How To Design Blockchain Games Ethically

Source: AdobeStock / ekkaphan

Gregor Žavcer, Executive Director at Swarm, an Ethereum-powered decentralized storage and communication system.
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There’s no denying that what’s considered a successful game design today implies a sense of manipulation and non-transparency. For one, maximizing engagement often means triggering player FOMO (fear of missing out) when they are away from the game, so they would crave a chance to get back to playing as soon as they can. On the other hand, the practice of non-transparent collection and use of personal data has become quite common in the industry.

As we’re entering the age of Web 3, the need for fairness and transparency is growing. The pioneers of game design are reconsidering the existing policies and introducing new ones. 

Let’s review some examples of non-ethical game design, as well as more ethical practices both already in use, and to be introduced in the near future.

F[r]ee-to-play

In 2019, the global video game industry generated over USD 152bn. A large part of these funds come from free-to-play titles that charge players for in-game items and boosts. The fees may range from a few to over USD 100 per transaction, while tactics include limiting particular gear behind a timed paywall, or implementing new content that requires paid equipment to progress.

While this model is not unethical per se, and developers need to get paid for the work done, the ways these tactics are implemented often border on unethical. A player might invest in a new set of gear once or twice, just to explore the game deeper. However, if new equipment is consistently required to succeed, at some point they might wish to spend more and more to keep playing, because of what they’ve already invested into the game. 

Having players pay to stay in the game is not a game, it’s a money squeeze. 

If the player has an addictive personality, they might become negatively addicted to gaming: up to the point when it might affect their physical and mental health, and/or financial state.

On top of that, some game developers force their own methods of play to generate more profits onto players: such as punishing them for not logging in daily, or for failing to reach a certain experience level in a set time frame.

Gaming and data

Before the 2010s, gaming projects had little idea as to how players interacted with the game, approached certain in-game scenarios, or reacted to specific questions or engagements. Today, developers gather player information regarding their likes, dislikes, preferences, behavior, and more use through both internal and external means. This data is used to improve game design and make titles more engaging. 

The problem is, it isn’t always gathered anonymously, nor handled ethically. The problem is also that it isn’t necessarily used for the benefit of the player but rather against the player.

According to an expose by Polygon (MATIC), this data may be used to establish personal profiles for advertising or other purposes. For example, some — typically, role-playing — video games feature personality tests or record player choices. Some of the data gets sold for profits or used to manipulate the player by introducing the unethical practices described above.

While some developers have become more aware of this possibility and are taking the required steps to prevent it, others might see that future and develop games specifically tailored toward it.