Morals and Manipulation


Addictive, obsessed. These are some of the words a few people have commented so far in their own experiences with games. So as we come to the halfway point in my A to Z of Gamification, I’d like to turn to questions and concerns around the ethics of creating game-like experiences in our lives. M is for Morals and Manipulation.

Nir Eyal, proposed an interesting manipulation matrix model which draws a line between products designed for good vs. bad, based on two factors: What the end outcome is for the user and whether or not the maker uses it themselves.


With these two factors, the matrix presents a simple and easy to understand model for the moral choices behind designing and developing for the end user, which works rather neatly as a practical test of a universally recognized ethical code. The “Golden Rule”.

One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.

However, to fully reflect the meaning of “manipulation” in the execution as well as intention of the designer, I think its worth consider one other factor.

This is helpfully described in a post by Jonathan Fields, which lists the 3 factors in manipulation as:

1) The intent behind your desire to persuade that person,
2) The truthfulness and transparency of the process, and
3) The net benefit or impact on that person

The affect of truthfulness and transparency of the intent of the designer or product maker is extremely important. Without it, it is possible to have both end benefit and genuine intent, be complicated because we ultimately all hold different views about what constitutes a ‘good life’. Imagine this:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Did I mention they’re Teenage too?

I am a member of a group of “totally awesome turtle worshippers in the order of Mutant Ninjas“, we believe that all people who come to worship and love turtles will live happier more spiritual lives. My intent is true and as a full member of the turtle order, every day I see our faith in the awesomeness of turtles to benefit the lives who follow their teachings of “COWABUNGA!”.

That, puts me in the Facilitator mode right?

Except, maybe I don’t tell people this.

To get people to come and join the turtle group, I invite a high school student to a talk about how volunteering can enhance a college application. Or a young woman who just went through a bad breakup, I tell her the group helps people to rebuild confidence for a fresh start. I invite them to our “turtle meetings” under the guise of leading them through their problems and then invite them to the next meeting and the next one. Till we’re living in a turtle retreat and planning the coming of the Great A’Tuin.

A facilitator, who artfully tricks you, is still manipulating you and the benefit to your life is being measured by their biases and world view. What differentiates these two scenarios, beyond intent and benefit is whether deceit was involved.

In order to be free of manipulation there must be a choice given to the user, based on them being able to see the truth behind what the designer intends.

(O.k. that example wasn’t the one I had in mind when I started writing this post. But, hey sometimes you just have to go with the call of COWABUNGA! Check out this example for less turtles and more UX design, which details two examples from a MOOC and networking site to demonstrate the same issue of manipulation in design.)

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