Most games today are designed with “hooks.” Hooks are features inserted to get players to play longer and more often and even pay money to continue playing. These hooks rely on non-drug-based sources of external stimuli, which can trick the body into generating dopamine which gives the player a rush. So, gamers often feel stressed when not playing and can lose interest in everyday activities.
Many gamers know these hooks exist. Many parents of children gamers know of these hooks and can teach their charges about them. These gamers have the agency to decide whether they want to continue of their free will, disengage, or lessen play time in resistance to the hooks. To counter this agency, some game developers use dark designs or dark patterns to direct gamers into choices and behaviors against the users’ intent.
Knowing these deceptive designs and how these hooks manipulate players can help determine whether the gamer controls the game, or the game controls the gamer.
Game design and the Dark Patterns that Keep You Hooked
Temporal dark patterns: These get users coming back to the game.
Playing by appointment: If you don’t play according to the game’s schedule, you miss out on bonuses, mini-games for points, different power dynamics, or an opportunity to play in various competitions.
Reward systems: Daily and hourly reward systems push users to visit the game hourly and daily for increased bonuses, or they are punished for skipping a reward by lessening the amount of the following prize or by lowering the player’s status to the beginning of their reward system they’ve spent hours building upon.
Monetary dark patterns: The algorithm of the game has been set up to give the player a sense of almost winning, especially when points are too low to proceed and all power units to assist in the game are used up, prompting the player to spend money to continue playing. A lot of times, the purchase isn’t unreasonable and can be as low as one dollar in some games, but the game developers know they’ve set the player up to feel they need one more stab at it, and only for one more dollar. Designers know it won’t be the last dollar spent and have designs to push the money paid to higher margins.
Scarcity: Gamers are accustomed to seeing the offers presented and the limited time to take advantage of them, so the fear of missing out (F.O.M.O) is induced. They can continue paying for the offers that are cheaper and always available in abundance. Still, this dark pattern creates scarcity for that one-time big deal that the player will quickly take advantage of when experiencing F.O.M.O.
The popular game, Fortnite, rakes in billions of dollars every year despite being completely free. The designers have created situations of scarcity rather than availability during arbitrary time limits for digital goodies. Status symbols sold as “self-expression” encourage players to buy often and on time.
Pay to skip: Most gamers have come across a level of play that they can’t seem to get past, or the method of action annoys them, or it will be too long for lives or energy to be restored. When the wait to play gets more extended, or it seems impossible to move forward, the dark pattern relies upon the player to resort to paying to skip certain levels.
Social dark patterns: Game developers exploit the fun with family and friends concept to gain more players for the game, making the user feel a sense of social obligation and not letting their friends down.
Social pyramid schemes: Game designers incentivize existing players to invite friends to play. Sometimes bonuses or rewards are offered to bring in new players, and certain features can be unlocked by sending out invites from their social media list. This cycle makes other people feel socially obligated to play even when they don’t want to. After the invites, it’s no surprise to see a pop-up referencing the game they’ve been invited to.
Social obligation: Farmville is the perfect example of a game solely based on social commitment, playing by appointment, routine, and responsibility. It doesn’t have great gameplay or aesthetics to have people returning to it. You can only advance by spending money or persuading people to join the game and become your neighbor.
Psychological dark patterns: Designers craft strategies with an understanding of human psychology that are used to get a user to come back every day, even when they no longer enjoy the game.
Endowed value: In introductory psychology, humans are reluctant to abandon anything they may have invested a lot of time or money in. Many gamers have spent their hours or money on customizations, giving them the perception of a higher value than it is. The more the player invests, the higher the game’s value is perceived, thus creating loss aversion bias. Loss aversion bias is the fear of losing already gained achievements and skills. So instead of seeking out new games or quitting the game they no longer enjoy, because of their previous investments, the endowed value keeps them planted in the same game.
Endowed progress: This dark pattern is based on the endowed progress effect, which is to provide an artificial advancement toward a goal, and the Zeigarnik effect, where users remember incomplete tasks better than completed tasks. It’s hard for the user to quit playing with a preliminary list of goals waiting for them to achieve. Rewarding badges for completing specific tasks gives them a sense of accomplishment. It makes the user come back to achieve more, pay to skip or spend more time than intended ticking off their list. A great example is The Skyrim game’s task list, which has been known to keep some gamers awake at night because of the Zeigarnik effect, where their incomplete list keeps running through their heads at night. But when that list is complete, there’s always a new one ready to keep them awake at night.
Promoting manipulation literacy to understand the deceptive techniques used in gaming can allow the user to make better decisions about how they want to spend their time and money. Although games are fun and will enable some stress relief, knowing you are playing a game intentionally designed to keep you playing for hours can help you advocate for your own decisions while gaming.
As a Media Psychology Ph.D. student at Fielding Graduate University, I am focusing my dissertation on contributing to the research on Internet gaming disorder (IGD), which is included in the Addendum to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) for further study. It remains to be examined what kind of disorder IGD could be. Is it a compulsion, an impulse control disorder, or a behavioral addiction? It may be up to the parent or gamer to decide whether they’ve become too dependent on gaming.