Jan 25, 2024 - Podcasts

Songyee Yoon: Transforming gaming using responsible AI

There are more than 3 billion video gamers worldwide. Many come--and stay--for the community. Today, AI is changing gaming for these communities, and the head of one major video game developer says we need to advance gaming for users through responsible AI. Niala talks with Songyee Yoon of NCSoft, from the Axios House at the World Economic Forum, and gets context from Axios' global technology correspondent Ryan Heath.

  • Plus: Stephen Totilo, author of the Game File newsletter, with a reality check on the human vs. AI touch in gaming today.

Guests: Songyee Yoon, president and chief strategic officer of South Korean-based video game developer NCSoft; Ryan Heath, Axios global technology correspondent and co-author of Axios AI+; Stephen Totilo, author and founder of Game File and former gaming reporter at Axios.

Credits: 1 big thing is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, and Jay Cowit. Music is composed by Alex Sugiura. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas as a text or voice memo to Niala at 202-918-4893.


NIALA BOODHOO: There are more than 3 billion video gamers worldwide.

SONGYEE YOON: We have seen people playing games for 10 years and 20 years because of the community, who you meet in games.

NIALA: Today: the head of one major video game developer on using AI to advance gaming…responsibly.

SONGYEE: Everyone, including the consumers and the users of this technology should be cognizant that it's very likely there will, will be some sort of bias.

NIALA: Real community and artificial intelligence in gaming. I'm Niala Boodhoo. And from Axios… this is one big thing.

AI-driven technologies are already changing gaming.

RYAN HEATH: Gaming is one of the industries where AI is really proving its value fast. The industry is actually bigger than Hollywood now and gamers expect a lot from game developers.

That's Ryan Heath, global technology correspondent for Axios. I asked him to set the stage for our interview this week.

RYAN: Games themselves are getting so sophisticated these days that A I definitely has the potential to change the economics of the whole industry by automating creation. You're still going to need humans. This isn't a job loss story. It's much more likely that A I will speed up creation and expand the sorts of characters and imagery that get used in games. That said 84% of game developers surveyed by the game developers conference say they have ethical worries about how generative A I is getting used.

NIALA: One of those is Songyee Yoon, president and chief strategic officer of South Korean-based video game developer NCSoft. Her company is behind online games like Lineage, City of Heroes, and Guild Wars. And she's been talking about responsible AI since way before it was buzzy.

SONGYEE: All this technology and, the software that we develop really reflects the perspective of those who are developing this.

NIALA: I wanted to know more about how Songyee sees the power of gaming today and where AI is a strength and a potential weakness… so I sat down with her last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

NIALA: Welcome to One Big Thing, Songyee.

SONGYEE: Thank you for having me. It's my pleasure.

NIALA: So I wanted to start with NCSoft. You talk about the communities that games create…what data do we have on how these games actually bring people together?

SONGYEE: NCSoft, uh, started in 1995, and, uh, was one of those, the first gaming companies that developed and published MMORPG games, which is stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games.

And by nature, the community aspect of it is an integral part of the gameplay. And before the social media was so prevalent across the world, we have seen people meet through the games, be the best friends, or get married, and we threw, like, numerous, in game weddings for them, since early 2000s.

NIALA: So you've had in game weddings for people. I think I heard you say that you can think of the world as divided between people who play games and people who don't play games. For people who don't play games Can you explain, I know that you've analyzed terabytes of data on multiple player games, like, what do you think it is that brings people back to particular games time and time again?

SONGYEE: So, first of all, play is always a very integral part of, All of us humans, right? So, I mean, I think we learn how to do things.

if you kind of see the, the baby polar bears that you can see sibling bears playing together, to learn how to, hunt and how to interact with other bears and, how to use, Use their, different body parts, et cetera. And I think that's the play is very integral for, like, Learning.

And, not only that, I think it's kind of, it's, it's very important for, like, fostering creativity and, sharpening your sensory, skills and, and there is a notion called homo ludens, as opposed to homo sapiens. So homo sapiens is people who think, homo ludens is people who play.

It kind of emphasizes how play is such an integral part of the human development and evolution. And, for the game developers, we're trying to give players different experience. It's a, it's, it's in one sense, it's a very safe environment. It's like risk-free because if you fail, if something doesn't work out, you have unlimited lives to try together and opportunities.

So this is a safe environment. And some people come into gaming for community to see, meet other friends. Some people come into gaming for the joy of problem solving, or some people come into gaming for like exploration, and they like to explore the world, the virtual world, and find new things and enjoy the serendipity.

So that's how we kind of think of games and why people come to game over and over again.

NIALA: So it must be a very difficult decision for you then when you decide to shut down games. I imagine that becomes, it can become a very upsetting or controversial decision As someone who runs these gaming communities.

SONGYEE: Yes, it's a very difficult, it's one of the most difficult decisions. I mean, I think if we try, it's game development process is, is very long as you, as you know. I mean, it takes some, some of the big games that we launch, it takes For four years, five years and along the way we go through a lot of the focus group test close beta to make sure that what we're developing has resonate very well with our target audience.

But think our preference is to stop development of the game if we kind of can foresee that it's not going to perform very well in the marketplace. But, some games, inevitably we launch it, but it doesn't work, as much as we expected in the market after, after the launch. Then we have to make a very difficult business decisions to shut it down, we try to give enough lead time to the community so that they can be mentally prepared for that and, give them opportunity to enjoy the, like, last, last months with other, others that, they kind of, met within the game community, et cetera.

NIALA: So I am not a gamer. I have a lot of family members who are, and I did become a superfan of the television adaptation of The Last of Us because I loved the story so much. And the same thing when I watched the TV show, the TV adaptation of Halo, and I was just drawn into the incredibly compelling narratives around these worlds.

And I wonder if you think we're at a point in our culture where The worlds and the stories of these games are just like books or plays that can be adapted into other art forms.

SONGYEE: Absolutely, you're right. sometimes I say like, oh, gaming is a new language for this young generation.

They understand and it's almost like fascinating to watch this young people get on the game and like instantly knows what to do and how to navigate. almost it's like they're second nature and gaming is a great platform to tell a story. The story that you experienced as a hero is different from individuals because you're the speed of progression is different.

The how you. Play how do you wonder around the world is different. And so there are infinite stories and There's it's no wonder there are like so many compelling stories that can come out of it

NIALA: How did you first get involved? Like, what was the first game that you played?

SONGYEE: I mean, just like anyone else, I mean, I think when I first have access to personal computer, when I was nine, eight years old, and I still remember at the time, it was before Windows, came out.

NIALA: So was this like the Atari era? This is pre Windows.

SONGYEE: This is the DOS era. DOS era, okay. So I had to have like a put 3.5 inch DOS floppy disk. I remember those. I started a computer and I played snake games and I played some, uh, cassette games and, I loved, uh, playing all of them and as soon as I learned a programming language called BASIC, which was the first programming language, people learned at the time, I started making, Different type of games.

NIALA: So you helped found NCSoft's AI Center, which I take it has helped bringing AI into products. In what ways do you see AI actually changing gaming right now?

SONGYEE: If we step back, I mean, I think that gaming is a very interesting platform for innovation, right? So, think about all the boss monsters and NPC characters, which have been in gaming, for forever, right? They are, autonomous characters that interact with human players in real time.

So, they always have had, like, AI brain to know how to interact with certain player, right? So, we have, uh, at NCSoft, at ArenaNet, we had a VP of AI since 2005, right? So it was well before other industry fully embraced AI as a technology.

And that's not surprising because gaming is, again, is a very safe platform. So even if the technology is not there quite yet to apply fully for autonomous cars, for example, The worst thing that can happen is a client crash in gaming, so you can apply this new technology.

So we always have, gaming is known for an industry or a platform that adopts new technology, just like a cloud or the newest fastest kind of the processors or a graphic card. I think gamers are the early adopters. They're the ones who always embraces new innovation and they expect for game companies to use this new technology and they enjoy using it.

So, AI has been always an integral part of the game development since the early days. So we use it for, not only for like, uh, the NPC character design

NIALA: Can you remind, so NPC, I know it's a non Non player character. You know, so basically it's just the characters who are in the background of the game who are part of the world.

SONGYEE: Right, right, that's right. Yeah, it's not player controlled. But it's like a background characters that can all stick and still interact with the player controlled characters.

It's called NPC characters. And just like at any, other companies that we use AI and data science and prediction for like, for marketing or churn predictions, As well developing NLP engines, tailored for, the gamer chat and chat moderation, or like animation, like efficient, animation tools, or even like music, the background music, all of those things can use interactive technology.

NIALA: In a moment, more with Songyee Yoon on AI and gaming…this is 1 Big Thing.

Welcome back to Axios' 1 Big Thing. I'm Niala Boodhoo, and this week we're bringing you our second conversation from Davos, Switzerland, where I got to spend some time talking with gaming and AI expert Songyee Yoon.

NIALA: You've been very vocal about concerns about how AI may affect society, including via implicit bias. Can you explain why?

SONGYEE: That realization came, from my interactions with the game developers. Many years ago, I realized in games, they're like, most of the hero characters are male characters.

So I said, yeah, like, why don't we have more female hero characters in games? Because now we have more female players too. Because I understand the importance of having, like, aspirational characters, role models, in the society. So I wanted to have more female heroes as well.

And to my surprise I was faced with a very strong pushback and they asked me "Why? Why is it better to have similar number of female characters and male characters in the world?" And that. made me realize I don't have a good answer to it. Like why? I mean, I just thought it was a is a good thing to have a fair representation, but I, I've never thought about like why, why it's better or why is it good?

And I started a long, long journey of kind of asking around what, what is better, what do you mean by, all these values. And, granted this is the questions that philosophers have been asking for hundreds of years. So I kind of reached out to philosophy professors to understand this topic.

And, the more I explore, this area. I realized that all this technology and, the software that we develop really reflects the perspective of those who are developing this. and it's so much, uh, more so in the case of AI, because there are many places that the human, make decisions about which data set. Go into the training set, like I thought that was very important for developers and engineers to have a responsible mindset that their views and perspectives can directly be reflected.

NIALA: So How do you think things stand now when one of the concerns with artificial intelligence is that these systems of inequities might also be built in - because they're being programmed by people who have these biases?

SONGYEE: So, I mean, I think I feel, optimistic today because when I first started talking about this issue many years ago, we didn't talk much about responsible broadband, or like, ethical, like, server storage, right?

It's a kind of technology where we kind of put the adjective, ethical, together. And it's very, very new. So when I started talking about responsible development of AI, ethical AI. I got a lot of questions like, what do you mean? Like, it's a technology. Like, why do we have to think about all these other issues?

But at Davos, like, everyone is talking about responsible AI development. So I feel really optimistic, because I feel like there are so many allies now out there, kind of, agreeing with that, we have to be responsible. So I mean, I think that's, that's one thing. And the other is, everyone, including the consumers and the users of this technology should be cognizant that it's very likely there will, will be some sort of bias and some sort of, representation, mismatch, because of the data that's available out there, right?

One statistic that's really, interesting or like just kind of something that we need to work on is that, only 65 percent of the world population has access to broadband. And if people say, oh, this AI has been developed using the whole world data available on internet, it still doesn't represent the voice of those who do not have access to broadband, probably because they don't tend not to be the authors of the data on internet. mean, regardless, that's kind of the limitation that we have to be aware of. So, we cannot blindly believe, because it's what the machine says, because it's what the algorithm says, it must be right. That's a machine bias. And we have to be very alert about such biases.

NIALA: So How do you think video games, especially as we think about artificial intelligence, can play a role in solving some of the world's problems today?

SONGYEE: I think it's all world has to wake up and, and be very careful about what kind of technology they choose to use. Like a video game is, it's a language, it's a form of media, it's a storytelling platform.

It's a way to kind of depict the world, right? So, I think more responsibility in a developer side is going to be very important to show the world, like what the world is. Worlds should be like we don't want to create too many like stereotypical characters that shows characters like our body type in certain certain way.

I mean, I think it's, we should be very cognizant about the influence that they can have on the audience and, not just the gaming company, but like everyone, it's participating and part of like creating and contributing to the world should have this, the mindset of being responsible.

NIALA: Can I by asking how you find joy and connection in games? Like, is there any favorite game that you have or that you've worked on that's always something that you love to play?

SONGYEE: I mean, I love, I love all the games.

I mean, you don't want to name a favorite child. Like, you love them all.

NIALA: Dr. Songyee Yoon is the author of Push Play. That's a book about how we play games and that's coming out in March. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me here in Davos.

SONGYEE: Thank you so much.

One last voice on this before we go… you might recognize the name, Stephen Totilo, former Axios gaming reporter. He's now reporter and founder of Game File, a newsletter for people curious about the business and culture of video games. I asked Stephen to give us a reality check on the human vs AI touch in gaming now.

STEPHEN TOTILO: Hi Niala, a lot of it really comes down to, do you trust a machine to do what previously a human did? You look at it in terms of, maybe the Gen AI can help with some of the more tedious tasks of creating virtual worlds. This is something I've seen some studios dabble with.

But, they say, it will still require human beings to finesse what the AI creates, it will still require that human hand to make things good enough or fun enough. So, is it worth it? Some developers say yes, some developers say no, it's just not worth the hassle. There's also experimentation involving using Gen AI to create more dialogue.

The idea being, well, it used to be that a human being had to write every line of dialogue for a video game character that the player was speaking to. What if the AI can just create kind of endless reactions to whatever the player is typing in? We've actually seen some tech demos come out along those lines.

They're very robotic. In fact, they usually star robots to kind of get around that. And maybe that's something that's going to have good results long term, but right now it's also been kind of rough. So these could be early days, or these could be discoveries of a dead end. As often is the case, gaming is the test bed for these new technologies.

One thing to also keep in mind is that Players have a voice in this. Gamers are very vocal. Just a couple of years ago, game companies were going gaga over NFTs in Web3. Gamers pushed back. They didn't want Web3 elements in a lot of the games that they played. And companies retreated. A lot of game companies are talking about Gen AI now.

And one of the biggest platforms for PC gaming at least, Steam, it's the main place people go to buy and play PC games, has said, well, we're going to require developers to put a label on their store page saying whether or not they use generative AI tools or not. And we're going to see an interesting reaction to that.

Are players going to be drawn to that? Are they going to be repelled by that? And I suspect where players go is where these game companies are going to go as well.

Stephen Totilo is the founder of the Game File newsletter — you can find that at gamefile.news.

And that's it for this week's edition of 1 Big Thing. Our team includes Supervising Producer Alexandra Botti and Sound Engineer Jay Cowit. Alex Suigura composed our theme music. Aja Whitaker-Moore is Axios' Executive Editor, and Sara Keuhalani Goo is Axios' Editor in Chief.

And special thanks this week to Axios Managing Editor Alison Snyder.

Please text me feedback or story ideas anytime at 202 918 4893, or email podcasts @ axios.com.

I'm Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening, stay safe, and we'll see you back here next Thursday.

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