Social Tycoon

🔍
User Research
🧠
Psychology
Platform
Web
Client
MSc Human-Computer
Interaction
Timeframe
Ongoing

Social Tycoon is a persuasive game designed to help people feel empowered by social media rather than exploited.

Motivated by an industry that incentivises user growth, social media companies use a range of techniques—like never-ending newsfeeds, eye-catching content and constant notification delivery—to generate engagement and, ultimately, revenue. Like slot machines, these techniques exploit vulnerabilities in human psychology and cause harm to the user. In a novel attempt to address this problem, I designed a social impact game that inoculates players against attention capture dark patterns.

The Challenge

Persuade users to spend less time using social media

As part of my masters in Human-Computer Interaction, I was tasked with designing an intervention that changes a person's attitude about a social issue. Persuasive games are an emerging form of compelling storytelling where storytelling is applied outside the context of entertainment.

High-level goals:
  • - reduce user intentions to use social media;

  • - persuade users to spend less time on social media;

  • - and change user perceptions of social media.

The Solution

Inoculation Theory

Social Tycoon draws on the principles of Inoculation Theory which suggests that an attitude or belief can be protected against persuasion in the same way a body can be protected against disease.1 Players are proactively exposed, warned, and educated about attention capture dark patterns in an attempt to weaken their effects.

Attention Capture Dark Patterns
Designs that coerce users into spending time and attention using an app or website.

In the game, players assume the role of a newly appointed social media executive tasked with "maximising advertising sales by increasing user engagement". This is achieved by implementing features that generate engagement. The total amount of advertising sales at the end of the game serves as the final score.

Throughout gameplay, players are encouraged to consider how attention capture techniques impact user wellbeing and how they might be redesigned to be less harmful.

Social Tycoon high-fidelity imageSocial Tycoon high-fidelity image
Tutorial screen, feature selection screen

KICKOFF

Framing the Problem

I started by reviewing research on the adverse effects of compulsive social media use. My goal was to understand the challenges users face and the solutions they employ.

Early Insights From the Literature

Rising fist emoji
Social Media Resistance. People feel conflicted about the amount of time they spend using social media. In 2015, Pew Research reported that 61% of US Facebook users stopped using the service for several weeks or more.2 The most cited reason for doing so was spending too much time on the platform.
Brain emoji
Loss of Autonomy. People's desire to consume media often conflicts with their plans or goals. Specifically, users want to stop periods of excessive extended usage, e.g. where habitually checking social media before bed "sucks them in".3
Bored emoji
Meaninglessness. Passive social media use (e.g. browsing the newsfeed without actively engaging with content) is perceived by users as an experience that lacks meaning.4
Drug emoji
Habit and Addiction. Research shows that regularly responding to cues (e.g. push notifications) trains automatic checking behaviours, which are reinforced by informational rewards (e.g. "likes").5

The Discovery

A Mismatch Between Intentions and Behaviours

An underlying theme throughout this body of work is the mismatch between user intentions and behaviours. Why do people continue using these products despite their awareness of the negative consequences?

As it happens, people continue using social media for the very same reason that these harms arise: attention capture dark patterns.6

When users repeatedly engage with these designs, it begins to train them: their thoughts, feelings and motivations start to replicate what the technology is designed to produce. This repeated interaction makes people more likely to persist in these behaviours even when they're harmful.

Social Tycoon ideation post-its
Some of the many documented attention capture dark patterns

Show, Don't Tell

Articulated well by Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, "If you tell people this [social media] is bad for them, they won't listen. If you show people how they are being manipulated—nobody wants to feel manipulated."7

"If you tell people this (social media) is bad for them, they won't listen. If you show people how they are being manipulated—nobody wants to feel manipulated"
Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology

After hearing Tristan say this, I remembered a game that I had recently come across called Bad News. It inoculates players against misinformation techniques in an attempt to prevent the spread of false news online.8 I realised that it might be possible to apply this format to the issue of social media overuse. Instead of teaching people the tricks used to spread misinformation, my game would educate people about the dark patterns used by social media.

Narrative

Telling a Persuasive Story

As narrative is such a crucial component of persuasion, Social Tycoon needed to tell a compelling story. I started by mapping out a history of Facebook's interface changes as they relate to monthly active users and advertising sales. This helped structure an accurate and engaging narrative and gave me a better sense of which features had the most impact on user engagement over time.

Social Tycoon facebook timeline
Facebook's interface changes between 2003 and 2020

Ideation

Layout Exploration

I explored a bunch of different layouts for the game, which I tested informally with friends. Ultimately, I chose to keep things pretty simple: a text dialogue, a main score (advertising revenue), and a feedback mechanism steering players in the right direction (user engagement).

Social Tycoon early sketchSocial Tycoon early sketchSocial Tycoon early sketch
Early sketches of Social Tycoon
An early version of Social Tycoon, created using post-it notes in Miro.
Version 1
Social Tycoon early wireframe
Version 2
Social Tycoon early wireframe
Version 3
Social Tycoon recent wireframe

From Ambiguous to Obvious

Build, Test, Iterate

Once I had an interactive version, I carried out three rounds of testing with potential users, each time iterating the game based on the findings.

Most decisions in the game require players to choose from one of two options. Through testing, I realised that both choices don't have to lead down separate pathways. An early version of the game included a few "fake" decisions (i.e. decisions that didn't affect the narrative). I assumed it was obvious that these options didn't mean anything, but many participants actually deliberated over these decisions.

This was a massive eye-opener as it meant that I didn't need to create several alternate pathways. I could focus on nailing one single narrative that covers many of the attention capture techniques. Insights such as this were among several that arose during testing.

Social Tycoon high-fidelity imageSocial Tycoon high-fidelity image
Two examples of decisions that don't affect the storyline

Impact

More Than Just Numbers

Finally, I evaluated Social Tycoon with five people using a pre-test post-test design. Participants completed the same questionnaire three days before and three days after gameplay. It assessed the perceived usefulness, enjoyment and continued intention to use social media. I also interviewed each participant to understand their experience interacting with the game.

Social Tycoon evaluation study procedure overview image
Timeline of the study procedure

The findings showed that perceived usefulness, enjoyment and continued intention to use all declined after gameplay. In other words, playing Social Tycoon changes a person's perceptions of social media and motivates them to spend less time using these services.

-7.6%
Perceived Usefulness
-16.7%
Perceived Enjoyment
-34%
Continued Intention to Use
"I now understand why I feel so compelled to scroll through videos on Facebook."
Participant 5

During the interviews, participants expressed that the game was fun, engaging and informative. Many said that gameplay has influenced how they view social media, and several even contemplated deleting the apps entirely.

Next Steps

Much More to Do

While these results are promising, further work is needed to understand whether playing Social Tycoon influences a change in usage behaviour (i.e. reduces social media screen time).

For my masters dissertation, I'm conducting a full-scale evaluation of the game with 43 participants. This study aims to understand whether playing Social Tycoon impacts the acceptance of social media and whether this leads people to spend less time using these services.

Footnotes

  1. William J. McGuire. 1964. Inducing Resistance to Persuasion Some Contemporary Approaches. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Leonard Berkowitz (ed.). Academic Press, 191–229. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60052-0
  2. Pew Research Center. 2015. Coming and Going on Facebook. Retrieved June 22, 2021 from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2013/02/05/coming-and-going-on-facebook/
  3. Kai Lukoff, Cissy Yu, Julie Kientz, and Alexis Hiniker. 2018. What Makes Smartphone Use Meaningful or Meaningless? Proc. ACM Interact. Mob. Wearable Ubiquitous Technol. 2, 1, Article 22 (March 2018), 26 pages. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/3191754
  4. Cecilie Schou Andreassen, Torbjørn Torsheim, Geir Scott Brunborg, and Ståle Pallesen. 2012. Development of a Facebook Addiction Scale. Psychological Reports 110, 2 (April 2012), 501–517. DOI:https://doi.org/10.2466/02.09.18.PR0.110.2.501-517
  5. U.S. Senate. Optimizing for Engagement: Understanding the Use of Persuasive Technology on Internet Platforms. U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation. Retrieved June 22, 2021 from https://www.commerce.senate.gov/2019/6/optimizing-for-engagement-understanding-the-use-of-persuasive-technology-on-internet-platforms
  6. Rakoen Maertens, Jon Roozenbeek, Melisa Basol, and Sander van der Linden. 2021. Long-term effectiveness of inoculation against misinformation: Three longitudinal experiments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 27, 1 (2021), 1–16. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000315

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