Unstructured Site Review: Darkpattern.games

I don't know if I'll ever be doing site reviews again, so that's why this review is 'unstructured'. I also mostly just wanted to ramble.

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A screenshot of the Dark Pattern Games homepage.

If you're unfamiliar with the concept of dark patterns in games, the gist of it is that dark patterns are tricks employed to result in a positive outcome for the developer (namely more income) while often being at the detriment of the player. A common dark pattern you might have experienced is... let's say you're about to purchase an in-game item for real money. The confirmation as to whether or not you want to buy the item could have the option for 'Yes' highlighted in green while the option for 'No' is in red, making you more likely to click yes even if you didn't want to buy the item. While dark patterns don't automatically make a game bad, recgonizing them in the case of overuse can be helpful for avoiding an unhealthy relationship to a game. Dark Pattern Games looks to achieve this by highlighting what games have which patterns.

While the goal of this website is noble and has my support, after using the site for a little while to submit dark pattern reports myself, I do have some comments and criticisms.

Dark pattern reporting bias/accuracy

Whenever we look for something to buy online, I assume most of us will check the reviews to find which product has the highest quality based off of the experience of other customers who bought it. Usually a higher review would indicate more quality, but it's also important to consider how many reviews an item has. Would you trust a five star review from a single person, or trust a four star average review from twenty thousand people?

The same principles that apply to online reviews also apply to the reports on Dark Pattern Games. On the front page of the site, there's a misleading section showcasing 'healthy' and 'dark' games. All of the games on the healthy side have near perfect scores, while the dark games have heavy negative scores, and in both cases its due to a lack of different users reporting dark patterns and potential liars. I am of the belief that no game can be at the extremes of the healthy and dark spectrum. There are plenty of games marked as good, and plenty marked as bad, but those that touch the end of the spectrum are very rare. Because of the low amount of reports, I'm also inclined to believe that the reports being made in these instances are not truthful.

The takeaway here is to, of course, be skeptical. Part of the reason why DPG has this fault in the first place is that it's a relatively new service, with the oldest web archives dating back to 2019. With a lack of users aware of its existence, it's expected that reports for more obscure games won't be as accurate.

The game catalog

There are a lot of mobile games, obviously, and with that in mind it's probably impossible for DPG to become a complete directory of healthy and unhealthy games... but it just how many games are on DPG, I have a feeling they're trying to (and also failing at it, but we'll get to that in a bit).

If you choose to browse for more healthy or unhealthy games, DPG displays 20 games per page. The catalog of healthy games has 1,289 pages, while the catalog of unhealthy games has 1,295 pages. Because of the difference in page numbers, I presume this to mean that the healthy and unhealthy catalogs are separate and do not contain duplicates of games. With that in mind, DPG has a catalog of approximately 50,000 games. This number is not that surprising considering Steam has a similar number of games on its platform, but with how DPG works that number could be so much smaller... In particular, I feel like there was no vetting process when it came to adding games to DPG's library, resulting in the addition of games like Crocodile Simulator 2015, which appears to have been taken off the appstore and thus can no longer be reviewed on DPG. In a less obscure instance, we have two spinoffs of a mildly popular game called KleptoCats: KleptoCats Mystery Blast and KleptoCats Cartoon Network, both of which share the same issue as Crocodile Simulator 2015. Of note is that the actual KleptoCats game, which presumably has come out before both of these spinoffs, existed longer, and is definitely still on the appstore, is not a part of DPG's catalog. To me, this says that despite having an unecessarily large database of games, the catalog is still incomplete.

... But it isn't just incomplete, it's also a little messy! Around a month ago I went onto DPG to rate a game I was playing called Cats&Soup. That game was on the catalog fortunately, but a bit later when I went to look for my review, it was gone! What was actually going on was that Cats&Soup has two entries on the DPG site, as well as two different ratings. As far as I can tell, these are meant to be the same game, so I don't think having two entries was on purpose. On the same day I discovered this, I sent an e-mail to DPG reporting the issue. That was on July 4th, and at the time of writing this section it is now nearly the end of August and nothing has changed.

Aside from the buggy catalog, there's also many games I don't feel should stay up due to 'reviewability'. In order for any of the 50,000 games in DPG's catalog to get reviewed, it first needs to be popular enough, and it needs to have DPG users within its playerbase. Now, how many people out there are playing Giraffe's PreSchool Playground 2, let alone how many play and know what DPG is? Eventually there might be one person who does review this game since by including it in this article I've exposed it to the world, but for many other games on the catalog, odds are they'll stay unreviewed for a long time and take up unnecessary space.

I feel a much better system DPG could've implemented was to feature the more popular mobile games (like Clash of Clans, Genshin Impact, Pokemon GO, etc) first, then, upon user request, add more games. This makes it more likely for new games to have at least 1 review, since if someone is suggesting a game for the site, they're most likely doing it so they can review the game themself. Having a smaller catalog with user suggested games would also make it easier to highlight games that could use more reviews, somewhat alleviating the problem I mentioned in the section before this one. I do realize that by having a smaller catalogue that would make DPG even less complete than it already is, but I'd like to think of it as a quality over quantity type of deal. People will get more value out of a site like this if it has a few well-reviewed games, rather than thousands of games with no reviews at all.

Not all dark patterns can be rated equally

If there is any game which you can potentially play for a long time, odds are there is going to be grinding. The act of grinding varies from game to game, as does the amount of work needed to do so in the first place. It's very easy to grind an idle game since grinding is the game, whereas with something like Genshin Impact the grinding process is more active and time consuming. Grinding is considered a dark pattern, but DPG rates grinding not by the extent to which it exists or is easy to do, but rates it merely if it's present. Without further skepticism, this makes the grinding of the idle game seem just as bad as the grinding in a more active game, when that's not the case.

This lack of nuance can apply to other listed dark patterns. A game that pushes an ad into your face right after finishing a match is different than a game that gives you the choice of watching an ad every now and then. A game that restarts your daily reward progress if you miss a day is different than a game that pauses your progress if you don't login. Do you get my point?

To be fair, when you rate a game's dark patterns, DPG sometimes gives you the option to describe how the game implements the pattern, conveying the nuances above. However, when you add a description, it gets tossed to the ratings section of the page and is not displayed alongside its correlating pattern. This is worsened by the fact that DPG seems to display only 10 descriptions at a time with no option to view older descriptions, potentially losing the description of dark patterns that were otherwise described.