Pavlov’s Gamers?

We know that social games are a great way to kill time (whether you have that time to kill or not), and are huge business. But can they be unethical?

Benjamin Jackson argues that we’re disturbingly close to being Pavlov’s gamers, and that there’s a huge grey area of unethical gaming that we can’t ignore.

In his article printed in the Atlantic:

The primary characteristic of unethical games is that they are manipulative, misleading, or both. From a user-experience standpoint, these games display dark patterns, which I define as common design decisions that trick users into doing something against their will. Dark patterns are usually employed to maximize some metric of success, such as email signups, checkouts, or upgrades; they generally test well when they’re released to users.

For example, FarmVille, Tap Fish, and Club Penguin play on deep-rooted psychological impulses to make money from their audiences. They take advantage of gamers’ completion urge by prominently displaying progress bars that encourage leveling up. They randomly time rewards, much like slot machines time payouts to keep players coming back, even when their net gain is negative. And they spread virally by compelling players to constantly post requests to their friends’ walls.

This trend is not just limited to social games, though: many combat games, like America’s Army, are funded by the U.S. military and serve as thinly-veiled recruitment tools. Some brands have launched Facebook games like Cheez-It’s Swap-It!, and they serve as tools to sell more products. These techniques can be used in any sort of game, in any context.

We’ve also looked at various elements of social gaming. Still, this article reminded me of one blogger’s serious concerns with the gaming utopia people such as Jane McGonigal proposes.

Or, how it’s brilliantly parodied on the IT Crowd:

Still, what’s so interesting about this space is how it’s developing. ZD Net suggests that instead of putting badges on everything, we should be looking at the latest gamification darling, Pinterest.

Vicky Teinaki

An England-based Kiwi, Vicky is doing a PhD at Northumbria University into how designers can better talk about touch and products. When not researching or keeping Johnny Holland running, she does the odd bit of web development, pretends her TV licence money goes only to Steven Moffatt shows, and tweets prolifically about all of the above as @vickytnz.

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