The Future of Social Gaming: Can Big Brother Play Too?

Mark Stephens

Being able to measure levels of engagement amongst players has long been the Holy Grail for game developers. Technological advancements mean that it is now possible to do that more scientifically using biometrics. The ability to “read” the signs of engagement in one’s eyes or on one’s fingertips is not without concerns of Big Brother playing the game with you; but that’s unlikely to prevent this technology being used more widely in gaming in the future. In fact it’s already started.


Biometrics and the Gaming Industry

Back in 2010 Gabe Newell, co-founder of Valve Corporation, said:

“We think biometrics will be really important…We’ve seen a lot of work since the Wii shipped to explore how motion — and with this next generation of controllers — how vision systems are going to affect our games.”

The thinking was that the emergence of biometrics would provide the gaming industry with something new – which it always loves to embrace.
Interest levels and players states have been part of game design for years, but as that can increasingly be determined by measuring features such as heart rate, skin temperature, pupil dilation and eye-tracking, it has naturally piqued a lot of interest.

Since 2006 advanced accelerometer and optical sensor technology has become standard for mobile devices, but true biometrics is still only just breaking through into the gaming world.

Nintendo was one of the first of the big gaming companies to become interested in using such advanced technology, with their “vitality sensor” on the “Wiimote” (controller for the Wii). Work began in 2009 and it was designed to be a step-up from the previous motion-sensing capability controllers that had gesture recognition. The “vitality sensor” was a fingertip pulse sensor, but it ran into problems: in July 2013 the project was cancelled due to difficulties – it only worked on 90 percent of users, which was deemed nowhere near good enough.

This hasn’t deterred other games leaders like Sony from making bold predictions. In 2011 Shuhei Yoshida of Sony Worldwide Studios said he expected biometrics to not only be able to detect players’ emotions, but also that within a decade to offer unprecedented levels of interactivity:

“In ten years’ time I’d like to think we’ll be able to form a map of the player, combining other sorts of sensory data together, from facial expressions to heart rate…You can see how, over a period of time, you can form a map of the player and their emotional state, whether they’re sad or happy….The more accurate that map can become, the more we can tailor it to the experience.”

True to this, in September this year Sony said that its new PS console would include facial recognition and it was looking at fingerprint biometrics. Microsoft has also confirmed that the next Xbox will include facial recognition, which it will use for ad targeting.

Possibilities in Gaming

Gaming tests have traditionally tried to capture data about players. Studies can be performed whereby the external data is known from a demographic profile (age, gender, location, etc); but people with the same profile can react differently to games.


Real-time biometric data adds much more oversight of what’s going on inside a player’s mind when they’re playing. This builds up a much more accurate profile of the gamer and the gaming experience can be tailored more to preferences.

There are many possibilities for the gaming world as this technology advances further. How about players being matched by biometric results, so that similar gameplay interests are assured?

Just this past week CEO of mobile app developer Obscene Interactive (OBJ Enterprises), Paul Watson, said:

“Biometric applications for medically themed games is obvious…but medicine is just the tip of the iceberg. We’re in talks now with potential partners that are developing social games that use biometrics to detect lies, horror games that can ramp up intensity based on your fear response and so much more.”

It’s fair to say that biometrics opens up possibilities that most people haven’t even imagined yet. But it remains to be seen how online gambling sites would use biometrics: if you were holding a Royal Flush in a big online Poker game, would you want your pupil dilation measured?!

Biometric Challenges

Biometrics is not far away from becoming more widely used in gaming. However it’s not without some major challenges.

For instance, eye tracking technology doesn’t account for peripheral vision; and players all have different bodies so what is seen as the “norm” or the “benchmark” to be used? What happens if the player has been exercising immediately before playing – this affects pulse, temperature, perhaps even pupil dilation?

At the moment biometrics are best used in conjunction with traditional methods when testing games, rather than as a sole metric. For instance, combining biometric read-outs with video, observation and interviewing the gamer.

In a wider sense, gathering biometric data is invasive and can be interpreted as an infringement on a person’s privacy. Many of us voluntarily give up personal data to the likes of Google, but would we be happy to do that for other companies, especially if we didn’t know when it was happening? The ethical challenges alone are huge.

Despite these challenges, you should expect to see it increasingly enter gaming news in the coming years.