UCSC Engineers are Trying to Make Video Games Smarter

Images have progressed light years in decades. Now it's time for the plots and interactivity to catch up, according to speakers at a UCSC video game design forum.

Facebook gamers who have already built farms and shot it out with the Mafia are about to take a surprising turn: they are going to a high school prom.

Prom Week, which will debut on the social network in several months, is the brainchild of engineers and students at UCSC's Games and Playable Media department, and shows a new direction away from violent video games that follow a script and towards open-ended ones that can move along with a player's imagination.

It was one of the revelations last week at UCSC's Baskin School of Engineering's Research Review Day, a showcase of the most cutting-edge projects being conducted by undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty in the fields of electronic gaming and interactive media, network sciences, and genomics.

Some of the new directions in games are quite a turn from the races and shoot-em-ups that formed the industry. Engineers are focusing on intelligence, specifically of the artificial kind, to make games smarter and more lifelike with some unusual topics.

One game focused on the intricacies of childbirth; another taught crocheting; a third used cellphone GPS units to turn the entire campus into a playing field for a fantasy role-playing game.

“Games right now are like the invention of writing," said Michael Matias, an associate professor of computer science. "We are inventing a new way of expressing human content.”

Most commercially popular electronic games are limited to the manipulation of physical objects, such as car chases, running and jumping, or fighting, said Matias. Despite their increasingly sophisticated graphics, these games are closed-ended and lack dramatic and emotional appeal.

New games revolve around unscripted social interactions that can take the players into the realm of new artifical intelligence, past the limits of what can be done with only provocative graphics.

To create Prom Week, engineers studied symbolic interactionism and game theory to analyze popular high school media such as Saved by the Bell, Mean Girls, Sex in the City, and the Twilight series and they gathered data to form a system which, according to Matias, can create an interesting and believable model of human social interactions much in the way that other game designers model physics in theirs.

“We would literally sit down and watch Mean Girls and pause every 30 seconds and ask each other 'What seems to be going on there?' 'That seems to be an instance of...' We would call them ethnography parties,” said Matias.

Prom Week features 18 stereotypical high schoolers, who undergo a series of complex social interactions in the week preceding the prom.

“The idea here is to take high school politics and make it interactive,” said Matias, who said the future of video games will be “the intersection of art, science and design to encompass the entire range of human experience.”

Bill Mooney, studio VP for Zynga, the company that makes popular Facebook games such as Farmville and Mafia Wars said the goal of games like these and its latest, Cityville, is “connecting the world through games.”

While this is Zynga's catchphrase, it also a key research point for UCSC's Center for Games and Playable Media.

Matias said the school is “trying to push the boundaries of what is normally thought to be possible in games by working on the fundamental technological representations necessary to enable new kinds of designs.”

For Matias, the interactive, playable part of electronic games, or its "procedural content,' is the heart of "gameness," and what separates electronic games from traditional media such as books and film. Matias said that the more procedural content a game has, the more interesting, useful, and fun it is.

“Through Space Wars, and Pitfall, and then the evolution of rapid texture mapping in games like Doom, into modern games such as Crysis2, there is this obvious arch of progress moving towards photo-realistic representation," he said.

"If we think about what graphics processors are doing, they are teaching the computer how to render the visual tricks that Renaissance artists figured out; how to represent a 3-D space on a 2-D surface. So much of what games are about these days are about what designers can build and represent through sophisticated 3-D models and collision detection.”

Matias said he finds it unfortunate that any plot device, emotional content, or character development in such a game, no matter how well-rendered, is inevitably pre-scripted and closed-ended, and not truly part of the game.

“The way that the industry currently deals with human nature is they take their carefully rendered 3-D collision detection game and sort of layer on top of that scripted content. This is basically the same as a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. There are very few choices available," said Matias.

“What we want to do is create a procedural everything. No part of the game should be this static, authored content precisely because as soon as you do that you have taken it out of the realm of something which allows the player to dynamically explore and interact in a complex system, which at the heart of gameness. ”

He added that if the technology used to render sophisticated, open-ended graphics systems were used to create “social physics engines,'' the possibilities would become boundless.





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