Computer games are growing up. The behind-the-screens technology that makes gameplay more realistic—and more fun—also paves the way for gaming to move beyond the world of shooter games and into the realms of classic literature and real-life applications.

At the UC Santa Cruz Center for Games and Playable Media, researchers are blending art and artificial intelligence to develop tools that advance the impact of computer games. The top-ranked gaming program attracts students like Stacey Mason, a doctoral fellow in computer science, whose background in literature could eventually make her a player in the booming $80-billion-dollar-a-year games industry.

The computer algorithms that already generate fantastically rendered video games can also create interactive literature, educational media, and social games with life-changing applications. Such “playable media” could have the same impact on this century that television and film had on the last.

The Center for Games and Playable Media (CGPM) has become a world-class hub of innovative research on computer game design, with a program that Princeton Review ranks 8th of the top 25 graduate programs for 2015. At the Center, students, faculty and staff weave artificial intelligence, games, art and design into new and compelling forms of art and entertainment, including interactive narratives in which players can influence story arc and dialogue.

For Mason, the Center was an ideal place to explore interactive fiction. While an undergraduate at the University of Florida, Mason had abandoned computer science for English literature. But an inspiring course on interactive narratives nudged her back toward computer science. “It was the perfect marriage between my interest in computer science and my interest in literature,” she said. She soon discovered that many of the canonical works in interactive narrative were published by a single company outside Boston. After graduating, she contacted the company’s founder and ultimately persuaded him to hire her as an editor. Three years later, Mason came to UC Santa Cruz to tackle a Master of Fine Arts degree at the Digital Arts and New Media Program, immersing herself in the nitty-gritty of writing an interactive story called Between the Cracks.

Today, she’s come full circle back to computer science as she pursues a doctoral degree at the Expressive Intelligence Studio (EIS)—one of the Center’s several labs and collaborative studios. EIS brings together teams of faculty and students to build interactive media powered by artificial intelligence (AI)—systems with knowledge about the way humans behave. This merging of artistic and computer expertise is exactly the kind of thing the Studio’s two co-directors, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Michael Mateas, want to see.

Programs centered in only one discipline can hinder collaboration. That’s because games are inherently interdisciplinary, said associate professor of computational media Wardrip-Fruin. “When students in one discipline try to find students in other disciplines to work with, they end up in a very utilitarian relationship. If the game program is based in the arts, they look for someone in computer science and say, ‘Hey, will you be my programming monkey?’ And if they are based in computer science, they will find someone in the arts and say, ‘Hey will you make this look and sound pretty?’”

At UCSC, the solution has been graduate programs where arts and computer science students collaborate from the beginning of a project. Hoping to build the same interdisciplinarity at the undergraduate level, Wardrip-Fruin and newly hired associate professor of art, Robin Hunicke, have submitted twin proposals for a Bachelor of Arts in Gaming and a revised Bachelor of Science in Computer Game Design. “My dream,” said Wardrip-Fruin, “is to eventually have ways for students in other divisions—say students in the humanities who are working on the interpretation of games—to also be part of this community.”
Another of the Center’s goals is to bring new voices to the game development community by making it easier for anyone to make games. To that end, EIS designs tools to make it as easy to develop a game as it now is for your uncle to blog about his model train sets.

The Center is also developing AI algorithms that enrich social interactions between players and game characters, and create far more possibilities for gameplay. Many computer games are “scripted,” meaning that every scenario is planned in advance, including the story line, scenery, movement, and dialogue. It’s essentially a computerized version of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, in which players must choose whether to go through the right door or the left, and then flip to page 27 or page 152 to get alternate versions of the same story. In scripted narratives, scenarios are limited; climbing out a window isn’t an option.

But digital games don’t have to work this way. Even the 1970s arcade game “Pong” used a simple physics simulator to generate the movements of the ball, rather than scripting every possible path in advance. What is important, the ball’s movements are generated in real time, in response to how the player “hits” the ball. Game makers say the ball’s movement is “procedurally generated.”

Many successful games now rely on procedural gameplay for the movements and interactions of objects, characters, and players. For example, in the game Minecraft when a player walks through a forest, the individual trees are generated on the spot by an algorithm, rather than being created ahead of time by an army of human 3-D modelers. In other games, when a helicopter falls from the sky, the way it turns and bounces on impact is procedurally generated in real time. This makes gameplay faster, more flexible, more realistic, and more fun. Procedural games are also cheaper because scripted scenarios require more writing and hands-on artistry. But in commercial games, such as Call of Duty, even while the physics of gameplay is generated procedurally, dialogue and story arc have remained tightly scripted.

Enter CGPM—not only with procedurally generated dialogue, but also with procedurally generated stories and social interactions. Ten years ago, Michael Mateas—director of the Center for Games and Playable Media—released an innovative game called Façade whose AI dynamically mixed together bits of scripted dialogue. In the game, a player goes to visit two old friends, Grace and Trip, whose marriage is falling apart. The goal is to navigate difficult conversations without being thrown out of Grace and Trip’s apartment. If Trip asks what you think of a photo he took in Italy and you say “romance,” he might respond: “Everything in Italy was SO romantic, the scenery, the food, the wine! Oh! And the art, the art! Isn’t that right, Grace?” But don’t follow up by saying how lovely Grace is looking, or Trip will sulk and might throw you out.

With the aid of novel artificial intelligence procedural algorithms, Façade almost magically blends multiple behaviors. Trip mixes a drink, pursues a conversational gambit, and makes the right facial expressions, all while the game’s AI “drama management system” artfully mimics the dramatic beats of theater or film. Until Façade, none of this was possible, but it was just a first step in developing more advanced AI games.

In 2013, EIS released the award-winning social-AI game named Prom Week. Players help characters get a date in time for the high school prom. To build the game, a team of EIS grad students spent hours watching films such as Mean Girls and gleaned 5,000 social rules, divided into categories such as “buddy up,” “romance down,” or “start enemy.”

Although entertaining, Prom Week was largely a platform for testing out EIS’s social-AI game engine Comme il Faut (French for “as it should be,” or etiquette). That kind of technology comes with a serious side that has attracted funding from both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Defense.

For example, Comme il Faut could be used to make “games” in which police officers hone negotiating skills or oncologists learn how to discuss terminal illness with patients. Right now, costly professional actors offer the only way to provide such realistic training. The Comme il Faut research is important enough that the U.S. military’s research arm, DARPA, is fund-ing a CGPM project to create realistic game characters for training environments.

For the Expressive Intelligence Studio, emotion is the name of the game. “We are interested in exploring experiences that include the full spectrum of human emotion,” said Stacey Mason. “People don’t necessarily demand a flashy game; they want a good story.”

One UCSC doctoral student, Peter Mawhorter, proposed a theory of “choice poetics”—a reference to Aristotle’s classic on story telling. Like a skilled playwright, Mawhorter’s choice algorithm achieves specific emotional effects by pacing the easy and difficult choices a player must make.

“If characters can put on a meaningful performance and we can feel empathy, caring, or anger,” explained Wardrip-Fruin,”games can open up an emotional palette that can help shape how people think about their lives.”