How are video games tricking you? | by Camryn Manker | May, 2023

Deceptive design patterns can range from tricking users to spend more time in game… to manipulating children into making in-app purchases.

Photo of a computer monitor from a side angle. The monitor reads “GAME OVER” in bold, red letters. 4 small Pacman ghosts are above it.
Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Video games are one of the most popular forms of entertainment today with 3.24 billion players worldwide. People from all age ranges, backgrounds, and cultures enjoy gaming.

I’m a huge video game fan myself, but I can’t help but notice some deceptive design patterns that are fairly popular in the industry.

What do I mean by that?

A deceptive pattern in gaming can be defined as “something that is deliberately added to a game to cause an unwanted negative experience for the player with a positive outcome for the game developer.”

This can be as simple as coercing users to spend more time playing the game to something as serious as manipulating children into making in-app purchases.

Not all of these deceptive patterns I’m going to go over have crazy horrible effects that make the game bad by any means, but they are something we should be aware of.

For example, daily rewards are a common feature in video games — particularly mobile games. With most daily rewards, a player needs to log on to a game every day to get a reward. With each day the player logs on to the game in a row, the better the reward. If a player misses a day, they won’t get the reward and may have to start their streak over from the beginning.

Screenshot of the mobile game Brawl Stars’ daily login rewards screen. At the top it states “login everyday for 15 days to claim your free gifts. Don’t miss a day or the streak will be gone!” The right hand corner has a pink banner stating “Free epic brawler on day 15.” The day 1 reward is a new skin, day 2 is a free normal brawler, day 3 upgrades a brawler, so on.
Brawl Stars (mobile game) daily login rewards screen. Photo credit: @BrawlStarsLeak1

This isn’t a particularly bad thing, but it can cause players to hop on to the game even when they didn’t intend to in order to make sure they get the reward. It can also cause a sunk-cost fallacy effect:

“I’ve already logged on for 137 days in a row, I can’t lose my streak now!”

Daily login rewards can become part of a routine — something that users feel like they need to do rather than something they want to do. Instead of having fun and playing a game (the purpose of games) they have added a chore to their routine.

“…log-in rewards are a road to resentment and burnout, as I’ll feel compelled to collect them every day to maximise [sic] my gains, but at the same time don’t really feel like playing every day, making the whole thing feel like a chore. Worst case I end up spending weeks or even months doing nothing but logging in to collect my freebies…”

— @Shintar

Daily rewards aren’t inherently bad. Many players love daily rewards! If they were going to play the game anyways, why not get some free stuff?

The “deceptive patterns” I’m going to go over aren’t a list of things you should avoid when playing video games. A lot of the things I’m going to list below are actually standard! This is simply a list of features that can cause negative emotions and habits in a player base.

Let’s get into it, then.

Premium currency is in-game currency that you can purchase with real money. Typically, premium currency is extremely hard to get in-game (if at all) and is used to purchase all of the best upgrades, materials, whosits, and whatsits.

This isn’t always a bad thing. Premium currency is a popular way for games to monetize themselves. It allows users to try the game out for free and then have the option to purchase currency to either progress the game or get nice perks.

Personally, I’m a fan of premium currency in free-to-play games, but only if it is done right. It can quickly take a disastrous turn in a few different ways.

The cost of premium currency is never 1 to 1, which can obscure how much you are spending on certain things in-game.

Screenshot of the premium currency store in the popular mobile game Clash of Clans. The top of the page is labeled “Treasure.” A sack of 2500 gems is $19.00, a box of 6500 gems is $49.99, and a chest of 14000 gems is $99.99.
Premium currency store in the popular mobile game Clash of Clans. Photo credit: Yuri Mamaev

Spending 1000 dabloogles on a cool couch in your house-building game feels a lot different than spending $3 on a fake virtual couch. (Yes, I made up the word “dabloogles.” It’s fun to say.)

Games will also price things in a way to make users buy more than they intended.

“It’s a popular business tactic to make most micro transactions just above the denominations that the developers are selling premium currency for. For example: 100 gold stars equals $1, the developer will then price the content at 120 gold stars. The reason is simple, they want the consumer to spend more than what the item they want costs so they’ll have currency left over. This makes it more likely that they’ll spend money in the future.”

— Ulyana Chernyak at Game Developer

After purchasing their premium currency and buying whatever they wanted with it, there is typically still some currency left over. The currency left over, however, is conveniently not enough to buy anything. This makes players want to buy some more, in order not to waste the currency they have left. Spending money in order not to waste money.

“Pay to skip” is a way to get users to pay real money in order to avoid waiting long periods of time, finish time-consuming and overly difficult challenges, and make any real progress in the game.

Have you ever played a game that relies heavily on waiting? For example, you need to build a farmhouse, but it’ll take 3 hours to complete. Maybe you are growing crops, but they can’t be harvested for 15 minutes. You can either wait until everything is ready, or use premium currency or watch an ad to skip the wait time and reap the rewards.

I’ve also seen games implement ads into this. Say, an item will be ready in 3 hours. You can choose to watch an ad to take 30 minutes off the timer. So I can either watch 6 ads or wait 3 hours

… or I can just spend a couple of my premium currency and have it done right now.

Screenshot from a mobile game popup that reads: “Finish Now. This egg will finish incubating in one day, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 25 seconds. Finish it now for 48 gems?” Two buttons below that read “yes” in green and “no” in red.
Screenshot from the mobile game Dragonvale. Photo credit: mobilefreetoplay

Spending money can also go from a convenience to a necessity.

Maybe there is a particularly difficult challenge or obstacle in the game. You can either grind for hours trying to beat the challenge or pay to skip the challenge and still get the rewards.

In some cases, a challenge will be so over-the-top difficult that it is nearly (or actually) impossible to complete. This is a hidden pay wall. The games makes the challenge seem possible, but the pure difficulty of it may cause extreme frustration in users. As a result, players may make an in-app purchase to bypass the challenge or get the needed upgrades/materials to complete the challenge.

Sometimes paying money will lead to an advantage over other players, like a super powerful and otherwise unattainable item. This is when a game turns into a “pay to win” scenario.

Progress in the game may be so slow that the only way to make significant progress is to spend real money. In a game where you compete against other players, this can quickly become a problem with the players who spend the most money dominating the leader-boards.

Loot boxes in video games share many similarities with gambling. Players can typically purchase loot boxes with money or in-game currency. When they open the loot box, they have a random chance at getting an item. Typically the best items have the smallest chance percentage (0.05% chance to get the ultra cool sword, etc.).

Along with the randomized chance at getting a good rewards, games typically will add in fancy lights, colors, and sounds to give your brain a hit of dopamine. Similarly to hitting the jackpot at a casino, the game might play some music and flash the words “ULTRA MEGA RARE” while sparkles float around.

Recording of some loot box openings from the mobile game Unison League.

In addition, getting a good reward when you know you only have a small chance of success can just feel more rewarding. It’s exciting to open a loot box. I would know, I’m a sucker for these kinds of games. (Though, I haven’t broken down and spent real money on one… yet.)

“Casinos know that slot machines are more addictive if they pay out a random reward at unpredictable times. If people always won back 80% of their money on each pull of the lever, it wouldn’t be an exciting game and wouldn’t be addictive. It’s the unpredictable and random nature of the rewards that keeps people playing with the hope for that rare big jackpot.”

— Dark Pattern Games

Alright, you finally did it, you broke down and bought some premium currency. The cool item you bought with the new currency is great!

..for a little while.

Power creep is when a purchased item loses value over time. That boost to earn 1,000 dabloogles a second can help you make fast progress… until about an hour of playing later when everything costs over 1,000,000 dabloogles.

Developers can make this a constant cycle by continuously adding in new and better content. It always results in the player having something worse than what was just added.

TVTropes defines power creep as “the process in multi-player games (Video Games, Collectible Card Games, and Tabletop Games, etc.) in which newly-added content (such as character abilities or equipment) can be played alongside old content, but the new content is far more powerful/useful. This process makes old content no longer worth using…”

In order to stay competitive and make consistent progress, players need to continuously spend money to buy the new and better items.

Watch this 30 second ad for a reward! Well, sure if it’s only 30 seconds.

Several ads later…

A bunch of time has been wasted.

People are usually a lot more willing to part with a small amount of their time than money. When given the option to watch a 30 second ad or use premium currency (real money), most people would choose the ad.

Ads aren’t a deceptive pattern in themselves. They are a great way to monetize games and most players are fine with them as long as they aren’t forced or intrusive.

They become a problem when users are tricked into watching ads or the ads themself employ deceptive patterns.

Many mobile game ads will add in a fake “X” or button to close the ad. When you click it, however, it takes you straight to the app store. If you’ve encountered this before (and you probably have if you play mobile games), you are probably letting out a groan.

Sometimes these ads will also employ a low contrast close button, so that users can’t see how to get rid of the ad. For example, having a white “X” on a light background.

Woman crouching in some grass with her back turned to the camera. She is hiding a knife behind her back. In front of her is a squirrel. The woman is labeled “mobile game companies”. The knife is labeled “Fake X button” and the squirrel is labeled “Me trying to enjoy myself.”
Photo credit: Dopl3r

Sometimes games will take advantage of muscle memory or our brain’s autopilot mode. We get used to doing one thing, so when it switches on us, we are caught off guard.

For example, a pop-up appears and asks you if you want to buy some in-game currency. The left button has always been “yes” and the right button has always been “no.”

One day you get the same pop-up, go to hit “no” when suddenly your finger lands right on the “yes” button. All it takes is simply switching the sides of the “yes” and “no” buttons and the payment confirmation is on its way.

“Many players will repeatedly tap a specific part of the screen, in anticipation or impatience, to advance the game in certain situations. They may be trying to hide a recurring pop-up, close an advert, or simply press a button that hasn’t appeared on screen yet. This behaviour is sometimes abused by placing an unintended input where the player keeps tapping, such as a purchase button or an opt-in to an event.”

— Pocket Gamer

The first time I really noticed this deceptive pattern was actually in an ad for a mobile game. The ad depicted a cartoon of a woman and her child shivering and freezing next to a broken window. If the puzzle is completed correctly, the window is closed and the woman and child are warm and smiling. If the puzzle is done incorrectly, the window doesn’t get fixed and the woman and child start shaking and crying.

Wow. Manipulation at it’s finest.

The game is taking advantage of people’s empathy and emotions to make them feel bad for these characters. In the case of an ad, it might want to make players download the app so they can help the woman and her child.

While actually playing the game, this kind of manipulation can be used to get people to use premium currency bought with real money, points, energy, or another limited resource in order to retry the level or “save” the characters.

“Games may make players feel bad for making a choice or rejecting an offer. For example, maybe the point of the game is to save cute little bunnies from the evil foxes. When you lose a level, the game may show you a picture of a sad little bunny and say something like “Spend 2 coins and save this little bunny.” Even though you know it’s not a real bunny, it is still toying with your emotions and trying to get you to spend money on the game.”

— Dark Pattern Games

While this tactic might be an obvious way to trick you into spending money, it isn’t that obvious to children. If a kid sees a cute bunny who might “die” without their help, there are a few different ways things could go.

Minimalist cartoon drawing of a bunny with a speech box labeled as the “cute bunny” saying, “Please help save the bunny kingdom by giving me all your money!”
Credit: Pocket Gamer

In one scenario, a kid gets some money from their parents and spends it on the game to save the bunny. In another scenario, the kid can’t get any money and starts crying because they are a bunny murderer.

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