We can't create psychology in our characters. They don't have psychology because they are zeroes and ones.
As much as you may love video games and the stories they help you tell, it's impossible to escape the fact that much of your experience is a trick of the mind.
The thing that separates video games from other forms of media, the ability to interact with and perhaps shape a virtual world, is mostly powered by the artificial intelligence of the characters that populate that experience.
But at its best gaming artificial intelligence systems, AI expert David Mark says, are, like 2-year-olds, basically sociopaths. What he means is that they are intrinsically anti-social. Getting past that problem doesn't mean imbuing a character with personality, it means tricking gamers.
"We can't create psychology in our characters," Mark told a gathering of game developers at last week's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. "They don't have psychology because they are zeroes and ones."
Mark, president of AI design consultant Intrinsic Algorithm, spent about half an hour last week walking game developers through what he called the psychology of artificial intelligence. He used to time to give the game-makers tips on how to make gamers feel like they're in a world populated by real people instead of digital automatons.
The key, he said, is to find a way to get gamers to project their own emotions and psychology onto the game's characters.
"In the absence of defining information people project what they believe should be there," he said.
To prove his point, Mark showed the Heider-Simmel demonstration, an animated video created by psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel in the 1940s to explore the "attribution of causality."
The short video shows two animated triangles, an animated circle and a box. There was no audio, just the crude line drawings moving around. After showing the video he said that most viewers saw the video as a couple and a bully; or a mother, a child and a bad guy; or a father and a couple. Each viewer created their own, sometimes elaborate back story for the simple drawings.
"It's really just two triangles, a circle and some lines," Mark pointed out.
In the absence of information, viewers created their own fiction, their own emotional attachments. But movement and positioning, he added, does help shape context.
"People are emotional," he said. "They want to engage with emotional characters. They will often engage their own psychology to do that. They will assume causality and infer narrative."
Mark's advice to game makers is to work on the subtlety of movement and design to quietly shift and shape engagement among gamers. The average game character is on the screen for seven seconds before they die, he said, but that doesn't mean they can't have an impact on the experience.
As with movies, video games and the technology used to create them are growing more sophisticated. It's no longer necessary to court a gamers' emotions with over-blown animation.
The ability for a game to deliver a powerful stories with new technology was proven earlier in the week when game developer David Cage showed off his company's latest technology. The Kara video stunned audience members with both its graphic fidelity and charged message. While the technology was used to demonstrate the ability to capture an actor's entire performance, from movement to voice, and project it into a game, the animation also shows a level of sophistication that could certainly help with AI-driven performances as well.
Mark says the solution to connecting gamers to characters will lean on that sort of artifice.
"Early game characters were like silent movie actors," he said. Those actors had to exaggerate their acting to get their point across, but eventually they learned to convey the same feelings with less.
"Maybe it's time for us to learn how to be more subtle just like the movie actors did," he said. "Players will feel those emotions before they realize they are there."
Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Vox Games.