Gaming the gamer? – The ethics of exploiting psychological research in video games

Date09 May 2016
Published date09 May 2016
AuthorJohnny Hartz Søraker
Subject MatterInformation & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information & communications technology
Gaming the gamer? – The ethics
of exploiting psychological
research in video games
Johnny Hartz Søraker
Department of Philosophy, University of Twente, Enschede, Netherlands
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to investigate the ethical implications of video game companies
employing psychologists and using psychological research in game design.
Design/methodology/approach The author rst argues that exploiting psychology in video
games may be more ethically problematic than familiar application domains like advertising, gambling
and political rhetoric. Then an overview of the effects particular types of game design may have on user
behavior is provided, taking into account various ndings and phenomena from behavioral psychology
and behavioral economics.
Findings – Finally, the author concludes that the corresponding ethical problems cannot – and should
not – be addressed by means of regulation or rating systems. The author argues instead that a more
promising countermeasure lies in using the same psychological research to educate gamers (children in
particular) and thereby increase their capacity for meta-cognition.
Originality/value – The importance of this lies in the tremendous effect these behavior-modifying
technologies may have upon our self-determination, well-being and social relations, as well as
corresponding implications for the society.
Keywords Regulation, Video games, Psychology, Metacognition, Behaviorism, Behavior steering
Paper type Research paper
Gamers’ demands, expectations and willingness to spend money on video games have
changed profoundly from the days of buying cardboard boxes lled with disks and
manuals in a store. We now live in an age of stunning free-to-play games integrated as
apps in your social media platform or smartphone. The video game industry is nding
new ways to earn money, advertise and persuade players to commit to playing their
games for hours when there is a jungle of distractions just a mouse-click away. On top of
this, potential gamers increasingly expect to constantly multi-task between windows
and screens, instantly load any application without installation and not to leave the web
browser except for ring up an app on the smartphone or tablet (Bothun et al., 2012;
Radwanick and Aquino, 2011). Game companies are facing a reality where their old
marketing strategies may not work anymore and the prospects of making their game
stick out and make any form of prot is dwindling. How can game companies survive
The author is heavily indebted to Jamie Madigan and his excellent web resource, which provided inspiration, pointers and resources for several points
raised above. The author would also like to thank the audience at CEPE/ETHICOMP 2013,
TEDxUtwente and Scott Robbins for helpful suggestions and improvements. Finally, the author
is indebted to the very constructive and helpful referee comments.
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 6 February 2015
Revised 3 June 2015
14 July 2015
Accepted 26 July 2015
Journalof Information,
Communicationand Ethics in
Vol.14 No. 2, 2016
©Emerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/JICES-02-2015-0003
this climate, and how is it possible that we still have very simple yet tremendously
successful games like Angry Birds,Bejeweled and Candy Crush Saga? The answers may
lie in psychology: the gamers’ psychology and the game companies’ implicit or explicit
exploitation thereof. The purpose of this paper is threefold:
(1) to outline some important principles, ndings and practices from behavioral
psychology and behavioral economics that can be exploited in video game
(2) to discuss their ethical justiability; and
(3) to propose constructive ways in which to counteract the most unethical forms of
The use of psychology in video games
According to Mike Ambinder, Senior Experimental Psychologist at game developer
company Valve, “More and more companies are starting to see the value in hiring
psychologists or folks with a background in psychology” (Clay, 2012, p. 16). Indeed, the
American Psychological Association now lists “video game psychology” as a “hot
career”, stating that game companies regularly hire psychologists to consult on game
design and conduct research on player experiences (Clay, 2012). If it is the case that
psychologists increasingly assist game developers in game design, then this is good
news insofar as psychological tools, ndings and principles are used to create a more
enjoyable and rewarding gaming experience. At the same time, this could enable game
companies to exploit various cognitive biases, mental heuristics, conditioning and
behavioral dispositions in such a way that gamers are willing to spend time and money
on their games even if detrimental to their well-being and self-determination. Thus,
there is an urgent need to consider the ethics of this practice and nd ways to responsibly
make use of psychology in games.
Before proceeding, allow me to emphasize that it is not the purpose of this paper to
criticize the involvement of psychologists in the game industry. Quite the contrary, I
believe that it is essential to draw on psychological research to enhance gamers’
subjective well-being, skills training, autonomy and sense of purpose. I also regret that
the scope of this paper does not allow for a comprehensive account of which types of
game mechanics map onto which types of psychological phenomena – although I will
refer to several sources of such a mapping, in particular the inspiring work of Madigan
(2014). My more modest purpose is to briey illustrate how some of the more well-known
types of behavior-modication and cognitive biases can be used to manipulate gamers’
behavior in ethically problematic ways, describe why video games are particularly well
suited for such a purpose and how we may counteract such inuences by means of
education rather than regulation. By “ethically problematic”, I do not necessarily refer to
addiction or other diagnosable consequences but more informally to gamers’ continued
spending of time, money and/or energy on a game at the expense of health, social
relations, important obligations and/or subjective well-being[1].
I argue below that it is in many cases unethical to exploit certain psychological
mechanisms for the purpose of making prot, but it may be problematic in itself that
psychological research is being carried out by game companies and then directly
applied to their game design. According to psychologist Amy Jo Kim, who is also the
CEO of the game design studio Shufebrain:
Gaming the

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