How AI video games can help reveal the mysteries of the human mind

This article first appeared in The Checkup, MIT Technology Review’s weekly biotech newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Thursday, and read articles like this first, sign up here. 

This week I’ve been thinking about thought. It was all brought on by reading my colleague Niall Firth’s recent cover story about the use of artificial intelligence in video games. The piece describes how game companies are working to incorporate AI into their products to create more immersive experiences for players.

These companies are applying large language models to generate new game characters with detailed backstories—characters that could engage with a player in any number of ways. Enter in a few personality traits, catchphrases, and other details, and you can create a background character capable of endless unscripted, never-repeating conversations with you.

This is what got me thinking. Neuroscientists and psychologists have long been using games as research tools to learn about the human mind. Numerous video games have been either co-opted or especially designed to study how people learn, navigate, and cooperate with others, for example. Might AI video games allow us to probe more deeply, and unravel enduring mysteries about our brains and behavior?

I decided to call up Hugo Spiers to find out. Spiers is a neuroscientist at University College London who has been using a game to study how people find their way around. In 2016, Spiers and his colleagues worked with Deutsche Telekom and the games company Glitchers to develop Sea Hero Quest, a mobile video game in which players have to navigate a sea in a boat. They have since been using the game to learn more about how people lose navigational skills in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

The use of video games in neuroscientific research kicked into gear in the 1990s, Spiers tells me, following the release of 3D games like Wolfenstein 3D and Duke Nukem. “For the first time, you could have an entirely simulated world in which to test people,” he says.

Scientists could observe and study how players behaved in these games: how they explored their virtual environment, how they sought rewards, how they made decisions. And research volunteers didn’t need to travel to a lab—their gaming behavior could be observed from wherever they happened to be playing, whether that was at home, at a library, or even inside an MRI scanner.

For scientists like Spiers, one of the biggest advantages of using games in research is that people want to play them. The use of games allows scientists to explore fundamental experiences like fun and curiosity. Researchers often offer a small financial incentive to volunteers who take part in their studies. But they don’t have to pay people to play games, says Spiers.

You’re much more likely to have fun if you’re motivated. It’s just not quite the same when you’re doing something purely for the money. And not having to pay participants allows researchers to perform huge studies on smaller budgets. Spiers has been able to collect data on over 4 million people from 195 countries, all of whom have willingly played Sea Hero Quest.  

AI could help researchers go even further. A rich, immersive world filled with characters that interact in realistic ways could help them study how our minds respond to various social settings and how we relate to other individuals. By observing how players interact with AI characters, scientists can learn more about how we cooperate—and compete—with others. It would be far cheaper and easier than hiring actors to engage with research volunteers, says Spiers.

Spiers himself is interested in learning how people hunt, whether for food, clothes, or a missing pet. “We still use these bits of our brain that our ancestors would have used daily, and of course some traditional communities still hunt,” he tells me. “But we know almost nothing about how the brain does this.” He envisions using AI-driven nonplayer characters to learn more about how humans cooperate for hunting.

There are other, newer questions to explore. At a time when people are growing attached to “virtual companions,” and an increasing number of AI girlfriends and boyfriends are being made available, AI video-game characters could also help us understand these novel relationships. “People are forming a relationship with an artificial agent,” says Spiers. “That’s inherently interesting. Why would you not want to study that?”

Now read the rest of The Checkup

Read more from MIT Technology Review’s archive:

My fellow London-based colleagues had a lot of fun generating an AI game character based on Niall. He turned out to be a sarcastic, smug, and sassy monster.

Google DeepMind has developed a generative AI model that can generate a basic but playable video game from a short description, a hand-drawn sketch, or a photo, as my colleague Will Heaven wrote earlier this year. The resulting games look a bit like Super Mario Bros.

Today’s world is undeniably gamified, argues Bryan Gardiner. He explores how we got here in another article from the Play issue of the magazine.

Large language models behave in unexpected ways. And no one really knows why, as Will wrote in March.

Technologies can be used to study the brain in lots of different ways—some of which are much more invasive than others. Tech that aims to read your mind and probe your memories is already being used, as I wrote in a previous edition of The Checkup.

From around the web:

Bad night of sleep left you needing a pick-me-up? Scientists have designed an algorithm to deliver tailored sleep-and-caffeine-dosing schedules to help tired individuals “maximize the benefits of limited sleep opportunities and consume the least required amount of caffeine.” (Yes, it may have been developed with the US Army in mind, but surely we all stand to benefit?) (Sleep)

Is dog cloning a sweet way to honor the memory of a dearly departed pet, or a “frivolous and wasteful and ethically obnoxious” pursuit in which humans treat living creatures as nothing more than their own “stuff”? This feature left me leaning toward the latter view, especially after learning that people tend to like having dogs with health problems … (The New Yorker)

States that have enacted the strongest restrictions to abortion access have also seen prescriptions for oral contraceptives plummet, according to new research. (Mother Jones)

And another study has linked Texas’s 2021 ban on abortion in early pregnancy with an increase in the number of infant deaths recorded in the state. In 2022, across the rest of the US, the number of infant deaths ascribed to anomalies present at birth decreased by 3.1%. In Texas, this figure increased by 22.9%. (JAMA Pediatrics)

We are three months into the bird flu outbreak in US dairy cattle. But the country still hasn’t implemented a sufficient testing infrastructure and doesn’t fully understand how the virus is spreading. (STAT)

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