Intro to Dark Patterns

Many of us in design are familiar with the term “dark patterns”. Little bits of UI that are specifically put in place to trick the user into doing something they wouldn’t normally do. Sometimes it means clicking on an ad that you though was a download button, other times it means opting into a subscription service that you were actually trying to cancel, but the purpose is always malicious. One thing that I find really interesting about dark patterns though is that about 99% of the dark patterns you encounter in UI all use the same exact method of persuasion to get you to do whatever it is they want you to do, ‘Fatigue’. Whether it be through blatant means such as preventing price comparisons or something more subtle like asking questions with intentionally tricky wording, they all work the same way at their core. First they trick you, and if that doesn’t work, they will continue to frustrate you until you are completely worn out and you give in. Out of the twelve tactics that, a site dedicated to documenting egregious examples of dark patterns, has listed as common methods, only one, Confirmshaming, doesn’t fall into the category of Fatigue.

Dark Patterns In Video Games

So what does this have to do with video games? Well, over the past 10 years, the video game industry has undergone what I would argue is one of the biggest shifts of any electronic media industry, the rise of the ‘Freemium’ revenue model. How almost all games used to make money was pretty straight forward, you would pay for a game and then you would own it, simple as that. With the new Freemium model, that is no longer the case for many games. These game rely on in-game purchases for their revenue and because of that player retention is even more important to them. That’s where dark patterns come in, but these dark patterns are the Fatigue dark patterns we were discussing earlier. These dark patterns use “Addiction”.

As we discussed earlier, Fatigue dark patterns rely on tiring the user out and getting them frustrated to the point where they no longer want to interact with the UI, because if your not interacting with the UI, then your not unsubscribing from the service. Addiction dark patterns have the exact opposite goal. They want you to keep coming back and interacting with the interface, in fact, they need you to because that’s how they are making revenue. The rise of the Freemium model gave birth to all sorts of new malicious and addictive persuasion tactics, the majority of them being as, if not more, malevolent then there Fatigue based predecessors. The website, has done a good job of categorizing Addictive dark patterns into four different categories: Temporal, Psychological, Monetary, and Social dark patterns. In the next few sections we will discuss the first three of these as they form the core loop of the Freemium games revenue model

Temporal Dark Patterns

Temporal persuasion is a classic way of getting a player hooked on a game that they otherwise might not be interested in. This category mainly includes things like daily rewards and challenges, or events that have a limited run time. These are the things that get you to log into a game even when your not feeling like playing. Even if you don’t want to play, you know that you’ll get a reward just for logging in, so you do, and BAM next thing you notice you’ve been playing the game for an hour. The companies that make these games know that if they can get you to open the app, they can get you to spend time playing the game. Because of this, they bombard you with notifications and reminders about limited time events that if you don’t open the app you’ll miss out on, and even if its something you know will happen again tomorrow, your brain still tells you to do it. This is the main way the game begins to get you addicted to it.

An example of a daily reward system in Fire Emblem Heroes by Nintendo and Intelligent Systems. 1 orb is 1/5th of the required resources to get a random character. If you have completed all of the missions, this is the only way to acquire orbs other than paying with real world currency.

Psychological Dark Patterns

Once the game has you coming back to it every day, It can start to employ Psychological dark patterns to get you invested in the game rather than having it be just something you pull out on the bus to kill time. They use tactics like Invested Value (The idea that your copy of the game become more valuable the longer you’ve played it) and Endowed Progress (arbitrary goals for the player to reach) to keep the player playing after logging in. It creates the illusion something about you or the game will change when you reach a certain goal, and if it doesn’t happen at the goal you just reached it must happen at the next one. This endless cycle of chasing the next goal turns the player into someone who just logs in everyday for the reward into someone who is actually deeply invested in the game, and the more invested you are the more power the game has over you.

An example of a collectible system implemented in the competitive trading card game Hearthstone by Blizzard. Collecting the cards so you could build better decks keeps players coming back and buying packs, even though there is a mode that lets you temporally use cards you might not have.

Monetary Dark Patterns

While Temporal and Psychological Dark Patterns get the user addicted to the game, sheer playtime isn’t something that the makers of the game can directly use. They need a way to capitalize on the user’s addiction and turn that into revenue, that’s where Monetary dark patterns come in. These patterns often leverage your investment in the game to get you to pay money. The most popular way to do this is through a “Pay To Win” system. This system targets two types of people, people who want to win without any of the effort and people who, after spending tons of hours in the game, feel like there is no other way to win. While the prior isn’t all that interesting of a case, the latter really is. In order for this system to work, the game has to abuse and punish its most loyal players to the point where they feel like the only way they can keep playing is to spend money. So, they spend the money because they are devoted to the game and the game repays them by throwing them right back into the same cycle they were in before. This is where I think most people draw the line for what is acceptable from a game company. Make an addicting game, okay, have meaningless leveling systems, sure that’s also fine, but if you use those things to abuse your player base that crosses a line. You might say, “well, if it crosses a line then why don’t people just stop playing them” and to that I say why don’t people always cancel their unwanted subscription services? It’s because that just how strong dark patterns are and that’s why we need to keep calling companies out on these practices.

The infamous Star Wars: Battlefront 2 loot boxes. These boxes gave a random items, some of which made your character much better in PvP combat. What’s worse is that the items couldn’t be obtained through any other means other than loot boxes. Even worse than that, the loot boxes could only be bought with really world currency. And even worse then that this wasn’t a free game, it was a $60 AAA title by EA.

What This Means

So, what does this have to do with me personally and what makes this more than just an article on dark patterns in games. For the past couple of years now, I have been studying game design along side my design studies and its and industry that I could definitely see myself in in the future. But the game design industry that made the games I loved as a kid and that i still love today are under siege. The push for this new style of revenue model isn’t coming from game designers, its coming from business people who are just looking to increase profits and who don’t actually care about the art form or the player base. If it was just one or two companies that were doing this then it would be easy for designer’s to just get up and leave if they don’t agree with the practice, but the fact of the matter is that almost every major game design company is adopting these tactics in some form or another, and despite having a deep love for the art form, that’s not an industry I want to work in. I think a push needs to be made to preserve the art form and keep it from becoming just another tool to squeeze money out of people and I hope that by drawing some attention to the issue, even if just a little, that I can help the push for a better standard in the video game industry.

–Davis Dunaway