Saturday, 5 July 2014

Where are the Dark Patterns?

Deception is one of my favourite things. It is the defining human behaviour. It can be used for favourable actions; concealing the Normandy landings or dastardly deeds; misdirecting the public over mass internet surveillance. Deception is one of the ways we manage Trust or, to be explicit, to circumvent Trust.

Here we come to Games. Games have rules. Games have rules to prevent players from taking advantage of other players through Deception. And Games have rules to set a template for the kinds of Deception permitted by the Game. These rules establish the base Trust. Everything else is fair game.

There are plenty of examples of unintentional flaws within games that allow player advantage. Murphy's Rules, a one panel comic published by SJG chronicled humorous examples of this. But what if the Game rules were actually a kind of Deception? This is a Dark Pattern.

"A dark pattern is a user interface carefully crafted to trick users into doing things they might not otherwise do"

Dark Patterns are something that you don't see in games because we put a lot of stock in Trust and prefer to place boundaries on Deception whilst in civil society. Consider the effort spent balancing Game Rules to ensure fairness no matter what choices the players make. Dungeons and Dragons 5e has just been released after years of development. It didn't take years to write the rules. It took years to test them to the point that it was considered fair to the exacting degree expected by the players. Most of the cost of developing the game was invested in precise management of the economy of Trust.

Is there a fun alternative that includes Dark Patterns? Magic in RPGs is ripe for Dark Patterns and is therefore one of the most rules intensive components. In other words, Magic rules are usually pumped full of Trust to limit Deception. This stops it from being fantastic because Deception is a creative act.

Try this one out: Magic introduces new things into the Cosmos. Once introduced, it becomes part of the natural order and can be utilised by anyone. Seasoned GMs are shaking their heads, that would ruin the game in about 5 minutes. And that is the point. Consequences of Dark Patterns are unpredictable for the Players and the GM. If the heroes ruin the world with magic there is still a story to be told in this ruined world, perhaps even an apologue.

Most RPGs assume that the Players are all equal shareholders in the Trust that is authorised by rules of the Game. A true Dark Pattern is about the Game deceiving the Player. It is not just a matter of making a choice and getting more than you bargained for. It is a matter of making a choice and then discovering the choices and consequences that follow are different than expected, it is about their role in the economy of Trust.

I find the idea of Dark Patterns fascinating. I think that they can introduce a tension into the economy of Trust within a Game that can improve the experience of play, if done well. Let me know what you think; would you use a Dark Pattern or do you consider Trust a basic and inviolate commodity?