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Thought Leaders: Michael Mateas

Wwe talk to Michael Mateas, associate professor of computer science at University of California, Santa Cruz, about the intersection of artificial intelligence, art and design -- and its impact on the future of technology.

Stu Horvath

Stu Horvath

By Stu Horvath

Innovation takes many forms within the gaming space, often beginning with insight and inspiration from a single person, be they a game developer, an engineer, a sociologist or anything else within the industry. That’s why we’re tracking down thought leaders: to give you a sneak peek of the digital arts future through their eyes.

In this installment, we talk to Michael Mateas, associate professor of computer science at University of California, Santa Cruz, about the intersection of artificial intelligence, art and design -- and its impact on the future of technology.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your involvement in the gaming/technology industry? Michael Mateas: I’m an associate professor at UC Santa Cruz, where I co-direct the Expressive Intelligence Studio and direct the center for Games and Playable Media. I’ve been working in the area of artificial intelligence–based art and entertainment for 15 years, starting with my work at Carnegie Melon University as a grad student. This work has included new forms of interactive storytelling and games, ambient art generators, interactive documentary film generation and art robotics.

The Center for Games and Playable Media was founded at UC Santa Cruz in 2011 and is one of the largest technically-oriented games research centers in the world. There are five core faculty, many affiliate faculty, and over 30 doctorate students all working to fundamentally expand the expressive possibilities of games. The many research projects taking place in the center all share the general theme of working at the intersection of technology and design research to enable new kinds of playable experiences. How have technological advances impacted your work in the past few years? M.M.: Doing this kind of work requires being fundamentally committed to both creating real, playable experiences (design-centrism) and fundamentally advancing technology (technology-centrism). This is a relatively rare position within academic games research. Most games researchers are either committed to understanding the cultural, interpretative and social dimensions of existing games; or creating experimental games using existing technologies; or taking a particular technology of interest and applying it to games.

For us, there’s a feedback loop between technologies that enable new kinds of experiences that weren’t possible before, and creating new experiences that drive fundamental technology work. Navigating this loop is informed by the critical, humanistic and social understandings of play and games coming out of game studies. Sometimes we enter the loop from the technology side, and sometimes we enter the loop from the design side, but we’re always in the loop. We never just pick up new technologies and start trying to hammer nails with them.

How do you see the industry developing in the future? M.M.: It’s a truism that the industry is currently in an unprecedented state of creative turmoil. Two factors are hugely contributing to this: the rise of indie games and the rise of social games. Indie games have found new audiences for games created by small teams that focus on design innovation. Social games, much to the surprise and sometimes dismay of the traditional games industry, have brought in new audiences with a whole new kind of asynchronous social gameplay. There will always be room for big AAA games, but now many more designs and accompanying economic models are viable, which is good for innovation. Within this climate, here are a few trends I see: The story game continues to be a perennial favorite. Despite persistent complaints among some game designers that narrative and gameplay are incompatible, nearly every major, popular single-player game for consoles and personal computers presents players with a combination of narrative and gameplay. In fact, all the best-rated console games of 2011 share a particular design: carefully intertwined narrative and gameplay.

Going forward, we will see new ways for games to tell stories; in particular, we will see players have more agency over the evolving narrative, as techniques are discovered for more deeply integrating narrative progression and gameplay. Currently, the narrative progression of these games is hard-coded. Moving beyond this so that there are richer connections between gameplay and narrative requires advances in technologies for dynamic story management, autonomous characters and story and language generation. With the rise of cloud gaming as well as server-based gaming in both the social and MMO spaces, we will also see games take more and more advantage of the compute and storage power available in the cloud. When all the game runs on your local console or computer, there are sharp limits on how much execution time the gameplay and AI code can have. Most of the processor is dedicated to graphics.

But moving into the cloud, processes that tolerate higher latency, like character AI and complex procedural content generation, can now have as much compute power as they want. And with all these gameplay traces being stored on the backend, there are huge opportunities to mine patterns from these traces for automatic game customization and tuning. So now, much more intensive processing can be applied to the behavior of games, not just to how they look. I think current social gaming models will start growing stale. As the novelty wears off, players won’t be satisfied with games that repeat the same formula of time- and friend-limited resources with micro-transactions to overcome these limits. This opens possibilities for social games that are more focused on social structure and interaction, which make use of the structure of your friend networks and which allow rapid creation and sharing of content snippets, such as custom quests or challenges. Also, social games have not explored interesting narrative structures much yet, with many opportunities for the collaborative, asynchronous construction of shared stories. Lastly, we will continue to see the evolution of Natural User Interfaces (NUI). Kinect made NUI a household technology. But we’re still in the very early days, with huge opportunities for developing novel game designs that are more fundamentally about the physical interaction (rather than using the NUI like a fancy pointer) as well as opportunities for combining multiple input modalities (gesture, voice, and facial expression). Going forward, in what ways do you see technology impacting our daily lives?

M.M.: More of daily life will be wrapped in playable experiences. Games are one form of media that support playful interaction. But we’re figuring out how to apply playful interaction to many interfaces and experiences.

This is related to the “gameification” trend. But gameification is currently fairly shallow, with a focus on extrinsic motivators like badges, achievements and leaderboards. This doesn’t support playful interaction and exploration. Deeper playful design isn’t about trying to give life a score, but rather about designing for our innate, mammalian desire to play, tapping into play’s inherent capacity for learning, personal growth and pleasure.

Stu Horvath is the managing editor of Digital Innovation Gazette, as well as the man behind the geek culture website, Previously, Horvath has worked at the  New York Daily News Wizardmagazine, Random House,, and He is also a founding member of the NYC Videogame Critics Circle.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.