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Students’ Video Game Tests New Artificial-Intelligence Engine — at the Prom

Few rituals conjure a storm of emotions like the high-school prom. Some remember the night forever, and others try to forget it as soon as they leave the gym.

A team of students at the University of California at Santa Cruz saw opportunity in that pre-prom angst. They used their new artificial intelligence engine to build an online game that re-creates the prom and all of its attendant social scheming. The designers say their experiment, dubbed Prom Week, makes social interactions richer and less predictable than those of other games on the market.

In the game, players help high-school characters realize their prom-night dreams, such as claiming the prom king’s crown or brokering peace with a rival. Players lead characters through social interactions with their peers, and each choice influences how the characters’ relationships evolve. Prom Week lets players achieve their goals by developing relationships organically instead of embarking on a predetermined path.

On one game level, the player directs Chloe through “the most terrifying moment of her life”: asking Doug (identified as a cute boy from algebra class) out on a date. The player can tell Chloe to flirt, brag, share an interest, or use other tactics to woo her would-be date; Chloe’s relationship with Doug changes based on the player’s choice. Her prom-night experience, good or bad, is dictated by the player’s success in accomplishing her goals. As the player progresses, other characters are unlocked, leading to levels at which the player has to interact with more characters to change the social landscape of the digital high school.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin, an associate professor of computer science at the University of California at Santa Cruz and member of the team that developed Prom Week, said the game is unique because its characters’ actions have meaningful, realistic consequences. Many social interactions in popular games like The Sims, he said, are either scripted or so routine that they reduce complex relationships to simple transactions. Prom Week’s characters, by contrast, have complicated histories and personalities, thanks to the game’s innovative “social physics engine” that governs behavior.

“Social physics is an attempt to make game play that’s about relationships, where you still have strategy, you still have actions you can take and not take, but what you’re thinking about is how these characters feel about each other and what they want to accomplish in life,” he said.

The game captures the “human messiness” of real-life social interactions, which are not always predictable, said Mary Flanagan, the director of Tiltfactor, a design lab at Dartmouth College that investigates social issues through games.“Sometimes, in a lot of our computational models, the reactions we get are logical,” she said. “And in real life, they’re not.” The emotionally charged setting of the high-school prom, though it may seem melodramatic, is really a useful place to explore how people process cause and effect in emotional ways, Ms. Flanagan said.

Mr. Wardrip-Fruin said he hopes social games like Prom Week can have an influence beyond the gaming community. His lab is part of the Siren Project, an effort to create conflict-resolution games that will be used in European schools.

Prom Week has been selected as a finalist in technical excellence at the upcoming Independent Game Festival in San Francisco, and is the only nominated work created by a university team. It will be released on Facebook and other platforms on Valentine’s Day.

[Image courtesy Noah Wardrip-Fruin]

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