The dangers of in-game data collection

Original author: Patrick Stafford
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Nick Yee is trading secrets.

He knows what you like, dislike, and, more importantly, why. He knows what motivates you, what prevents you from reaching your goal, what pushes you, and everything that is in the middle of this spectrum. At least in terms of games. For many years he collected information about the players, having conducted more than 200 thousand voluntary polls, and found out their age, about their favorite and least favorite things, about their preferred genres.

And he sells this knowledge to developers. Some of them change their games based on this knowledge so that you buy them, play them, and tell others about them.

Yi founded Quantic Foundry in 2015, which sells his data to gaming companies such as Tencent (owner of League of Legends), PopCap (the studio that developed Plants vs Zombies) and Wizards of the Coast (publisher of Magic: The Gathering).

“In the past, the game development industry could not find out the true data,” says Yi. “When people played consoles without the Internet, the developers did not receive feedback. They could not get a clear picture of how users play their games. ”

Now, according to the developers, they have large amounts of data, both from telemetry of products (in-game behavior of players) and from external sources (for example, from Yi polls). And some people start to fear that they may have too much information.

According to many developers, the frequent leak of passwords from social networks, companies and other sources make privacy in games a very important aspect. In addition, the development of interconnected state systems, for example, the Chinese social credit system, raises the question before us: can in-game behavior affect how you are perceived in the real world?

The first kind of data is information collected from players by Nick Yee. She is quite generalized, anonymous and helps developers to identify common features and personality types. For example, Quantic Foundry software allows developers to select a game (for example, Civilization), and then see a graph showing ways to motivate players.

The second type of data is more specific. How do players interact with the game? What choice do they make?

This information can be used to create better games. It can also be combined with other types of information to create clear personal profiles. Such personal profiles are usually used for targeted advertising, but privacy experts warn that in the future this information can be used in a frightening, unexpected way for us.

“Sometimes the data collection infrastructure is created for one purpose ... but then people start thinking about other options for its application,” says Jay Stanley, senior political analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union.

And if this really becomes a reality, then developers should start creating games in such a way as to stop such manipulations before they even occur.


Fears of data collection

Many games (if not most) have built-in systems that track how users play them. Developers can use this information to change storylines, difficulty levels, and also take it into account when adding new content.

This data is usually isolated. For example, an XCOM game can track which of the two missions you have chosen. But from this simple solution, it is difficult to understand something about the personality of the player.

But in some cases, games collect more personal data, which improves accuracy. Information such as the choice of the option in the dialogue or real personality tests that can give an understanding of the player’s personality is saved.

Privacy experts and some developers fear that such information could be linked to a network of online services and used in a dubious way. That is why, according to screenwriter Sam Barlow, if his 2009 game Silent Hill: Shattered Memories was released today, he would behave differently.

“The development process would definitely have additional difficulties,” he says.

At the beginning, the game asks players to take a psychometric test, and based on their answers, the content of the game changes. For example, as Barlow says, some players always retain respect for the authorities. If the Silent Hill personality test detects this, then the players will see a policeman who first appears as an ally, but as a result turns out to be hostile and rude.

Players who experience (according to a psychological test) distrust of the authorities will meet with a caring and helpful policeman who sincerely worries about them ... and then leaves the player alone. According to Barlow, this approach uses personality traits to refute expectations and increase the drama.

“I wrote down all this data and further analyzed it. Honestly, it seems like you're spying on someone, ”Barlow admits.

Sam recalls how he showed the game on E3 and watched as the players became more and more nervous, reading questions like “Have you ever cheated on your partner?”. At the same time, according to Barlow, it was amazing to see how interactive gameplay was created in a “direct and personal” way.

But since then, Barlow began to ask questions: how can you create interactive stories, while maintaining the anonymity of the data?

“It makes us think twice about what information we collect,” says Barlow.

“In Shattered Memories, there’s a moment when a player is walking down a corridor, and it usually takes about 15 seconds. But at the same time, there is a conversation between the main character and his wife, lasting 30 seconds - the game remembers whether the player listened or ignored the conversation. "

“Based on this and some other variables, she gives him the ending that he deserves.”

It is these types of microscopic solutions that determine the player’s psychometric profile. Although this is in no way a rigorous psychological test, the implications of data collection are becoming more apparent.

“Could it be that in ten years you won’t be able to get a job because the game has shown that you are not a team player?” He says.

“I spoke with people from the marketing department who are very interested in creating interactive storytelling, and they usually reported that it was a lot of money,” says Barlow.

In 2018, Netflix experimented with a “choose your own adventure” narrative. She released an interactive episode of Black Mirror, in which she recorded the decisions made by the audience. Tracking user choices also plays a huge role in marketing: by collecting many minor decisions made by viewers (or players), companies like Netflix can create profiles not only about their identities, but also about the types of products and services that they like and dislike. You can also sell such data.

Netflix has been aware of your television addictions for many years. An important difference is how microscopic such systems become. Instead of finding out what you like more - “Gilmore Girls” or “Breaking Bad”, Netflix can now understand using an interactive narrative: do you need a storyline in which Walter White kills his enemies or gives them freedom?

“Any data item can be easily extrapolated. If you track the activity of a husband and wife, then information about when they play games can provide an analysis of the time they spend together. You can measure the level of their relationship, ”says Barlow.

According to Barlow, such assumptions make the polls more interesting, but also more dangerous. And that means creating a game like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories raises moral questions for developers about the data they collect.

“If it were on the iPhone, then theoretically you could connect your game with a psychological profile,” Barlow says.

Anonymous data does not exist

Privacy experts and developers notice that each piece of data recorded by the company can be compared with other databases. Individual pieces of data, for example, the decision made in the game, may seem harmless, but in combination with other sets become a detailed model of behavior and psychology.

Obsidian Design Director Josh Sawyer is also experiencing this fear. He worked on the Fallout: New Vegas game , which also used player personality tests.

Like Barlow, Sawyer says that if the game was released today, he would have made other decisions regarding its design.

“We would take it differently,” Sawyer says. “The collection of telemetric data is carried out in all our games, but we always discuss the protection of information. We ask users if they want data collection enabled by default. ”

Although Sawyer says that this test was not based on any psychological structure and was needed as a way to choose the skills of the characters of the players, it is itself a curious questionnaire. In it, players are asked if they prefer certain traits (for example, honesty) to others, for example modesty.

“There is no psychological certainty in this,” Sawyer says, but he also notes that this is the problem.

If this information is collected and used in new algorithms, the idea that programs, applications or services can extract psychological data from tests that do not have psychological rigor imposes a huge responsibility on game designers.

“The most frightening thing about Amazon’s algorithms is that they can determine if a woman is pregnant or whether a man is gay ... And they extract this information not from their explicit actions, but from side features that no one considers to be unique,” Barlow says.

One case is known when the Target chain of stores sent a teenage girl a catalog with goods for children, predicting her pregnancy based on previous customer behavior.

“That's why I believe that we need to be very careful and careful with the data we collect and transmit, because they can be used in a much more sophisticated way.”

Nick Yee reports that the data corresponding to personal habits collected during these tests will be quite approximate and unreliable, but those who own such information can understand this and still use it.

And this is not a hypothetical assumption. The recently launched Chinese government social credit system relies on thousands of input, including information about rash spending or playing video games too long. Municipal authorities in one city said they would introduce penalties for cheating in games in the future .

Nintendo's Miitomo Appalso experimented with a similar type of data collection - it asked users about preferences in different products. Although Nintendo stated that it would not sell information to third parties, users began to see relevant ads on other Nintendo devices connected with a digital account.

Nick Yee fully admits that future credit systems like the Chinese one may also include data on decision-making in video games.

“If you repeatedly choose a more risky option, despite having a less aggressive alternative ... can this tell the lender something about your readiness for a loan?” Yi asks.

Breaking the Barrier between the Digital and the Real World

“If we use telemetry today, we are very attentive to how information from games is used and collected,” Sawyer says.

"In games like New Vegas, I would be really worried that we allow players to make choices that can turn out to be very grim or sad."

This is not a problem only for AAA developers. Independent developer Michael Hicks released his game The Path of Motus in early 2018. The game is experimenting with the player’s reactions to various bullying techniques.

“Almost everyone immediately reacted to the aggressors with cruelty, even though the game never says how to play it,” says Hicks.

"A very small percentage of people instantly regretted the use of violence and tried to find other solutions, while the majority experienced insight and changed tactics only closer to the middle of the game."

Hicks says that although his game uses minimal player tracking and does not associate data with personal profiles, during the development process he thought that the information collected was a kind of poll. However, as in New Vegas , the test is not psychologically rigorous and is not stored in a database by which to identify a person.

Callie Schroeder is an assistant lawyer in the transaction and data protection and intellectual property department at Lewis Bass Williams & Weese. She believes that regardless of the intentions of the developers, such data can be collected and combined with other information.

“There are many relationships that people don’t think about, and thanks to the rapid development of technology, it’s easier and cheaper to establish such connections today than five years ago,” she says.


Data and Dependence

Alex Champandar is an AI specialist and active developer who worked at Rockstar on Max Payne 3 and at Guerrilla on the Killzone series . He does not consider himself an alarmist, but says that the creation of psychological profiles based on game data is simply a logical evolution of the development of games and business.

“I'm not so much concerned about privacy,” says Champandar. "The big danger is that this data becomes a weapon of addiction: developers create a game to manipulate physiology and dopamine emissions through content."

“Sometimes it is necessary to captivate a player and immerse him in the game. But if you combine this with procedural systems, we will essentially get a catastrophic situation, ”says Champandar. “Imagine a microtargeted pack of cigarettes that delivers a cigarette right in your hand at the very moment you feel most vulnerable.”

Ubisoft, in which Yee previously worked as a data analysis specialist, has been collecting Assassin's Creed data for many years, directly asking players to evaluate individual missions after completing them. Such information can be processed in various ways to encourage users to return to the game.

Yi processes the information provided by the players themselves and uses it as a kind of “persona” - generalized profiles that developers can use to better target their games. The information is anonymous, so you can’t associate email addresses or names with it, but it can help in creating hyper-targeted advertising campaigns.

It is precisely such valuable information that Yi collects. Including the one that Blizzard published in the Armory of World of Warcraft . This dataset was published several years ago; it allows any user to view the character’s name, details of his previous actions, the class preferred in the game ... and even how many times he was hugged.

Yee says he cannot share customer service details, but mentions one case where his company helped with the Crusaders of the Lost Idols game created by Codename Entertainment. The game was an "idle clicker", that is, it almost did not require any input other than clicking on the button.

Using his player models, Yee was able to show companies that most clicker players also like more complex games like Diablo 3 and EVE Online .

An analysis of Steam’s open data allowed Yee and the other co-founder of the company to come to the conclusion that clickers and similar games have something in common: a sense of development when a player moves from one level to another. This emphasis on development has been incorporated into the Codename marketing campaign, resulting in multiple sales growth.

According to Yi, this is a fairly standard user research process.

Non-standard in it is that digital data is used to create digital “fingerprints” of player actions and to adapt a complex network of sales funnels.

In a 2011 scientific article documenting an experiment inside World of Warcraft , Yee raised the issue of potential privacy issues in online worlds.

"... before Armory, players could expect a reasonable level of privacy in WoW ," Yee wrote.

"... but now you can’t hope for it."

A look into the future

According to Yi, one of the barriers to creating psychological profiles in games is that many people play different types of games for various reasons. The transfer of behavior from one game to another often does not work.

“There are games with limited customization capabilities, so you cannot understand the preferences of the players on them. It’s easier with others. ”

“But a more serious problem is the transfer of this behavior [...] for example, in some games you can compete more actively with opponents than in others.”

But Champandar says that we still should not relax. The moment when in-game behavior becomes targeted will come faster than we think ... and artificial intelligence will contribute to this.

“What AI programmers have been doing for many years can be built into the system and receive new data. If someone realizes this, then this will have serious consequences. ”

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