The disturbing rise of video games that spy on you


Tech conglomerate Tencent caused a sensation last year with the announcement that it would comply with China’s directive to integrate facial recognition technology into its games in the country. The move was in line with China’s strict gaming regulation policies, which place limits on the time minors can spend playing video games – an effort to curb addictive behavior, since gambling is state-labeled. like “spiritual opium”.

The state’s use of biometric data to control its population is, of course, invasive and particularly intrusive on the privacy of underage users, but Tencent isn’t the only video game company tracking its players, and nor is this recent case a completely new phenomenon. All over the world, video games, one of the most widespread digital media, are installing surveillance and control networks.

In basic terms, video games are systems that translate physical inputs, such as hand movement or gesture, into various machine-readable electrical or electronic outputs. The user, by acting in accordance with the rules of the game and the specifications of the hardware, is analyzed as data by the video game. Write nearly a decade ago, sociologists Jennifer R. Whitson and Bart Simon have argued that games are increasingly understood as systems for easily reducing human action to knowable and predictable formats.

Video games are therefore a natural means of tracking, and researchers have long argued that large datasets of gamer activities in-game are a rich resource for understanding gamer psychology and cognition. In a study starting in 2012, Nick Yee, Nicolas Ducheneaut, and Les Nelson retrieved recorded player activity data from the World of Warcraft Armory website – essentially a database that records all the things a player’s character did in the game (how many of a certain monster I’ve killed, how many times I’ve died, how many fish I’ve caught, etc.).

The researchers used this data to infer personality characteristics (in combination with data provided by a survey). The article suggests, for example, that there is a correlation between survey respondents ranked as more conscientious in their approach to gaming and the tendency to spend more time doing repetitive and boring tasks in the game, such as fishing. . Conversely, those whose characters most often fell to their deaths from heights were less conscientious, according to their survey responses.

The correlation between personality and quantitative gameplay data is certainly not without problems. The relationship between personality and identity and video game activity is complex and idiosyncratic; for example, to research suggests that player identity intersects with gender, racial, and sexual identity. Moreover, there has been a general pushback against claims that Big Data produces new knowledge rooted in correlation. Despite this, gaming companies are increasingly realizing the value of big data sets to better understand what a gamer likes, how they play, what they’re playing, what they’re likely to spend money on (in freemium games), how and when to deliver the right content, and how to solicit the right kinds of player sentiment.

While there aren’t any numbers on how many video game companies monitor their players in-game (although, as a recent article suggests, major publishers and developers like Epic, EA, and Activision explicitly state that they capture user data in their licensing agreements), a new industry of companies selling middleware data analysis tools, often used by developers of games, was born. Those Data analysis The tools promise to make users more receptive to continued consumption through the use of large-scale data analytics. Phone analytic, once available only to the biggest video game studios – which could hire data scientists to capture, clean and analyze data, and software engineers to develop in-house analytics tools – are now commonplace across the board. of the sector, presented as “accessible”. tools that provide a competitive advantage in a market crowded with companies like Unity, GameAnalytics, Where Amazon Web Services. (Although as recent study shows, the extent to which these tools are truly “accessible” is debatable, requiring technical expertise and time to implement). years only, providing game developers with different forms of information. One tool– essentially Uber for game testing – allows companies to outsource quality assurance testing and provides data-driven insight into results. Another one supposedly uses AI to understand player value and maximize retention (and spend, with a focus on big spenders).


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