The Dark Side of Fun: Understanding Dark Patterns and Literacy Needs in Early Childhood Mobile Gaming
Keywords:Dark Patterns, Game Design, Mobile Digital Games, Digital Literacy, Early Childhood
Play has always been recognized as an essential aspect of human development, particularly during early childhood, as it contributes to learning, the formation of meanings, and experiencing the world. In today's digitalized society, early childhood education has increasingly integrated digital media into its practices, both in schools and at the family level. Mobile digital games (MDG) have received significant attention due to their impact on children's interactions, play, and learning. However, as young children engage more with MDGs, concerns about problem gaming have arisen, referring to conflicts and issues that emerge from game playing within everyday sociocultural contexts. Scholars such as Zagal et al. (2013) have identified certain game design patterns as "dark", which can be considered unethical as they manipulate players against their best interests. Given the prevalence of mobile gaming in early childhood, studying these dark patterns becomes even more crucial. This study aims to investigate the presence of dark patterns in MDG for young children (0-5 years old), through qualitative analysis. The five most popular free games for this age range on App Store (February 2023) were analysed, particularly focusing on the presence of temporal, monetary, social, and/or psychological dark patterns. The analysis uncovers the presence of temporal, monetary, and psychological dark patterns, including aesthetic manipulations, paywalls, and periodic rewards resembling gambling elements. The games also employ advertising strategies and engagement tactics that challenge young children's navigation. Parental control mechanisms offer limited safeguards, requiring continuous monitoring and parental involvement in play dynamics. The study highlights the importance of adult media and digital literacy in supporting children's online play effectively, while also emphasising the responsibility of game designers and developers to create healthier and less risky game experiences.