Highly-Engaging Mobile Games | Jacob Aagaard & Miria Knudsen
Image of a laptop showing a classification of concept designs according to axes of value and feasibility

Mobile Game Studios, Mobile Game Players

Literature Review, Interviewing, Design Workshops, Participatory Design, Digital Prototyping

Gaming has long proved a source of great pleasure and joy for many. Games not only provide experiences stimulating, social and uplifting however, but are equally strikingly effective means of capturing and holding our attention. So effective, some have argued, to the point of deleterious effect. Increased public and policy attention to the relationship between gaming and wellbeing in recent years for example, has even led to the legal designation of several highly-engaging game design strategies - from micro-transactions to loot-boxes - as gambling.

Human-computer interaction researchers have at the same time come to study the highly-engaging nature of many game mechanics as instances of dark patterns — design strategies yielding experiences against users' best interests and often eluding their awareness or consent. In the context of game design, these patterns have frequently been described as a product of the very nature of game development as not only a creative but commercial pursuit.

And yet, we still know little as to precisely how dark design patterns are perceived and arise in the design, development and use of mobile games in particular — critical insight if we are to facilitate and indeed prioritise ethical practices of mobile game design in practice; as the case for digital technologies of many and all kinds.

And, it was this very gap in knowledge that the work of Jacob Aagaard and Miria Emma Clausen Knudsen’s MSc thesis sought to address — in support of the design of mobile game experiences both healthy and highly-engaging. This task, Jacob and Miria approached through design-led inquiry; a process comprising the conduct of interviews and design workshops with a diverse, international sample of mobile game players, developers, designers, and business professionals.

The findings of their work contribute an initial understanding of just how dark patterns arise in the development, use and commercialisation of mobile games, their effects on players and industry professionals, and means for the consideration, negotiation and navigation of these strategies for gamer-engagement by design. This design research process led furthermore to the co-development with stakeholders of three concept solutions to the problem of healthy, highly-engaging games;

  1. A dark pattern badge system to inform and empower users of mobile app marketplaces through knowledge of the dark patterns present within games,
  2. A healthy game design course to empower both game creators and business developers to better collaborate in the development of ethical yet profitable mobile game design patterns, and
  3. An emotion assessment toolkit to help game designers and developers identify problem areas within their games, including the presence of design patterns a source of frustration for users.

The value of these three concept solutions lies not only in their final form but in the shared vision of ethical game design they promote and support; to empower players through increased transparency of game mechanics, educate and raise awareness among game creators of dark patterns, and better inform developers and designers of players' experiences, throughout the conception, creation and consumption of mobile games.

This work is then not only about gaming but about how manipulative patterns arise in technology design, shape our experiences, and might be surfaced and navigated through practices and processes of communication, conversation, and co-design — in support of healthier, highly-engaging game experiences.


Aagaard, J., Knudsen, M. E. C., Bækgaard, P. & Doherty, K. (2022, April). A Game of Dark Patterns: Designing Healthy, Highly-Engaging Mobile Games. CHI EA’22 (pp. 1-8). ACM. PDF

Aagaard, J. & Knudsen, M. E. C. (2021, June). Designing Healthy, Highly-Engaging Mobile Game Experiences. Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence MSc Thesis submitted to the Technical University of Denmark.