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Bots for play: Professor uses AI to design video games

Assistant professor Christoffer Holmgård, who joined Northeastern’s faculty this semester, is using artificial intelligence to study and improve how video games are designed and played. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Artificial intelligence is disrupting scores of industries and disciplines, from engineering, to business, to health. New Northeastern faculty member Christoffer Holmgård, for his part, is leveraging AI tools to study and improve how video games are designed and played.

Holmgård, assistant professor of game design, joined Northeastern’s faculty in the College of Arts, Media and Design this semester. His research focuses on an emerging field of game design: using artificial intelligence to playtest games and help expand designers’ imagination and capabilities.

In new research published last month, Holmgård and his colleagues presented a method they developed to automate game testing using AI. The goal of their game, “Minidungeons 2,” is simple: escape the dungeon to safety. But there are multiple ways to win, and even more gameplay styles to deploy. One is to finish as quickly as possible. Another is to explore every aspect of the game, including killing all the monsters, drinking all the potions, and collecting all the treasure. And then there’s combining those approaches in any number of ways.

Some game studios are already using AI for play testing. But Holmgård explained that this research is at the forefront of using AI in game design because the researchers built bots for various play styles. In other words, they created bots that not only could figure out how many different ways a user could win; they tasked different bots with different goals, to mimic how people would play the game in different ways.

“That’s what we’re hoping to contribute with this project,” Holmgård said.

For decades, designers and game studios have called upon humans to test games prior to launch in order to understand all the ways the game can be played and test for flaws. Holmgård said humans remain an essential part of play testing and that his research is about using AI to complement—not replace—humans. “Using these AI tools can help us think about solutions for games that we didn’t think about before,” he said.

Born in Denmark, Holmgård earned his doctorate and master’s degree from the IT University of Copenhagen. He received his bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Copenhagen. During his doctoral studies, he actually spent three months at Northeastern, working with faculty members on various projects. One involved a serious game assistant professor Casper Harteveld created called VistaLights, in which there’s an oil spill in Houston and the goal is to keep the oil supply chain going in the aftermath. He said he’s excited to be back at Northeastern, this time as a faculty member, adding that the university’s strong game design program and focus on experiential education were two big draws.

In 2008, Holmgård co-founded Duck and Cover Games, which focused on designing and developing serious games and web-based teaching materials. Two of the games focused on helping children understand and overcome difficult situations at home, one being when parents divorce and another being when a parent is deployed in the military.

In 2011, Holmgård became a co-owner of Die Gute Fabrik, a small game studio in Copenhagen. He’s still involved with the studio, which is currently working on a new adventure game. Holmgård said the studio will utilize the game-testing bots presented in his latest research as it develops the game.

“This will be a big litmus test, the first real-world application of our AI method in a commercial game,” he said.

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