Talk at the 10th annual Symposium on Ethics in the Age of Smart Systems on 2021-04-20.


  • Tommaso Crepax, CiTiP, Department of Law, KU Leuven, Belgium
  • Jan Tobias Muehlberg, imec-DistriNet, Department of Computer Science, KU Leuven, Belgium


Talk Recording
Talk Recording

Many free-to-download mobile games are designed to nudge players to “play first, pay later”, to buy third party products and to unlock paid features in the game app. Businesses built on these models are flourishing worldwide, as success is oftentimes guaranteed by a perfect mix of circumstances: catchy themes for new incarnations of existing game concepts are easily found and implemented, industrialised frameworks for targeted advertising are readily available, developers obtain game telemetry and use big data analysis to profile players, “dark patterns” designs allow to exploit users’ cognitive biases, while little resistance is expected from unaware targets. Collectively, these circumstances enable extensive user profiling and maximised profits of an audience of minors who deserve special protection. Yet, this audience is often left vulnerable at the mercy of an industry armed with the latest inventions of marketing and psychology to maximise user interactions.

With this talk we aim to open a debate around aspects of privacy, ethics and law regarding invasive features of online games that focus on minors as a target audience.

10th annual Symposium Ethics in the Age of Smart Systems
10th annual Symposium Ethics in the Age of Smart Systems

Through online games, medical, sexual, mental and behavioural information can be identified, inferred or just presumed from more or less conscious playing choices and reactions to stimuli. Medical studies demonstrated that machine learning analysis of a child’s gesture patterns during tablet gameplay can identify autism with up to 93% accuracy [1]. In younger children, phenomena of aggressive gaming behaviours towards other players, characters, animals, as well as of gender-swapping, may predict mental disorders or sexual preferences, as psychological and sociological studies showed that “individuals generally behave and represent themselves in video games in ways that are consistent with their real-world tendencies” [2]. Slower than average responses to audio-visual stimuli may hint to neural disorders, while lack of skills in solving puzzles may hint to inferior mental abilities. All such highly delicate, sensitive personal data, however (in)correct, can be collected today, appended to the child’s digital identity, permanently recorded, and be used dozen years into their future to calculate the premium of their car or medical insurance, evaluate their fitness to apply for a job or be part of a community, be denied access to credit or to medical treatment. All because, quietly sitting in the backseat of mum’s car, a young person loved slicing jumping fruits on a tablet computer.

In this talk, we present a number of design features that we observed in freemium mobile games for children. We claim that online chats, character customisation and character role choice are “privacy-sensitive-by-design” features, whose definition we discuss together with “privacy-naive” design, and privacy friendlier features. We acknowledge that conscious acts of harm towards vulnerable consumers need complex, interdisciplinary and multi-stakeholder responses. However, dangerous situations may happen accidentally, due to a combination of “privacy-naive” software design and powerful data analytics. With our intervention we aim to open a discussion on the use of personal data obtained through online games:

On contextual privacy – Should data collected through gaming activity be used to evaluate users in unrelated contexts?

On ethics – Should an ad broker know that Joe is a little “slow”? Should a software developer know that my child has autism before me, or their paediatrician? And should we, at all?

On law – Should pristine, raw data be considered personal if identification is potentially possible through analysis?


  1. Anzulewicz, A., Sobota, K. and Delafield-Butt, J.T., 2016. Toward the autism motor signature: Gesture patterns during smart tablet gameplay identify children with autism. Scientific reports, 6(1), pp.1-13.
  2. Worth, N.C. and Book, A.S., 2015. Dimensions of video game behaviour and their relationships with personality. Computers in Human Behaviour, 50, pp.132-140.

Last modified: 2022-05-09 22:20:35 +0200