Mike Ambinder outlines the extraordinary potential of biometric feedback

GDC11: Valve’s dream to read your mind

If Valve’s illuminating GDC lecture is anything to go by, the Washington-based company could once again redefine what it is known for.

A development studio, an engine vendor, and the owner of the PC’s most important digital games portal – Valve nearly has more elements to its business than instalments in the Half-Life series.

And now there could be another added to its stack: Game biometrics group.

“People are not stable, their emotions can be manipulated,” said Mike Ambinder – in a manner more academic than the words suggest – at the start of his hour-long GDC speech.

“Current control schemes provide one-dimensional gameplay – they map only player intent. What you don’t get with that is a reading of feeling or long-term goals. Those feelings are not communicable though current controls, and at Valve we want to attack that issue,” he said.

It was once safe to assume that Ambinder’s exotic job title at Valve – an ‘experimental psychologist’ – was elected with a degree of swagger from a company that enjoys its image as a pioneer. Today it was made clear that ‘experimental’ and ‘psychologist’ are accurate descriptions of Ambinder’s endeavours.

His goal at Valve is to detect how players are feeling in the middle of a gun-fight, or the sticking-point in a puzzle, or the lull after an intense period of play. Ambinder spends his hours deciding on the best technology – or combination of technologies – that could bring this biometric breakthrough to the mass-market.

Brilliantly, Ambinder took to the stage at GDC to describe emotion as a vector. On one axis is valence, he said, and on the other is arousal. The theory goes that if both can be measured accurately, Valve will be able to define how the player is feeling in real-time.

The reason for doing so is obvious, Ambinder says.

“Adding player sentiment into the gameplay can create more immersive, dynamic and cognitive gameplay experiences.”

Yet finding the best technique has proven frustrating. Nothing is perfect. Valve has tested devices which measure player heart-rate, their facial expressions, their eye-movements, brain-wave activity and electrical resistance of the skin.

Many techniques are prohibitively expensive, others aren’t as accurate, and a few can be manipulated by the player.

“The brain is very, very noisy, and to get a single thought out of it is very hard,” Ambinder said.

“We’re way off the stage where you can play Halo with your brain.”

But Valve showed it is nevertheless raising the bar. As illustrated in three video demonstrations on stage, the studio has passed key milestones in this field.

In a Left 4 Dead experiment, the firm measured electrical resistance of the player’s skin to get an outline of their interest in the game. That data fed into Valve’s AI ‘director’, which in turn upped the challenge during lulls of activity. This was true adaptive real-time difficulty manipulation, and a survey conducted by Valve shows that the guinea pigs were having more fun when the biometric tricks were in play.

A dream goal for the company, Ambinder said, is to ascertain if there exists ‘optimal arousal patterns’ – essentially if it’s possible to find a pattern to the most enjoyable experience.

“We think it’s an interesting question,” said Ambinder.

And, like with any scientific experiments, there’s always a chance of unexpected outcomes. This case is no different. While it appears the biometric feedback tests were undertaken with the solitary player in mind, Ambinder said the most successful outcome seemed to be its application to multiplayer games.

“People really get a kick out of seeing they have affected their opponent’s biometric levels,” he said.

He described a multiplayer deathmatch where the player could watch their fallen opponent’s arousal levels in the final moments of their lives.

“People love it,” he said.

Whether the general news media will feel the same way is another matter entirely. ‘Brain-reading violent game rewards death’ is a headline waiting to happen, but don’t expect the knee-jerk reactions anytime soon.

“These technologies are still very far away from being realised,” Ambinder said.

And yet the potential is starling; an intensely fun gameplay experience borderlining on the ethically questionable.

The industry continues to move forward at rapid pace, and at GDC today, Valve signalled its intent to remain ahead of the curve.

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