If game designers were hackers which hats would they wear?

With so many of us playing games, I think we should care about the people who make our games and what values they have. As a short and by no means exhaustive thought exercise, I’ve attempted to categorise game designers using the popularly used concept of coloured hats which are normally used in describing the ethical stance of hackers.

Black Hats

Black hat game designers are designing games that quite bluntly exploit basic psychological human weaknesses. Part of the thinking for them is to get the player hooked onto their ‘Free-to-Play’ game so they can turn a percentage of them into paying players. They will tax those particular players heavily for falling prey to their own instinctive desire to interact in a certain way. The mobile gaming ecosystem is littered with working and ailing examples of exploitative games focussed on providing gaming experiences that are seemingly gameful and fun but they have the distasteful twist of exploiting as many of their players to generate revenue through in-app purchases.

According to Swrve™ 0.15% of players reportedly bring in 50% of the revenue, so even if you bump that 0.15% by a little bit, it should provide a perceptible lift in revenue.

Black hat game designers are effectively cashing in on tried and tested techniques of exploitation. Artificial limitations on play mean that those susceptible to gambling schedules, loss avoidance and impulsiveness will be willing to exchange money for the perceived gaming benefit or alleviation of temporary restriction whatever that may actually be!

I’m not saying these games can’t be fun, but they are exploitative and the ethics and merits of creating such games are very questionable. It’s quite surprising that they haven’t yet been legislated.

White Hats

White Hat Game Designers might be using some of the same mechanics as black hat designers, but I’d like to think they care a lot more about the player and respect them their time and their investment in a serious way. They probably don’t place the growth of their player base or revenue above the user experience. For white hats the art of crafting a beautiful game that provides hours of enjoyable gameplay takes a larger focus. White hats try to strike a balance between exploiting our psychological responses and providing the player with enjoyment and creating a sustainable model to fund the development of their games.

Grey Hats

Grey Hat Game Designers might be the newbies or the ones who straddle uncomfortably across the realm of creating games responsibly and irresponsibly. They aren’t necessarily concerned what is classed as ethical and what isn’t in their adoption of game mechanics or they simply lack the critical and technical foresight to see what is going on. Although they don’t employ a systematic approach to exploiting players to make money, they may use patterns that are exploitative and they do so wantonly with very little finesse. Their actions are just as bad and as damaging to the games eco-system as their Black hat counterparts, albeit, they don’t necessarily have their success and marketing budgets.

Why care about this?

Whether designers are donning a white, black or grey hat, By using exploitative techniques and placing any particular mechanics in games that serve to exploit human psychological weakness, little by little the players trust and confidence in the games themselves become compromised. It’s clearly enough of a problem that the App store came out with the frankly ridiculous Pay Once and Play editor category.

By pandering to black hats, we totally risk limiting the true avenues in which games can be a creative, uplifting and exciting medium and we’re tarnishing the experience with interactions geared around the least interesting part of the gaming equation, the financial transaction, from the players wallet to the developers wallet in the most optimal and mindless fashion.

I hope that as the industry matures further, the black hats end up annihilating themselves with their poor choices and the white hats rise to the top alongside the people who simply put their games out there with nary a mechanic in sight that can be deeemed as exploitative. As players become more educated and sophisticated too in their taste for games, perhaps they’ll be able to sniff the exploitative stuff a mile off and teach their kids what to look out for.

Further Reading

Free to Play Hate Threatens the health of the industry at Large

Exploitative Game Design Beyond the Free to Play Debate

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