The Dark Side of UX

The first gathering I attended after forming Banging Rocks was surreal. The basic theme of the evening was monetization of mobile games – I’d been to talks on similar themes before, discussing optimization of User Experience (UX).

Where this one diverged was when they pulled up a chart of the Seven Deadly Sins and began to excitedly go through the well vetted and standard methods of activating each one in order to monetize it.

Many of the strategies discussed would be familiar to anyone who plays mobile games. From sexualized ads (Lust) through carefully tested difficulty gradients designed to get Users hooked but frustrated enough at their slowing progress to pay to speed it up (Sloth). Whether outraged at another player’s attack and paying to get the armaments to crush them (Wrath) or buying special in-game costumes & paraphernalia to signifies your status as an elite player (Pride), it’s been worked out to a science.

I want to be clear – the divergence in this talk wasn’t in the basic content: the discussion on the one hand about the latest tricks for hooking users and inducing them to spend money and on the other hand around the morality and responsibilities that come with having that ability are ongoing. What was different for me was the explicit awareness around encouraging designers to foster our worst traits as an easy road to income – essentially getting nuclear-scale monetary payoffs at the cost of behavioural toxic waste.

In terms of motivation, there’s a wide spectrum of folks involved in the “game industry”. To oversimplify it, there are a few key motivations that I think shine through in the creations that get made:

  • Some folks are in it primarily for the money, and to varying degrees think about or weigh the cost in money, time and character of their Users against the profits they earn.
  • Some folks are in it because they are gamers at heart, and want to convey and share their love of an art form that has inspired them.
  • Some folks see Gaming as an important mode of human expression, enculturation and direction, and hope to create games that

I’m not denigrating wealth as a goal nor the enjoyment of video games, which I play and have shaped me in various ways. I think we need to look at what we make and why, and what its impacts are on us individually and collectively.

I think we’re at an amazing place and time where storytelling, immersive technology, cognitive science, neurology and a deep understanding of how to impact people’s motivations are coming together and we have a choice.

We can choose to design things that are good for people, and use all the craft and skill we have to make compelling experiences that empower people to discover, envision and create their best selves and to help them spend more time moving towards that.

Or we can choose to treat people as “Users” – as a means to a reductivist economic end.

For those of us creating immersive experiences, the scope and potential for both manipulation and empowerment of people experiencing our creations is vast.

There are a few threads that are going to define whether we thrive or perish as a species. While it’s easy to dismiss the impact of UX design on the evolution and survival of humanity, I think it’s a thread we need to discuss more and make more conscious choices around.

I look forward to continuing that discussion with those who are interested and continuing to find collaborators who are designing for our Lives.

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