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Black Hat Game Design

Black hat or white hat? A frame for ethics in game design.

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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