What is a Dark Pattern in video games?

In the UX industry, an often-discussed topic is the issue of “dark patterns”. My own interpretation of dark patterns is: the intentional use of deceptive and sneaky features within a digital product whose aim is to force the customer to agree to actions that they otherwise would not. The aims are usually to increase customer spending (making you waste money on a product unknown to you), customer retention (making you come back again and again), pseudo-pyramid schemes (forcing you to invite friends in order to continue using an app) or spam (signing up to newsletters and advertisement emails). A more lengthy and savvy explanation of dark patterns can be found by watching this video.

Recently, some dark patterns were made illegal in the UK. In light of this, I’d like to take a look at what can consist a dark pattern in gaming, and discuss the negative impact it can create.

In Planetside 2 (Sony Online Entertainment – SOE), players can purchase weapons, gear and vehicle upgrades through a points system. These points can either be earned in-game, or bought with real money. At its early stage (during public Beta and shortly after release), the time it took to unlock the simplest scope for a gun was excruciatingly long, and that scope was only unlocked for that specific gun for the specific class. Many players felt (and voiced) that the only way to play the game properly was to spend real money in order to acquire the upgrades, which turned the game into a Pay2Win situation. SOE listened to the feedback and avoided the dark pattern of forcing players to spend real-life money in order to enjoy their game by drastically reducing the time it takes to earn enough points to acquire items. This is a special case because one could argue that it is not a dark pattern, but just a marketing choice. I agree with that opinion only to a certain extent, and would make a point that when the time required to acquire anything is ridiculously long, it essentially forces players to make purchases out of sheer frustration, and not out of love for the game.

In Farmville (by Zynga), players can be tricked into a sort of social pyramid scheme, where in-game progress and rewards can be acquired by inviting more friends to work on their farm by playing the game, according to the authors of this article. I personally do not consider this a dark pattern, as I could argue that following that logic, World of Warcraft’s raiding system (by Blizzard Entertainment) is also a pyramid scheme: you can never raid on your own, and you are forced to play with others in order to acquire the best end-game rewards. In reality, you can play Farmville on your own, or decide to spam all your Facebook friends to join you in order to access game features faster than you otherwise could – it is a “social” game after all.

A clearer dark pattern example, in contrast: With the surge of mobile games, it is no surprise that their popularity heavily depends on a system that encompasses all apps: customer ratings. Dungeon Keeper on iOS (by Electronic Arts), allows users to rate the game from one to five stars. If the user decides to rate the app anything else than 5 stars, however, a compulsory prompt appears that asks the user to send a message to the developers in order for them to improve the app. Developers know very well that only a very small fraction of their customer base can ever bother to write a review, while a much heavier proportion will not mind giving it a quick star rating.

This means that users that will want to rate the game with 5 stars will do so unhindered, while any other rating will discourage the user to actually submit their rating because of the extra step that is required. I consider this a dark pattern because it artificially increases the game’s rating by taking advantage of a known customer behaviour regarding e-reviews. Other examples of dark patterns in mobile games are the ones that post on your social media walls without your explicit knowledge every time they do so (e.g. FarmVille, by Zynga, or Candy Crush Saga, by King).

Dungeon Keeper for tablets

“Would you like to rate our game?”

Another example that caused a lot of frustrated players to voice their disapproval is the Daily Dice feature in Dungeons & Dragons Online (by Turbine). The feature allows players to spend Astral Shards in order to have a chance at an in-game reward. Astral Shards (at the time of writing) can only be acquired for real-life money through the purchase of the developer’s own currency, Turbine Points, or through slower or random in-game means. The feature is by no means a necessary part of the game and does not require to be used at all in order to access any parts of the game. Players can either roll for a Silver Chest, or Gold Chest (better rewards).

Once per day, the roll is free, but in order to roll additional times, Astral Shards must be spent. Once the “Roll!” button has been pressed and the player had already spent their daily free roll, Astral Shards are automatically deducted from their total without any confirmation button. As Astral Shards do not necessarily cost real-life money as discussed below, Turbine deemed it was not necessary to warn players that they are about to spend them. Since many players have inadvertently pressed the Roll button and been charged, one would think that adding a confirmation button would improve the user experience. At the time of writing, however, Daily Dice have not been updated. There is even a warning of the feature’s use on the DDO wiki site!

Daily Dice User Interface

“Roll! What could go wrong?”

There are tons of different ways to approach each of the above examples, through transparency, consistency, warnings and confirmation pop-ups. Unfortunately, business needs and user needs do not always coincide, and can often be opposites. In the end, developers need to make a profit, and sadly devious methods are sometimes used for short-term solutions that can cause long-term damage to customer trust and loyalty.


Cover image © Elma 

One thought on “What is a Dark Pattern in video games?

  1. Pingback: History of video games/2010-2019 – Wikibooks, open books for an open world – Pokemon Go Guide

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