Exploring the Discourse on Wholesome Games

The approach of the second Wholesome Direct has started a discourse over what exactly makes a wholesome game and concerns surrounding the term.

Published: May 14, 2021 3:30 PM /


Animal Crossing New Horizons, one of the more well-known wholesome games.

The Wholesome Direct, an event showing off a variety of chill indie games, is going to make a second appearance on June 12. However, the reveal of some of its partners and guidelines for what makes a wholesome game has sparked discourse on social media.

Why are people talking about wholesome games?

In their tweet announcing the air date of the Wholesome Direct, Wholesome games revealed that they would be partnering with Guerrilla Collective, Twitch, IGN, and GameSpot to help the Direct reach more people than last year. Meanwhile, on the submissions form for the Direct, the team provided a guideline on what qualifies as a wholesome game:

  • Low stakes,
  • Low stress,
  • Low violence,
  • Uplifting themes,
  • and/or Thoughtful representation of marginalized groups

The guideline is most likely not supposed to be a de facto list on what makes a game wholesome, but these guidelines, along with the announcement of the Direct's partners, prompted discussion and discourse online.

Much of the discourse comes from confusion over the guidelines and how they can be both overly broad, and overly restrictive have to be. One Twitter user had a thread jokingly talk about how to avoid being labeled wholesome, such as by having a game about cute birds that can unzip their faces. Game developer Nicole He worried that the "marginalized groups" point means that someone from a marginalized group making a game from their own perspective would be deemed "wholesome" simply because of the author and not because of the game's content. Wholesome Games co-founder James Tillman replied to this tweet to explain just what that bulletpoint meant:

In further tweets in the thread, James also explained, among other things, that the guidelines are a "starting point for discussion" and that they didn't expect "wholesome" to become a loaded word.

What sort of people support Wholesome Games?

The backlash prompted strong replies from other developers who supported the movement and the not-for-profit event. One of those was Jan Willem Nijman, who worked on games like Minit, Nuclear Throne, and Ridiculous Fishing. He says in a few tweets that it's cool to see people being serious about making games that aren't about violence. "I can think of 100 ways to make guns fun but move outside of that and it becomes a lot harder. Why? Because that’s the games I grew up with," he says. "Anyone exploring nonviolent gameplay is laying the groundwork for the next generation of designers."

Another point was brought up by Wren Brier, who is working on the puzzle game Unpacking. When she and her partner Tim first started working on it, they thought their product was very niche and didn't expect the levels of interest it got due to their game's development coinciding with the rise of Wholesome Games. She also points out how some bigger companies have taken the concept of non-violent and wholesome games seriously, such as Nintendo with Pokemon Snap and the Animal Crossing series.

What about those that reject the wholesome label?

One of the reasons "wholesome" became a loaded word is because some worry that they can become the type of game that doesn't challenge players. Game developer Stuffed Wombat says that while wholesome games can explore topics like death (Spiritfarer) or similar, they can't explore it thoroughly or they risk no longer being 'wholesome', and that they can be the opposite side of the AAA meaningless violence. Whether you're slaughtering demons in Doom or solving a mystery in Frog Detective, both of them lead to a cathartic conclusion and give the fantasy of meaningful action. "Personally, I want to make games that are not as satisfying, not as endless, but that try to express something that is so complicated and hard and impossible to say, that I have to design it instead," Wombat remarks.

Another concern over wholesome content is that some might see it as a "trend" worth following. Ice Water Games' @sonofbadru said on Twitter says that they're aware Wholesome Games is trying to build things up and not tear them down, but something as big as Wholesome Games can pressure some game creators to fit that niche to get that marketing they need. It's hard for many small creators to get noticed, and they don't like to make decisions that conform to some standard just so they get noticed. "You want your game to feel worth making, distinctive, complex, to represent a wide gamut of emotion," sonofbadru says. "Wholesome feels like a pressure to make work that feels comfy and safe, words that many artists dont want associated with their work."

The Wholesome Direct will air on June 11, 1 PM Eastern.

What are your thoughts on this whole discussion? Do you think the term 'wholesome' is loaded or has too many implications? Does the criteria used work for you? Let us know in the comments below

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| Former Staff Writer

I am a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a major in writing and a minor in gaming. I have a passion for video games and writing. I also… More about Brian