Apr 9, 2024 - Technology

Gaming finds new role as AI's open ethics lab

Illustration of a distorted wireframe landscape with geometrics shapes around it.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Gaming is a key testbed for AI technologies and the values society is embedding in digital worlds, a top gaming industry executive and AI researcher argues in a new book.

Why it matters: Gaming, AI and other tech industries continue to be dominated by men — even though plenty of women are avid gamers, and women are more likely than men to be exposed to AI in their work.

"When there's only one group of people deciding the rules and mechanics of a game, they impose their worldview on the rest of us. In that way, their games shape the communities in which we all live," writes Songyee Yoon in her new book, "Push Play: Gaming For a Better World."

  • Yoon is president and chief strategy officer at NCSOFT, one of the world's largest online game developers, headquartered in South Korea.

Zoom out: Yoon draws parallels between the biases perpetuated in games featuring male-only heroes and female characters sporting "impossible body shape[s] with no muscle and carrying big weapons," and the biases that get built into AI when it's trained on skewed data.

  • Studies have found people absorb those biases from AI.
  • Once biases and values are codified in a game or an AI model, "it becomes a part of our culture" and can become "the de facto view of our society," Yoon tells Axios.

The big picture: The gaming industry has long faced controversies over gender, representation and bias — from Gamergate ten years ago to current attacks against supposedly "woke" developers.

  • A report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released earlier this year found 76% of adult gamers in the U.S. in 2023 said they experienced harassment while playing online multiplayer games — the first decrease in five years. There were increases in harassment reported among women, Black and young gamers.
  • Over the years, a vast majority of players said they also had some positive experiences while playing in the online world, the report says.

Yoon writes there is mounting evidence "avatars can have therapeutic effects for certain gamer populations."

  • She cites a study that found transgender and gender nonconforming gamers "reported higher feelings of self-worth and confidence when they played avatars that matched their gender expression."
  • Games in that sense can provide a space for users "to explore, develop, and rehearse their gender identities," Yoon argues.
  • They can "build communities of support that they might not have in the real world," she writes.

Yes, but: About 1 in 10 adult gamers in the ADL report said they could never express themselves fully in a game without fearing negative consequences, indicating the industry still has a ways to go.

The latest: Gaming continues to grapple with issues of inclusion and safety even as it has emerged as a key arena for AI experimentation.

  • NCSOFT last year announced it developed its own large language models for game production, including the development of "digital humans, generative AI platforms, and conversational language models." Other game developers are deploying generative AI tools as well.
  • Yoon helped found NCSOFT's AI and Natural Language Processing Centers that focus on how the company integrates AI into its products. She received her PhD from MIT, where she worked on synthetic characters that human players see as sympathetic and empathetic to them.

As games and AI evolve — at times together — Yoon says there is an opportunity for game players and developers in crafting responsible AI.

  • For example, she writes, gamers are familiar with AI-driven non-playable characters — constructed from "deep algorithms that give the player the perception that the world of the game is vibrant and alive .... and their actions in the game have consequences."
  • Yoon compares them to the automated assistants people increasingly encounter in banking, healthcare and shopping.
  • Gamers' experience with these characters positions them "as early adopters and advocates for responsible AI integration," she writes.
  • Yoon says games are an opportunity to think about "self-policing and [to] help everyone to behave in their best self to really create a long lasting supportive community."

AI also "provides a mirror for all of us," Yoon says.

  • The outputs of AI systems — their reactions and recommendations — are "reflections of our past and it's not necessarily the world that we would like to build going forward."

The bottom line: "There is so much that we still don't know about this new tool, and the more we play with it in our games, the more we can realize its potential," Yoon argues.

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