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Game design and dark patterns: where is the boundary?

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Game design et dark patterns : où est la frontière ?
Image Written by Clélie Amiot on 03/15/2024

PhD student in computer science - Lead Game Designer
Clélie is currently working on her thesis on chatbots. She is in charge of the GameDesign of VirtualSociety

Game design and dark patterns: where is the boundary?

What are dark patterns ?

A dark pattern is a design element intended to deceive and manipulate a user against their interest. In our daily lives, we encounter them in the form of unsubscribing processes with too many steps designed to discourage us, or in privacy settings formulated and presented deceptively.

These practices are also found in video games, especially online games whose financial model typically requires a constant stream of revenue after the initial game release to regularly add new content and maintain servers. The goal of dark patterns is twofold: to encourage players to log on more frequently and for longer lengths of time to sustain an active player base and to prompt them to spend money (or, more commonly in mobile games, watch ads for the developer's profit).

Among the most common methods in video games, we can find:

  • Grind or pay
    This dark pattern is present in games where progression relies on many repetitive and uninteresting tasks that can be bypassed by paying. The game presents us with two options: spend our time or our money. In both cases, this investment makes us less inclined to stop playing, because of the sunk cost fallacy.
  • Daily quests and rewards
    Those are not inherently abusive, but the sense of urgency they create can be misused. For example, if an uninterrupted series of game logins is required to avoid losing certain benefits, it is a dark pattern. It is also a dark pattern when a game leverages the player's sense of social obligation with guild quests, where missing a quest is detrimental to other guild members. In both cases, these implementation choices encourage addiction and the loss of players' control over their own time (for example, by prompting you to log in during your vacations or work hours).
  • Collections
    Present in numerous genres, they extend the lifespan of games by capitalizing on the need for certain players to not miss anything (referred to as the fear of missing out or "FOMO"). The effect is heightened when collections can only be completed during limited-time events. Releasing new collections is also used to bring back players to a game they had previously completed, by spoiling their 100% completion rate.

As you are probably starting to see with these examples, dark patterns can combine and amplify each others. Relatively benign elements when together can contribute to the creation of an unhealthy gaming environment.

However, some of these design elements are not necessarily negative for everyone, such as collections, which are often appreciated or even sought after in games. How can a game be designed, then, while avoiding dark patterns?

How to create a game without dark patterns ?

To answer this question, we first need to distinguish between good game design and dark patterns. Indeed, the primary goal of game design is also to manipulate the player, and doing so using the same tools. Sometimes, implementing what might be considered dark patterns allows for a better gaming experience. Unconsciously guiding a player through a level by placing light sources in the right places is a form of manipulation. Modifying enemy AI to make the difficulty stimulating without being too challenging is deceiving the player about their true abilities. Developers also often need to make compromises. For example, using secondary currencies in an online store is a dark pattern because it obscures the real value of purchases. However, an intermediary currency can be earned in the game or given as a gift for certain events by the studio or friends.

Dark patterns are therefore distinguished from the rest of game design only by the developer's intentions and their consequences on the player. A feature is a dark pattern if its main objective is to manipulate and obfuscate information to make players lose control of their time and money, rather than enhancing the gaming experience.

Thus, to avoid being manipulated, it is necessary to reflect on your gaming experience. Are you playing a game for several hours because it genuinely entertain you, or do you feel obligated? Beyond your enjoyment of the game, the main question is about your agency: is spending your time or money on this game a deliberate choice?

As players, our goal isn't to completely avoid all games that may contain dark patterns but rather to be aware of them and understand how they impact our gaming habits. Being an informed audience means being able to make thoughtful decisions about managing our time and money, whether it's deciding to make an in-game purchase only if its value seems appropriate, playing at predetermined and limited times, or even choosing to delete our account.

As a studio, we can maintain a critical eye on the features we implement and question whether they genuinely enhance the game or gaming experience, or if they serve the studio's interests at the expense of players. It's an ongoing process where we need to respond to player feedback and remain transparent.

Want to know more ?

Here are some sources that assisted in the writing of this article:


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Image Written by Clélie Amiot on 03/15/2024

PhD student in computer science - Lead Game Designer
Clélie is currently working on her thesis on chatbots. She is in charge of the GameDesign of VirtualSociety

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