Profiling a player

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.


4 Responses to Profiling a player

  1. Ian Parker says:

    What is the optimal strategy for winning? Is it to wipe out whole villages or is cooperation the best strategy?

    Just before I visited the Arab World for the first timke I say a “blood and guts” game. This reminded me of the real Iraq.

    Could you use a game to teach Arabic? The optimal strategy (real life) is to talk to the Sunni sheiks and get then to agree to fight Al-Qaeda and the Iranians.

    A player would have to to make his pitch in Arabic.

    To me this article is psycho babble. A player follows he optimal strategy for victory. Teaching Arabic vs wiping out villages is a function of game design. In chess if you are material up it is advantageous (normally) to swap off pieces and transpose into an endgame. This does not imply that transposition to an endgame involves any element of sadism.

    PS – what do the pshcho babblers say this implies about me?

  2. pspronck says:

    Ian, the post is mainly referring to games like RPGs, which are less about “winning” and more about “acting out a role in a big world.” That is why I gave the example of Fallout 3. That said, I think a player’s personality even influences his behavior in an RTS game, or even in a game such as Chess, though it will certainly be harder to recognize.

    Can you use a game to teach Arabic? I’d say yes. I am not saying that it is the best way. However, if you have a hundred people who need to learn Arabic, and only one teacher, maybe using teaching software is the most practical solution. And if you think that talking to sheiks is the best way to learn to speak Arabic, then you should be pleased if you find that there is a game that imitates this particular situation (not that there is such a game, by my knowledge).

    I assume your “psychobabble” comment is meant as criticism disguised as an insult. As long as you have not examined the research done in this area, and provide (better) arguments, I’d say that your criticism is moot. Psychological profiling is founded on decades of research. Psychological profiling through observation of game behavior is new, but there are already results that indicate that the approach is able to build a workable profile. Whether that profile is better or worse than those built using introspective tests is unknown yet. Determining that is what research is for.

  3. Ian Parker says:

    I thought games were about “winning”. The best way to teach anything is to provide some sort of incentive. There used to be such things as prizegiving, but this no longer seems to be PC.

    As far as the best way of teaching Arabic specifically, or modern languages in general is concerned I feel I should say that language teaching seems to have gone backwards.

    The person who has in fact won a prize for the teaching of Arabic is Tim Buckwalter. His system is very much grammatical, to use the Buchwalter dictionary you need to understand English grammar thoroughly. I must say I have constructed my own machine translation system based on Buckwalter. It parses and gives alternatives for each word.

    Singularists keep talking about “enhancement”. Suppose you gave an address in Arabic and stimulated the neurones associated with the English alternatives. You would then understand it. Singularists are talking about the computer being the store of knowledge. In fact the main effect of tapping in might be an increase in our own learning abilities.

    My point is that if we could arrange school competitions involving an element of teamwork. This would potentially provide for peer pressure to learn. Girls consistently outperform boys. This is not because they are more intelligent, but because boys under perform.

    – Ian Parker

  4. pspronck says:

    Maybe I should have added that the term “games” got a much broader definition in recent years, because many researchers wanted to latch on to the increasing popularity of games. Nowadays the term “game” seems to be more or less similar to “simulation”.

    I have insufficient knowledge about machine translations to discuss the “enhancement” you are talking about, but it seems to me that direct stimulation the brain to improve translation abilities is impossible today, as it requires an understanding of brain functions that we do not possess.

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