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January 2015 - 

Superstition in Game Design

Dr Ben Kirman

Is AI another word for 'magic'?

A picture of participants playing Sacred Harvest. A game where groups of players develop a series of rituals to appease the AI

What is Artifical Intelligence? There are technical definitions in how it is built, but how do we understand and deal with AI in our everyday lives? It seems like every gadget and appliance is now imbued with this mysterious 'intelligence', from voice-controlled assistants on our phones, to 'smart' fridges and coffee makers. However, to what extent is this intelligence real, and how much of it is illusion and our natural human tendency to ascribe human-like motivations to things we don't understand - is AI another word for 'magic'?

In this design project, we are working with psychologists to explore how people respond to different levels of AI complexity and how they come to understand it. Using video games as a platform, we are looking at how humans develop superstitions around this complex and enigmatic technology.

A picture of the game Non-League Football Supporter where you play a supporter of a team managed by an AI manager.

In Sacred Harvest, a group of players take the role of an ancient farming community, developing a series of rituals to appease the AI gods. These ritual movements are acted out in a simple dance. Depending on the content and competence of the ritual, the AI gods will either punish or reward the players. They must then divine the nature of this feedback and refine their rituals for the next year. 

Non-League Football Supporter is a mobile game where you take the part of a supporter of a team controlled by an AI manager in a league of AI football teams. Your only decisions are around what you wear, eat, drink and bring to each of the team's matches. Based on the successes and failures of the team, the player must figure out how to support them as best as they can.

In these projects, and others, we take a playful approach to exploring how humans negotiate and come to understand the cryptic nature of Artifical Intelligence.