Social Tycoon

University College London
Role
Researcher,
Product Designer
Timeframe
4 months

Social Tycoon is a persuasive game in which players develop cognitive resistance towards attention-capture dark patterns.

The Challenge

Persuade users to spend less time using social media

The compulsive use of social media poses a serious threat to user wellbeing, social connectedness and general productivity. What started as a way for people to connect with one another has evolved into an attention economy where advertising is sold, and data is harvested in exchange for user attention. In pursuit of user growth, social media platforms use attention-capture dark patterns—interface designs that coerce users into spending time using an app or website against their best interests.

Even though these designs often influence behaviour outside of conscious awareness, people are growing dissatisfied with the time they spend using social media. They hope to spend less time scrolling the Facebook newsfeed,1 wish they could stop checking Twitter so often2 and want to cut back on social media use in general.3

“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

The Solution

Inoculation theory

An unexplored approach to helping users gain control over their social media use it to expose or "inoculate" them against attention-capture dark patterns. According to inoculation theory, it is possible to develop a cognitive resilience to persuasion attempts by learning about the techniques underlying the persuasive argument.4

As part of my master's in Human-Computer Interaction, I designed Social Tycoon, an inoculation-based game in which players develop a cognitive resistance towards attention capture dark patterns. Players assume the role of a newly appointed social media company executive tasked with producing as much advertising revenue as possible. Similar to how a real-world social network operates, this is achieved by implementing features that generate the most user engagement. Players learn about four types of dark patterns: leveraging social approval, infinitely loading content, training compulsive usage behaviours and using software algorithms. The game draws on an inoculation metaphor where exposure to weakened doses of these techniques triggers a resistance towards them.

Social Tycoon high-fidelity imageSocial Tycoon high-fidelity image
Up facing arrow icon
Tutorial screen and feature selection screen

Research

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

Struggles with Social Media

Studies show a link between social media use and adverse outcomes. For example, researchers have reported correlations between patterns of Facebook use and low subjective wellbeing;5 increased depression and anxiety;6 feelings of isolation and loneliness;7 general psychological distress;8 low academic achievement;9 and poor sleep quality.10

Designing to Maximise Engagement

The concept of "dark patterns" was originally conceived to describe privacy and monetary harms to the user. However, more recent work explores designs that cause "attentional harm" whereby users are persuaded into spending time and attention using an information system. For instance, research shows that interaction designers can systematically manipulate the duration of a user's visit to an app or website and how much self-control they can exhibit over their usage.11

Designing for Digital Wellbeing

In response to social media overuse, people have innovated mobile apps (e.g. Forest and QualityTime) and browser extensions (e.g. News Feed Eradicator and Distraction Free YouTube). These tools claim to help users monitor, understand and limit their technology use. In 2018, Apple and Google released similar tools intended to help users better understand and gain more control over their smartphone use.

Despite these efforts, the efficacy of digital wellbeing tools is still largely up for debate. One popular news article describes them as the "Marlboro Lights of the tech industry", arguing that users should not trust a solution offered by the people who created the problem in the first place.

Social Tycoon early sketchSocial Tycoon early sketchSocial Tycoon early sketch
Up facing arrow icon
Early sketches of Social Tycoon
Up facing arrow icon
An early version of Social Tycoon, created using post-it notes in Miro

Persuasive Games

In recent years, the term "serious and persuasive games" has emerged to describe games that seek to influence behaviour by playfully engaging people around serious concepts. A growing body of evidence suggests that gamified interventions promote more information retention and skill acquisition compared to traditional, less interactive methods.12 Part of their appeal is theorised to stem from a greater willingness to interact with experiences perceived as fun and enjoyable.

Social Tycoon facebook timeline
Up facing arrow icon
Facebook's interface changes between 2003 and 2020. I used Facebook's history to structure an accurate and engaging narrative for Social Tycoon

User Testing

Determined to create a game that is both easy to navigate and fun to play, I carried out four rounds of user testing with iterations based on user feedback.

Most decisions in the game require players to choose from one of two options. Through testing, I realised that both choices can have the same outcome. An early version of the game included a few "fake" decisions (i.e. options that don't affect the game's narrative). I assumed it was obvious these decisions didn't mean anything, but many participants actually deliberated over them. This finding saved me a lot of time as I realised I could focus on nailing one narrative for the game rather than creating several alternate pathways as I had originally planned. Insights such as this were among several identified during user research sessions.

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

Measuring Success

To evaluate Social Tycoon, I conducted a multi-stage study of the game with 43 participants. Subjects were randomly assigned to play either Social Tycoon (inoculation group) or Tetris (control group). The study investigated whether playing Social Tycoon impacts the acceptance, usage and opinions of social media. a game that is both easy to navigate and fun to play, I carried out four rounds of user testing with iterations based on user feedback.

Using the Technology Acceptance Model, subjects rated their acceptance of social media one week before and immediately after gameplay. The survey included four scales adapted from previous research: perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use, usage attitude and continued intention to use.13 Participants also self-reported social media usage data one week before gameplay (baseline) and every week for four weeks following gameplay. Lastly, those who received the treatment completed an exit survey assessing whether Social Tycoon influenced their perceptions towards social media, whether they thought the game was a success or failure and whether they would recommend it to a friend.

Descriptive plot showing pre-test and post-test ratings across each of the four social media acceptance constructs
Up facing arrow icon
Pre-test and post-test ratings across each of the four social media acceptance constructs

Results

After playing Social Tycoon, people view social networking sites as less useful, feel less favourable about using them and have less intention to continue using them. Despite this change in acceptance, I found no difference in social media usage behaviours between groups.

Bar graph showing mean social media usage time per week
Up facing arrow icon
Mean social media usage time per week

The qualitative data confirmed these results showing that participants in the inoculation group wanted to spend less time using social media but found it challenging to break preexisting and well-established habits.

In addition, participants developed a negative perception of social media after playing Social Tycoon. Specifically, they felt exploited for engagement, data and profits, citing a mismatch in power and an increased awareness of attention-capture dark patterns. For some, learning about these techniques improved their ability to spot them, leading to a perceived weakening of their effects.

“I'm now more likelier to ask: ‘do I want to keep scrolling, or am I being made to believe I do?’”
Participant 21

Finally, the vast majority of participants said they would share Social Tycoon with a friend because it is fun, engaging and includes helpful information.

“It provides an insight into the fundamental nature of what social media companies want, how they do it, and how it impacts people. Also, it’s fun to play!“
Participant 24

Reflections

Even though participants expressed significantly less behavioural intention to use social media after playing Social Tycoon, the game had no observable effect on usage behaviours. One could argue this lack of intention-to-behaviour change is unsurprising. Research demonstrates that intentions can sometimes be a poor predictor of behaviour change.14 Behavioural psychologists refer to this mismatch as the "intention-behaviour gap".15

There are several promising strategies for closing the gap that could be designed into a future version of Social Tycoon. One of the most widely used and validated methods is forming if-then plans.16 This involves identifying opportunities to achieve the goal and barriers that stand in the way of it. Some participants mentioned specific moments in the day when they found it particularly hard not to use social media (e.g. "scrolling aimlessly through Instagram before bed" P14). Asking subjects to create if-then plans would help them prepare for and overcome such barriers when they arise.

Another effective technique for closing the gap is progress monitoring.17 Future interventions could ask players to input their screentime and set an explicit intention to reduce it. A series of automated emails could then be sent over the following weeks reminding subjects of their goals and prompting them to consider their progress and reevaluate their plans if needed.

"The degree to which we are able and willing to struggle for ownership of our attention is the degree to which we are free."
James Williams, author of Stand Out of Our Light

Social Tycoon is the first inoculation-based intervention designed to improve digital wellbeing. My results show that gameplay reduces the acceptance of social media but does not influence usage behaviours. I highlight how users feel exploited after learning about attention-capture dark patterns and how they struggle to reduce usage despite wanting to. Therefore, my results provide novel insights into the effectiveness of a digital wellbeing game designed using the principles of inoculation theory.

In times where tech companies increasingly make decisions based on financial incentives rather than user wellbeing or societal benefit, maximising their share of the user’s time, inoculation interventions could form a critical part of the solution. As James Williams recently wrote, “the degree to which we are able and willing to struggle for ownership of our attention is the degree to which we are free”.

Footnotes

  1. Eric P. S. Baumer, Rui Sun, and Peter Schaedler. 2018. Departing and Returning: Sense of Agency as an Organizing Concept for Understanding Social Media Non/use Transitions. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 2, CSCW (November 2018), 1–19. [LINK]
  2. Sarita Schoenebeck. 2014. Giving up Twitter for Lent: how and why we take breaks from social media. Conf. Hum. Factors Comput. Syst. - Proc. (April 2014). [LINK]
  3. William J. McGuire. 1964. Inducing Resistance Against Persuasion: Some Contemporary Approaches. In Leonard Berkowitz (ed.). Academic Press, 191–229. [LINK]
  4. Ethan Kross, Philippe Verduyn, Emre Demiralp, Jiyoung Park, David Seungjae Lee, Natalie Lin, Holly Shablack, John Jonides, and Oscar Ybarra. 2013. Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults. PLoS ONE 8, 8 (August 2013). [LINK]
  5. Sami Al-Dubai, Kurubaran Ganasegeran, Mustafa AL- Shagga, Hematram Yadav, and John Arokiasamy. 2013. Adverse Health Effects and Unhealthy Behaviors among Medical Students Using Facebook. ScientificWorldJournal 2013, (December 2013), 465161. [LINK]
  6. Wenhong Chen and Kye-Hyoung Lee. 2013. Sharing, Liking, Commenting, and Distressed? The Pathway Between Facebook Interaction and Psychological Distress. Cyberpsychology Behav. Soc. Netw. 16, (June 2013). [LINK]
  7. Sana Rouis, Moez Limayem, and Esmail Salehi- Sangari. 2011. Impact of Facebook Usage on Students’ Academic Achievement: Roles of Self-Regulation and Trust. Electron. J. Res. Educ. Psychol. 9, (December 2011), 961–994. [LINK]
  8. Isabella Wolniczak, José Cáceres-Delaguila, Gabriela Palma-Ardiles, Karen Arroyo, Rodrigo Solís-Visscher, Stephania Paredes, Karina Mego-Aquije, and Antonio Bernabe-Ortiz. 2013. Association between Facebook Dependence and Poor Sleep Quality: A Study in a Sample of Undergraduate Students in Peru. PloS One 8, (March 2013). [LINK]
  9. Alexis Hiniker, Sharon S. Heung, Sungsoo (Ray) Hong, and Julie A. Kientz. 2018. Coco’s Videos: An Empirical Investigation of Video-Player Design Features and Children’s Media Use. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM, Montreal QC Canada, 1– 13. [LINK]
  10. Elizabeth A. Boyle, Thomas Hainey, Thomas M. Connolly, Grant Gray, Jeffrey Earp, Michela Ott, Theodore Lim, Manuel Ninaus, Claudia Ribeiro, and João Pereira. 2016. An update to the systematic literature review of empirical evidence of the impacts and outcomes of computer games and serious games. Comput. Educ. 94, (March 2016), 178–192. [LINK]
  11. Chia-Chin Chang, Shiu-Wan Hung, Min-Jhih Cheng, and Ching-Yi Wu. 2015. Exploring the intention to continue using social networking sites: The case of Facebook. Technol. Forecast. Soc. Change 95, (June 2015), 48–56. [LINK]
  12. Mark D Faries. 2016. Why We Don’t “Just Do It”: Understanding the Intention-Behavior Gap in Lifestyle Medicine. Am. J. Lifestyle Med. 10, 5 (June 2016), 322–329. [LINK]
  13. Paschal Sheeran and Thomas L. Webb. 2016. The Intention–Behavior Gap. Soc. Personal. Psychol. Compass 10, 9 (September 2016), 503–518. [LINK]
  14. Peter M. Gollwitzer. 1999. Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. Am. Psychol. 54, 7 (1999), 493–503. [LINK]
  15. Marijn de Bruin, Paschal Sheeran, Gerjo Kok, Anneke Hiemstra, Jan M. Prins, Harm J. Hospers, and Gerard J. P . van Breukelen. 2012. Self-regulatory processes mediate the intention-behavior relation for adherence and exercise behaviors. Health Psychol. 31, 6 (2012), 695–703. [LINK]