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Black Hat Game Design
by E McNeill on 03/15/12 01:10:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

If you’re intentionally making dull games with variable ratio extrinsic motivators to separate people from their money, you have my pity. - Chris Hecker

Designers know what they are doing. They know when they show up in the office – “My goal is to degrade the player’s quality of life”. They probably won’t think about that exact phrase. But [they'll think], “My goal is to get people to think about my game and to put more money into my game and get other friends to play my game to the exclusion of all other games and all other things that they might do with their free time.” That is the job description of those designers. And that’s evil. It’s not about giving people anything. It’s about taking from people. - Jonathan Blow

I was recently introduced to Harry Brignull's concept of "Dark Patterns". These are UI design techniques that "do not have the user’s interests in mind", like disguising advertisements or trying to engineer accidental purchases. They are, in total, despicable.

Brignull draws inspiration from the world of Search Engine Optimization, which has divided itself between black hat SEO and white hat SEO based on whether the techniques employ deception or conform to the guidelines of the search engines. This, in turn, was inspired by the black hat and white hat hacker classifications.

I'm starting to think that these labels would be helpful in the realm of game design. There's a fairly clear difference between design philosophies that try to bring something good into the world versus those that merely try to take money out of it. Of course, this concept is nothing new; I'm cribbing here from Jonathan Blow, David Sirlin, Steve Swink, Chris Hecker, and plenty of others, but I think that this particular white hat / black hat divide is an extremely useful device for a few reasons:

1) It frames the discussion as a matter of alignment, in which designers are forced to pick a side. That, in turn, requires designers to examine the motivations behind their design decisions. That sort of introspection is too often lacking.
2) It's focused on the designer, not the players. It would be paternalistic to tell players to avoid certain types of games, but unethical design practices are always wrong, even in moderation.
3) It's simply a useful rhetorical shorthand.

I won't presume to lay out a complete definition of what constitutes black hat game design, but here are a few starting guidelines:

Black hat: Designing to maximize profit with no concern for the player's quality of life. This often involves creating reward schedules aimed at increasing payments by engendering addiction and compulsion. Sometimes this is the result of an unbalanced metrics-focused design strategy.

White hat: Attempting to create a positive experience, first and foremost. This usually means offering something "fun", but it could also include artistic merit or some external humanitarian effect. Selling this experience is intended to be a fair trade.

Black hat: Cloning. This involves copying the entire design of a more innovative game with the intent of tapping into its potential revenues. This can unjustly muscle out the original creators, which stifles future innovation.

White hat: Designing with respect for the works of others and the health of the artistic ecosystem.

Black hat: Deceptive design. This involves bait and switch techniques (e.g. withholding content behind a pay wall in the "full version" of a game), tricking the player into situations that require payments or spamming friends, and any other strategies based on establishing false player expectations.

White hat: Full disclosure and honest portrayal of the game.

That's certainly not a full list, though. What are other black hat game design practices?


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Comments


Martin Juranek
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Definitions should be short and not redundant, and Deceptive design is IMO part of Designing to maximize profit with no concern for the player's quality of life. (Put it in bold whole, because maximizing profit by delivering awsome experience is imo NOT bad thing)

And some (lot of) deception is in player's favor (but I cannot imagine it being in player's favor when it involves money or needed time). So deception itself is not defining factor.

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Ellis Kim
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Is it still black hat if one of the reasons someone is pseudo-cloning a game is because the original innovators/creators/publishers have gone and muscled themselves out by means of a series of poor and myopic global development business decisions?

Well, I suppose the key word is "unjustly," right? Can't really knock all of the 2D platformers that draw "inspiration" from its predecessors.

Ellis Kim
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Also, I just want to say that I'm glad this blog post exists, and the classification certainly makes it easier to talk about it instead of simply blaming "casual games" as a whole for dragging down quality of life and standards. As mentioned, this is a subject that's been heavily criticized and touched upon ever since the "social gaming" boom of 2007, including tons of articles on the ethical issues and psychological tricks employed by "black hat" games on Gamasutra, but I think the most alarming thing is seeing all of the wide-eyed and optimistic developers and business development people who talk about the profits and exploitation without batting an eyelash (or perhaps simply ignoring) the white elephant in the room by the name of Ethics. As the years have progressed, we've seen people gradually accept this as being an okay thing, even though its clearly not a sustainable business model for the long term, or rather, its clearly not a healthy business model to employ in an already down economy. Its like pinball during the depression, but more sinister.edit: crap, I didn't realize you could just edit posts...

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Jeffrey Crenshaw
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I really like your analysis. It does feel like we are slipping down some slope of immorality wrt what people and businesses feel comfortable with getting away with. "We have no way to govern ourselves now besides superimposed "scientific" make it up as you go law" is spot on; if someone designs a game "with variable ratio extrinsic motivators to separate people from their money", they justify it because their customers aren't being forced to play; it is just the market speaking out. But when the market says things corporations don't like (piracy for example), then Ethics is suddenly on the table and all governments need to work together to protect corporate interests, no matter what the costs.

For fun, we could reverse roles with the piracy issue and try to justify it; no one is forcing you to make the game, I'm downloading a copy not stealing, no one is "losing" anything, etc. All this justification does is ignore the social responsibilities that we were once proud of, playing word games to see who can be the most clever without really caring about the other side as people that deserve happiness and good fortune as well as we do. It weighs on me every day that we have come to this, and I hope it is a reversible trend.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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I like this phrase; I am going to start using it :). I also like that Dark Patterns site. Would love to see a Dark Design site for games that calls out the more devious design decisions (kids' games that give the kid access to their parents' credit card, games that spam through social networks, bad DRM, etc).

Joshua Darlington
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Here's a new direction in black hat gamification research. It involves fake AR games to trick people into collecting information.

http://www.physorg.com/news/2012-03-virtual-worlds-soft-people-mo
vements.html

David Serrano
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"Designing to maximize profit with no concern for the player's quality of life."

I'm pretty sure this is the first line in EA's mission statement.

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