My work focuses on artificial intelligence (AI) in games. Not only on the AI that determines NPC behavior, but also AI that tries to understand the human player. The idea of the latter being that if a game can gain an understanding of the human player, it can automatically adapt the game to cater to a specific player. For example, if a game manages to determine that the player has an interest in a certain NPC, it might change the game so that the role of this NPC increases, maybe by shifting tasks to this NPC from another NPC that the player has less interest in.
We are also looking into possibilities to create a validated psychological profile by observing automatically a player’s behavior in a game. Psychologists usually employ introspective tests to build such a profile, but it is a well-known fact that the results of these tests are rather debatable. For instance, while it is assumed that a psychological profile changes only marginally over a few months, the difference in profiles determined by two tests with a few months in between might be radical. Our idea is that observation of the dozens of hours that someone plays a game might provide the means to build an accurate psychological profile of that person. And if the game is designed to build such a profile, it might go even faster.
One can argue that a game is not suitable for building a psychological profile, as a game provides a fantasy, and a person might act different in a fantasy than in real life. But that needn’t matter. If a player, while slightly provoked, kills off a whole village in-game when he is playing it for the first time, that certainly is indicative of a specific personality type, even if he would react rather demure to provocation in real life. One could even argue that when a situation encompasses no pressing outside influence (such as laws or peers), which is the case when playing a game, a person’s personality can truly come out.
The most convincing way to demonstrate our ideas is to use an actual, fairly recently published game. I think I have found that game with Fallout 3. Fallout 3 starts with a sequence of about one hour in which the player gets born, creates his character as a baby, then has a birthday party as a ten-year old, and finally must do a career aptitude test as a sixteen-year old. The sequence has encounters with several NPCs, and multiple possible ways of responding, from friendly to aggressive to obnoxious. This sequence has three purposes: (1) it teaches the player the game mechanics; (2) it allows the player to design his character; and (3) it soaks the player in the atmosphere of the game. The sequence would be ideal for the game to get to know the player, but is not used for that purpose (apart from checking whether the player prefers melee combat over ranged combat). The reason is probably that the designers would not know what to do with knowledge about a player’s psychological profile. Or maybe they do, but designing the game as a static experience is already work enough. Making the game adaptable would require a huge amount of extra work that they simply cannot afford.
In many domains outside game development interest in knowing a persons character through games exists. I am mainly thinking about serious games, which are usually employed to train a person for certain tasks. Training can be more effective if it is tailored to the trainee; not only to his skills and knowledge, but also to his character. And even commercial game developers can profit from further investigations in this area: some changes that certain player profiles would appreciate might be easy and cheap to implement, e.g., changes in prevalence of music, use of colors, or required speed and thinking time. If I look at myself as an example, I know several games which I do not like as they are, but which I probably would enjoy very much with a few simple changes (Katamari Damacy, for instance). The reason that I do not like such games can often be found in my psychological profile, as many of my preferences are shared by people with a similar profile.
Research in this area happens only at a small scale. Reasons are that it is new, and it requires knowledge of rather diverse areas, such as artificial intelligence, psychology, computer science, and sociology. It is also very time-consuming to execute. But I predict we will see more of it in the near future. I think there is a lot to gain, both for serious and commercial games.