. Stopping suddenly feels like too much.

For others, they're kept awake by catastrophizing in their heads, or other anxiety loops keeping them stimulated and unable to settle. Or people suffer from starting off too hyped for other reasons, and unable to bridge the gap towards sleep. And for other reasons, of course, including many a game can't begin to touch.

But some of these reasons do suggest a role for games, for me, as a way of providing a bridge in terms of intensity of stimulation, from awake to asleep. Something that can act on both levels, but naturally guides you from one to the other. They can give you goals, or motivation to keep playing, but can fall away when you're not interested.

I've made a first attempt in this direction.

As you may know, I make twitterbots (and run a popular twitterbot platform, Cheap Bots, Done Quick!). One bot I run that has achieved some measure of popularity, is called @manygradients. It posts a circle filled with a random gradient. A lot of people find it quite soothing, especially mixed into a stressful Twitter feed. Just… colours. Sometimes ugly, sometimes pretty, existing for their own sake.

A while back, I tweaked the generation of many gradients to include more radial gradients. A thing I kind of wanted was the sensation of it being a sphere - but I think either the gradient options within SVG are too limited, or I didn't work hard enough to achieve it. I did expand the range of outputs and add lots of new variety. But still there was an itch.

many gradients itself was born out of an excess of energy when we reached the end of our Kickstarter for Beasts of Balance (then Fabulous Beasts). Suddenly, I had time and headspace and wanted to make something. Something I could finish within a day or two. And a few weeks ago I got done with a stressful bit of work getting Beasts of Balance ready to ship. I felt a similar surge of creativity coming back. So I decided to make a twitterbot that would be like many gradients, but spherical (and rotating slowly, because that's makes sense)

The technical details were a bit too long and torturous to go into here, but suffice it to say that I eventually could run a thing on the command line and get a pretty gif as an output! And then just before I did the boring bit and hooked it up to twitter, I got distracted and made it as an app.

It pretty immediately changed the context it was experienced in, and the form it ought to take. It matched to my free-floating aspirations to make a falling-asleep thing. So I committed to that route and designed it with that in mind, slowing and slowing the rotations and the transitions to match the inherent pace. A small touch is blocking you from hurrying a transition when it's started, forcing you even at your most frantic from interacting more than once every 10 seconds. That builds the significance of the gradients you are shown, focusing you down on the slow wash of the colours changing. You invest in predicting where the gradient will end up, the axis of the rotation, making small theories and seeing them confirmed or not. And every gradient you do see matters more - the same hook that keeps you interested in @manygradients, of "what will happen next?". @manygradients is even slower, of course, a durational performance that happens without your intervention, threaded through other accounts in your feed. This is more direct, more intimate, more solemn, floating against the black with no sense if scale. There are no options or other controls to distract you, only staring into it and watching it slowly rotate.

It's not only useful as a thing to fall asleep to, of course. I think it's valuable as an aesthetic experience in it's own right (I'd love to exhibit it somewhere). I also think it's useful as a pocket oasis throughout the day, a thing to flick open and poke at instead of refreshing social media.

calming sphere is out now for web browsers, Android and personal computers.

(but sadly not for iOS)

I hope to make more games to fall asleep to in the future. I would love to hear any thoughts or feedback you might have.

21 November 2016