Dark Patterns in Game Design

In recent years, many in the interaction design and user experience (UX) design fields have questioned the ethics of dark patterns, defined as a user interface or design feature that has been carefully crafted to deceive users into doing things they may not want to do, such as buy an extra item or give personal details to software company.

I argue that many games are also not designed to be ethical or beneficial to the player. For instance, the use of dark patterns in the design of certain games (or gamification-based apps) may lead to various negative effects, such as wasting time; or using slot-machine like elements (e.g., variable ratio rewards) to carefully addict players and then require them to pay money to continue playing.

Some researchers have explored dark patterns in game designs and begun to describe a taxonomy. For example, Zagal, Björk & Lewis (2013) discuss the following categories:

Temporal Dark Patterns

  • Grinding tasks – performing repeated or tedious tasks that “cheat” a player out of their time. Time is valued over skill, and often tasks can be done “completely unattended…[players] repeatedly kill the same enemies over and over by utilizing the same strategy just to gain an experience level and access to new capabilities.” (Zagal et al., 2013, p. 36)
  • Appointment dynamics – designs that build habits of daily gameplay, often using loss aversion to compel gameplay (e.g. in Farmville, crops that wither and die if a player does not harvest them on a daily basis by the allotted time).
FarmVille Crops wither if they are not harvested in time. Image credit: Farmville/Zynga

Monetary Dark Patterns

  • Pay to Skip – players asked to pay money to make progress in a game (e.g. buying a “Mighty Eagle” in Angry Birds to bypass a difficult level). Perhaps a more unethical version of this is when the game carefully raises the difficulty level or meaningful progress is slowed down to the point in which a player must pay in order to advance (or to satisfy an addiction)
  • Pay to Unlock – a game arrives “incomplete” or with gated access, forcing users to pay (rather than play) to access more content.

Social Capital-Based Dark Patterns

  • Social Pyramid Schemes – a series of pyramid-like schemes and social entanglements that strongly encourage players to invite or entrap others in order to receive in-game benefits and advantages (e.g. Farmville players feel social obligations via “neighbors” to make progress in the game. Players become trapped in the pyramid and feel compelled to invite others in order to succeed.
  • Impersonation – “Friend spam” in which a game design uses the names of real life friends doing actions they never actually performed, thus misleading players about what people are actually doing.

What are other dark patterns that can be observed in games?


I teach game design and educational technology courses at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City. You can reach me at GAMES at tc dot columbia dot edu.