Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Life-ification of Games: Facial Recognition in L.A. Noire

In the recent past we've seen a rise in the "Gamification" of various aspects of our digital life. Developers of websites, mobile apps, and computer programs have begun appealing to our natural inclination to accomplish objectives in pursuit of some goal or achievement in an attempt to make mundane tasks, such as filling out a list or completing a survey, more enjoyable. The idea is to make people associate certain products with gameplay rather than tedious work, so that people return to said products with more frequency and with a better attitude.

Foursquare lets you earn achievements and titles. LinkedIn provides you with a progress bar, tracking the completion of your profile. All over the Internet, we're seeing creative applications of every gaming mechanic except the boss fight. But how have games themselves reacted to the gamification craze? Some games have further gamified themselves, turning the mirror inward onto additional mini-games and rewards (such as Mortal Kombat's system of virtual currency). Others, like L.A. Noire, have taken the completely opposite path and decided to "life-ify" their game.

In order to progress through the story of L.A. Noire, your character (an LAPD detective in 1947) has to interrogate suspects and determine whether they are lying or telling the truth based only on their responses and subtle facial cues. The game is able to accomplish this feat with absolutely stunning and state-of-the-art software created by Australian company Depth Analysis, and put to use by game developer Team Bondi. But what this technology does is make your success in the game contingent not upon your gaming skills, but on your real-life conversation skills.

A novel idea, to be sure. But what does it mean for the gaming community when Gamification and Life-ification start to converge to a single point?

Rockstar Games (the publisher behind Team Bondi's L.A. Noire) has been leading the charge in using their games to hold a mirror up to life. In GTA IV, your character has possession of a cell phone (accessed by pressing L1), on which you can make and receive calls, read text messages, store all your contacts, set a reminder for a certain time, and (more practically) access the game's side missions. You can also browse the in-game Internet (from anything to dating websites to classified ads), watch the in-game cable television, and go on in-game dates with your in-game girlfriends. It almost gets to the point where keeping up with all your virtual mundane responsibilities becomes as much work as keeping up with your real-life mundane responsibilities.

GTA was far from the first game to factor real-life responsibilities into the gameplay; does anybody remember Tamagotchis, and the unbearable stress caused by the incessant beeping of that nasty, overly-dependent little mass of pixels? At least with GTA, you can stop the constant calls triggering side missions and texts from your criminal friends wanting to hang out by turning off your system. If you wanted a break from your virtual Tamagotchi pet, you'd wind up with a dead Tamagotchi pet. I don't think my 10-year-old self ever got over the trauma of coming home from school and seeing my erstwhile little friend lifelessly twitching in a pile of his own droppings.

So we've seen various gaming platforms try to emulate the inner workings of everyday life, both the important responsibilities and the mind-numbing regular tasks. But what we've never seen before is an aspect of real life so accurately portrayed in the world of a game. Thanks to 32 precisely placed cameras, impeccable lighting, and lots of orange T-shirts, Depth Analysis's MotionScan technology can capture every inch of an actor's face, enabling you to observe your conversation-mate in agonizing detail. Now not only does my gaming experience revolve around doing things I would do in real life, but it actually *looks* like it could be happening in (a pixelated version of) real life.

With the advent of this technology, a lot of people are talking about the burgeoning link between games and cinema, since now everything looks like it could have been shot with a movie camera. But the facial recognition software isn't used to enhance the cutscenes of L.A. Noire, it's directly linked with the gameplay. You need to see accurate representations of these faces in order to make the correct decisions to progress through the game, they're not there just to look pretty. And making choices about which way to proceed in a conversation based on subtle facial cues is something you have to do in real life, not something you generally want to watch a movie about.

So if I'm playing games about mundane real-life tasks at the same time as my actual mundane real-life tasks are being configured to seem more like games, where does it all end? Can we find a happy medium between the games we play because we want to escape from reality and the games our lives are becoming through gamification? Will the two eventually converge into a gigantic Virtual Reality, where the game aspects become indistinguishable from the actual world? If that's where we're headed, then I'd immediately put my money into companies like Depth Analysis. Because if I'm going to be gamified, I'd like to look as lifelike as technologically possible.