Are Our Games Alive?S

By John Gaudiosi

Anyone who's played through a game like Microsoft's Fable II (who can forget your virtual dog?), BioWare's Mass Effect (with its robust roster of non-playable characters) or seen Sony's upcoming Heavy Rain (whose developer, Quantic Dream, promises a new type of relationship between player and character) may have wondered to themselves whether gaming, which is still in its infancy as an art form, is heading towards its inevitable Citizen Kane threshold. More than the graphics or surround sound, the latest game consoles' processing power are bringing to life AI-controlled characters unlike anything experienced before.

But what are these sentient beings that help or hinder gamers as they explore vast virtual worlds? Are the Locust Horde who hide behind blockades and orchestrate flanking attacks in Gears of War 2 the first step in some type of real-world AI nightmare like the apocalyptic future displayed in Warner Bros. Pictures' Terminator: Salvation? Will Steven Spielberg's next original game for Electronic Arts, which remains untitled, deliver on its promise of making a gamer connect with a female avatar emotionally?

Rather than go to the usual suspects of talented videogame developers, Kotaku set out to ask experts in the fields of Hollywood movie magic, theme park creators, robotics experts and AI specialists to answer the question: Do the AI-controlled characters in games qualify as robots or some other form of artificial life. Are those creatures who are at the player's mercy in Lionhead Studio's Black & White games truly virtual beings?

Akhil Madhani, technical staff director, Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development said that the term "robot" is used to describe a physical system, usually with the ability to respond to a changing or unstructured environment.

"As such, I don't think that most people would consider a videogame/virtual character to be a robot," said Madhani. "Nonetheless, algorithms used to program the behavior of a virtual character (not knowing the algorithms used in this case) may have application for a (physically embodied) robot."

Futurist Thomas Frey, executive director of the DaVinci Institute, has a much more sci-fi vision of gaming and the future.

"In short, our games have indeed evolved into crude life forms," said Frey. "Innovations in the digital world are happening exponentially faster than in the material world, so the digital beings in games will soon become far more lifelike, and will eventually step out of the screens and exist as 3D avatars, interacting with us, much like other people."

Frey believes the not-so-distant future will be inhabited by 3D avatars that will act like digital clones, sitting in for us at meetings and other types of gatherings, and learning from each interaction.

Others have a more realistic vision of the games of tomorrow.

Chris Darken, conference chair for Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment and an associate professor of computer science at the Naval Postgraduate School, said that while game AIs have become more and more lifelike as a general trend and game characters are getting more information about their environment, and are processing it in more realistic ways; game AI is about creating a user experience, and game programmers are right to use whatever shortcuts and engineering tricks they can muster to produce the best possible experience given the budget of their project.

"Most game related AI today falls into the field of expert systems," explained Michael Schmidt, a Ph.D. student at the Cornell Computational Synthesis Lab. "In other words, they attempt to mimic and reproduce certain behaviors that we might expect a human to do; like path planning, avoiding obstacles, reacting to the user, etc."

"This is indeed very similar to some research that is going on in robotics," added Schmidt. "However, new research is beginning on to how robotics and AI systems can learn and understand their self and environment on their own, such that their behavior is self-emergent. Ultimately, we will have robotic and AI systems that won't need to be reprogrammed and redesigned for every task, but instead emerge naturally on their own".

Over the past four decades, videogames have evolved from the black-and-white graphics of Pong and Asteroids to lush 3D worlds that are actually now playable in full 3D thanks to new stereoscopic technology. Game AI has progressed from Super Mario Bros.' Goombas to Sega's Seaman to the aforementioned "best friend" in Fable.

"AI in games has come a long way, from simple look-up tables, to scripted interactions, and even some machine learning," said Schmidt. "However, it has only begun to scratch the surface of artificial life. The artificial life field is concerned with understanding and reproducing several essential functions in biology, such as evolutionary pressures and dynamics and self-reproduction."

Schmidt believes future videogame AI will likely move from expert systems, such as scripted behavior, toward more and more evolved and self-emergent behavior.

"Ultimately, everything from an AI creature's morphology and appearance to its behavior and interaction with the user could arise naturally from the environment and simulator itself," said Schmidt.

Like videogames, Hollywood technology is evolving at a record pace. Bret Nelson, producer, Jim Henson's Creature Shop, said that if you need an operator, it's not a robot. If it can perform its functions without intervention, it could be called a robot depending on what those functions are.

"I'd say that the game character is a robot if it would normally (or historically) be dependent on player input to perform its functions," said Bret Nelson, producer, Jim Henson's Creature Shop. "In that case, the AI would be serving a robotic function."

"I have to believe that the future of the game industry belongs to game makers whose characters delight their audience by displaying realism and intelligence in new and unexpected ways," said Darken.

At the end of the day, it's still the gameplay that matters. But improved AI does offer more challenges to gamers and helps immerse the player more fully in these worlds.