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Thursday, 19 July 2007

Google and Game Profiling

Google and Game Profiling: The Hype is Hyped

By David W. Tschanz

Freelance Writer - Saudi Arabia

Google's done it again. Or rather, it did it a couple of years ago. But the media has recently found out about it and, oh my, lions and tigers and bears are about to trample on our privacy as we enter a Big Brother Orwellian future, or so we're being told.

The basic premise is this: Google, the multi-billion dollar Internet giant, has applied for a patent describing a profiling technique to be used on people playing games online. Google intends to use this to help it target advertisements based on the player's personality. For example, if he or she plays a character as an explorer, it is likely this is a person you would target ads for travel.

Privacy groups are concerned that this might impinge upon people's rights and freedom to protect their data, especially that it is always possible for governments to take out a court order to access data stored by search engines (read " Between Google, Your Privacy and the US Government ".)

As with so many reports from the media about the Internet and privacy, this one warrants a much closer look to separate fact from fiction and reality from fantasy. As so often happens, the reality is a lot less exciting than the hype.

What's the Patent All About?

"Decisions made by the players may provide more information such as whether the player is a risk taker, risk averse, aggressive, passive, intelligent, follower, leader, etc."

The patent application that has created the current media-based furor since it became public several weeks ago was actually first filed back in 2005. The patent describes a technology invented by Shumeet Baluja, a staff research scientist at Google.

Baluja's research and efforts extend a monitoring system that he developed to use a laptop's microphone to monitor a lot of things, from television shows to video games. The technology, as described in the patent's abstract, is based on the notion that "information about a person's interests and gaming behavior may be determined by monitoring their online gaming activities (and perhaps making inferences from such activities)."

The patent explains how this can be done.

"As example one example, if a user selected a racing car from Dodge, the system may show a Dodge ad or something related. As another example, if the user selected a sports team from Miami, the system may show ads for tickets for events in Miami. As another example, if a user selected a soundtrack of "Beastie Boys" in a video game, the system may suggest ads for rap/hip hop and other related music, not Britney Spears. As yet another example, if a user selected a black car to drive in a racing game, the system may show ads with black cars, instead of car in other colors. As still yet anther example, if the user selected a male character, the system may show ads tailored to males. If the user has been playing for over two hours continuously, the system may display ads for pizza-hut, coke, coffee and other related goods." (Baluja)

In other words, by keeping track of how a user plays a game (in this instance we mean online role playing games — commonly known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Games or MMORPG), Google can build up a profile about him or her. The resulting more detailed portrait of a particular gamer is much better and more refined than the sort of profile that mere generic demographic information can provide.

Conceptually, it's simply a natural outgrowth of the customization and targeting that advertisers use now. Because I happen to work in Saudi Arabia (and the IP address of the computer I am using shows it comes from the region), and I gave Yahoo my age and gender when I registered for my e-mail address there, I'm profiled. The banner ads they put up on the top of the page and elsewhere for me are for things like Islamic matrimonial sites, Ramadan recipes, and how to get an American green card. Some ads deal with other materials and prescriptions that a middle-aged man would be interested in. My wife gets ads that don't interest me but that advertisers think she might want to buy.

There have also been announcements that both Microsoft and Intel intended making moves to secure some of that revenue for themselves.

This latest system is intended to allow Google to profile players of an online game, and by watching how he or she plays, refine the ad to the person even further. It's the sort of targeted marketing that advertisers have been dreaming about since the beginning of time.

How would it work? What would it do? What sort of detail could Baluja's system collect?

Useful information, especially in a MMORPG, can include, in the words of the actual patent, "the specific dialogue entered by the users while chatting or interacting with other players/characters within the game. For example, the dialogue could indicate that the player is aggressive, profane, polite, literate, illiterate, influenced by current culture or subculture, etc. Also decisions made by the players may provide more information such as whether the player is a risk taker, risk averse, aggressive, passive, intelligent, follower, leader, etc. This information may be used and analyzed in order to help select and deliver more relevant ads to users."

The patent also says that the ads can be more than just pictures on the ever familiar billboard. It can add other technologies, such as voice. The patent, and I am not making this up, gives an example of this: "in a car racing game, after a user crashes his Honda civic [sic], an announcer could be used to advertise by saying for instance 'if he had a Hummer, he would have gotten the better of that altercation.'" I personally find this more scary than any privacy issue.

Why now? The in-game advertising market is reportedly huge. There have also been announcements that both Microsoft and Intel intended making moves to secure some of that revenue for themselves. So obviously Google was going to have to make a move.

This new idea, and remember it is only a patent application, now two years old and not an in-production system, goes way beyond what sort of car a person likes to drive. Baluja's system would try to interpret players' words and actions as they play the game.

This is attractive to the people who pay for game development which is incredibly expensive, and to those looking to squeeze every last penny of advertising revenue out of their activities.

Because of a lack of appreciation for what is actually happening though, privacy advocates are in a tizzy and the mass media is hyping it for all its worth.

What It Really Means

The odds are good that they'll get just as disgusted by real-world commercial entities invading their fantasy world in a marketing pitch.

Let's start with the patent itself. This is a two-year-old application and has not yet been implemented; in fact, it is not yet clear Google will actually use the technology. As technology observers know, many companies take out defensive patents, which means they reserve potentially profitable ideas, simply to stop the competition from doing it first.

The other reality is that publicly filed Google applications can be meaningless. "Google registers different patents irrespective of whether we actually intend to use them," a Google spokesman told the UK newspaper The Guardian.

Another question is how useful will this technology be anyway? In these games, players are generally taking a role, playing out a character that interests them, but is generally far from the reality of the human being. It's fairly typical for the quiet fellow to be the meanest guy on the block and so forth.

Then there are the players, like my son, who will be different types at once just to find out what they do, or how a wizard differs from an elf differs from a dragon. Another problem is the nature of some of the games, where there may not simply be enough different activities that can be used to formulate a meaningful profile.

Finally of course, does a player's in-game action really translate into usable information for advertisers? Someone who drives nothing but Mercedes in racing games might be a good target for Mercedes advertising. On the other hand, if a player shoots cops and visits the prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto, does that mean he's a good target for AK-47 and escort service ads? I sure hope not. In all likelihood, the ads are likely to be as efficiently targeted (and pursued) as the Islamic matrimonial portals are to me.

Another issue is whether or not the targets of this technology — gamers — will even accept such an intrusive system.

Most MMORPG players are already annoyed by the never ending stream of gold pharmers (people or automated characters that sell in-game items for real money; why anyone would buy those to start with is another topic entirely). So the odds are good that they'll get just as disgusted by real-world commercial entities invading their fantasy world in a marketing pitch. For some, the difference between that and spam will be very fine, and they're likely to take their business and their characters elsewhere.

So is this psychological profiling with Orwellian aspects? Hardly.

Some industry observers even argue that the whole thing is dead before it starts, which is why Google isn't doing anything with it. Can you imagine the "value" of providing potentially inaccurate data for advertisements that no developer will run in their game for fear of a player revolt? If your answer is "none" then go to the head of the class.


Adam, David and Bobbie Johnson. "Google may use games to analyse net users." The Guardian. Last accessed 22 Jun 2007.

Baluja, Shumeet. "Using information from user-video game interactions to target advertisements, such as advertisements to be served in video games for example." US Patent & Trademark Office. 29 March 2007.

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