Dark Design: The Age of Microtransactions and Intercontextuality in Video Games

As the Art of Video Games Mature, so Too do Their Dark Designs

Vincent Valentino
Nov 16, 2017 · 4 min read
“Both a lovingly crafted companion to the films and a tangled mess of corporate meddling.” — Kotaku

I consider myself a recovering gamer. I spent countless hours chasing coins, finding treasure chests, and defeating bosses as a child, teenager, and young adult, alongside events as formative as school dances, soccer games, learning guitar, graduating high school and college, and all of those events that shape the world around us which we in turn respond to.

Playing games is something that — for better or worse — feels like a part of me. Of course, as with anything, lack of moderation (read: binging) would lead to problems, mostly in school. Which is why I say recovering gamer. There are strict rules I give myself now if I’m going to play a game: it has to be incredible, it has to be new (no remakes), and it has to have a great story. Though a bit unrelated to the point of this article, I’m saying all of this to communicate that I was a part of the wave of video game revival and popularization through the 1990s. I have found memories attached to gaming — the experiences with them, the characters in them, and the worlds they allowed me to visit.

And these facts are not lost on the modern video game developers. They understand completionists, they understand the nostalgiac draw that some have for specific franchises. These two forces have led to gaming’s Dark Designs: microtransactions and abuse of intertextuality.

1) Microtransactions

Take a look today (Wednesday, November 15, 2017) at the backlash facing EA over their recent Star Wars game, Star Wars: Battlefront II. In short, it’s a multiplayer game set in the Star Wars universe, where you play as different characters wielding different weapons on different worlds, doing battle against the opposing factions. Just a shooter game — very typical in a lot of ways of modern action games — with Star Wars skins and graphics. However, what we expect from the modern multiplayer games is that the more you play, the more experience you get, which in turn allows you to unlock new characters, costumes, weapons, worlds — in essence: content.

That’s the point of these games in fact: to do the same thing over and over again so you can unlock new ways to do the same things over and over again, occasionally looking cooler/different as you do it. Battlefront II however includes a massive microtransaction element. You can still unlock new content through tracked hours of gameplay (an estimated 4,528 hours of playing to unlock all new content, or roughly 566 eight-hour days of playing) OR, you can spend $2,100 to unlock all of this content.

In essence, EA has turned a familiar model of gaming on it’s head and made it pay to play. Suddenly, players who typically purchase a game for $60, consoles for $300, are paying more than $2000 for content.

And why would anyone in their right mind pay that much for a game? Well, that leads to my second Dark Design in gaming…

2) Intercontextuality

Intercontextuality is defined as the “shaping of a text’s meaning by another text.” In short, something you are reading/seeing/hearing/playing, is more valuable (or only valuable) because of the significance of another work. Intercontextuality is everywhere these days — movies, TV shows, adaptions, remakes, video games. Just look at what’s happening with the Marvel and DC Franchise. Only because they exist in part of a larger whole are they valuable. We see this also in the rise of massively multiplier games that exist within established franchises (see my above example about Star Wars Battlefront).

One prime example of this from recent memory is Pokémon GO. While considered by many outsiders (read: old people on the news) as a phenomenon in the video game and smart phone markets, and yes admittedly it got many people excited and engaged at first, Pokémon GO was a poorly designed Augmented Reality experiment game within the Pokémon franchise. The actual gameplay element (battling other players) was poorly designed and not pleasurable to use nor requiring a lot of thought. And there were a ton of microtransactions that facilitated the main draw of the game (catching cute little pocket monsters). The only value Pokémon GO had was it’s intercontextual nostalgia. When the lack of depth set in, users dropped off, and now it’s remembered as a blip on the radar of 2016.

In the end Dark Designs are fascinated and dangerous. They are designers at their worst, preying on our emotions, our weaknesses, and our soft spots for economic gain or worse. In the realm of video games, they twist our memories in an effort to monetize the genre and our nostalgia. And often times, these dark designers win.

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