These Videogames Can Read Your Mind

New software will let games of the future learn about your play habits, and could use that information to game you out of extra dough.

03.10.16 5:01 AM ET

Playing videogames in your underwear might not be a good idea in the future, if you don’t want studios to see you in the buff. With some new software advances, gaming is about to get more intimate, but not necessarily in ways that you’d prefer.

This month Fast Company ran a piece detailing the research of Affectiva, a MIT lab pioneering facial recognition systems that would make gaming a more intimate and individual experience, and give studios a window into how players respond to their products.

But Affectiva isn’t a gaming group; their technology is already in use to better understand reactions to advertising and political content. But with the release of a new plugin, Affectiva is allowing game designers to build recognition into their games in an always-on capacity that could have some implications for privacy.

No, you’re not likely to see TSA-style photos of your nude self plastered on the walls of Bungie and Activision some day. Instead what publishers and designers might be gaining is insight into your online gaming experience—insight they can use both to improve your experience, and perhaps keep you hooked.

This isn’t the first time gaming has been the front line of face recognition pioneering. Just before Xbox One was released in November 2013, the PR team at Microsoft was focusing on their pioneering voice and facial recognition technology in the form of the Kinect: a peripheral camera/microphone that allowed Xbox One to do some pretty impressive but concerning things—things that created some paranoia.

At the time, the company was previewing a list of features. Kinect could hear your voice commands; Kinect could log you into the console just by seeing you walk into the room. But there were other functions being included for future game developers: the ability to read a user’s heart rate from across the room; detailed facial recognition that could tell if you were, say, scared, or not paying attention.

The idea was that, with those features, a horror game designer could crank up the fear factor if you didn’t seem scared enough, and a drill sergeant could call you out for looking off to the side in the tutorial of a first-person shooter.

Some of those things are active now as part of the experience, while others haven’t really been implemented by game designers. Microsoft had extensive policies about what designers would and wouldn’t have access to, effectively limited the spread of information.

But with Affectiva’s plugin, it would be the same capabilities in the hands of someone else: game designers. Gaming companies would also have a lot of power over gamers as customers, especially if they can effectively spend hours monitoring them as they digest content. It would also mean they could squeeze more profit and play out of more addiction-sensitive gamers.

The Economist published a piece explaining just what’s so darn addictive about video games, and they highlighted three factors: a sense of escape, social obligations and team pressure, and unpredictable rewards.

Like slot machines, videogames can “randomly” pay out rewards to players after a certain number of attempts have been made to find those rewards. In a game it might be better armor or weapons for a character, or new options for further play. Before games went online many of these things were preprogrammed rewards with clear definitions of how they could be obtained. Now it’s about gaming a “drop” system where certain actions have a chance—not a promise—of giving you what you want.

It’s bad enough that games can lock players into repeating the same content in order to get rewards, but imagine if the game could see your face. At the moment you looked like you were about to quit, you would miraculously get what you’ve been working for or a seemingly impossible challenge might suddenly get a lot easier.

Customized player experiences aren’t necessarily bad, but at the point where the software is actively choosing how long to make you suffer for what you want, it’s a slippery slope to monetizing that. A request for comment from Microsoft was declined as the company wrestles with the future of Kinect as part of their consoles. But Affectiva’s plugin works with just about any old webcam, on just about any operating system.

That monetization example may be extreme, and it may be far away in terms of the technology. For now, Vegas isn’t watching to see how tired or bummed out you look—not as part of their algorithm anyway. But as more companies want to watch your face and collect data, it’s only a matter of time before they find ways to use it for profit.