Social Tycoon is a persuasive game in which players develop cognitive resistance towards attention-capture dark patterns.
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, wish they could stop checking Twitter so often and want to cut back on social media use in general.
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.
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.
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; increased depression and anxiety; feelings of isolation and loneliness; general psychological distress; low academic achievement; and poor sleep quality.
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.
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.