What if Melbourne was a giant Dungeons and Dragons game?

Tuesday, May 18, 2021, 03:44 AM | Source: Pursuit

Melissa Rogerson, Niels Wouters

“You find yourself in front of a large, cream-coloured building at the corner of two streets. A green domed roof, the buzz of a crowd of people and the sound of metal wheels on rails. An open entry way shows a row of clocks, labelled with the names of surrounding villages.

On one opposite corner, a town square opens, inviting you to enter and explore. On the other side, a large and inviting tavern awaits. Diagonally across from you, you see a large stone Gothic cathedral with three towering spires.

Welcome to Melbourne – your Dungeons and Dragons setting for today.”

Almost 50 years after the game was first published, digital tools have now found their way into the D&D community. Picture: Getty Images

If you don’t know or haven’t heard of Dungeons and Dragons (affectionately known as D&D), it’s fair to say you’re a minority.

This pioneering pen-and-paper role playing game is played by an estimated 40 million people around the world who co-create stories of adventure.

Almost 50 years after the game was first published, digital tools have now found their way into the D&D community – some introducing sound effects to build immersion and others simplifying bookkeeping in the game.

The Future of Character Creation

The personal-player character is at the heart of D&D.

This process of creating a character – rolling dice to determine core attributes, selecting a character class and alignment, generating skills and tracking equipment and spells – allows for significant customisation and lets players explore alternate identities.

But character creation can also be a barrier for new players. And this is where our prototype digital tool, Biometric DnD, comes in.

Biometric DnD explores the use and ethics of biometrics to create D&D characters and all it needs is a single uploaded photo of your face. A custom artificial intelligence (AI) then analyses your face and uses an algorithm to make assumptions about your personality traits and behaviours, like intelligence, aggressiveness and weirdness.

D&D characters created of the authors by Biometric DnD. Picture: Supplied

In order to create our prototype, we worked with experienced players to map personality traits to D&D character attributes. Biometric DnD then uses this information to generate a custom character – especially for you.

The character contains the six core attributes of a D&D character: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma, each one rated from three to 18.

It also contains an alignment which is rated Lawful / Neutral / Chaotic and Good / Neutral / Evil, giving a spread of nine possible combinations (Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Evil and the list goes on).

A generated character’s class is derived from the character’s highest core attributes.

We tried it ourselves – Melissa is a Bard, while Niels is a Rogue. This gives Melissa the ability to use her character’s performance skills as persuasive tools in the game – not a bad special skill for an academic – while Niels is stealthier; he can sneak you past the guards, and might even swipe their keys as he does it.

Melbourne as a Dungeons and Dragons Game

During Melbourne Knowledge Week 2021, we invited the D&D community to try out Biometric DnD.

In just under a week, more than 25,000 characters were generated.

Ellie Squires, Scott Edgar, Dungeon Master Ben McKenzie, Vicki Kyriakakis and Polash Larsen road test their Biometric DnD characters at Melbourne Knowledge Week. Picture: Supplied

The anonymous data allows us to speculate about what sort of characters might live in an imagined Melbourne and how a game party would look and behave.

Without passing judgement on Melbourne’s residents, more than 25 per cent of people seem to have Chaotic Evil Barbarian traits.

Our party – if we selected the most frequent combinations – would also contain a Chaotic Evil Cleric, Chaotic Evil and Neutral Good Druids, as well as Neutral Good and True Neutral Wizards.

In our game, the Barbarians are accomplished fighters who are defined by their ability to draw on feelings of rage to fight ferociously.

Clerics are the earthly representatives of the gods, known for their divine magic to heal and inspire their fellow adventurers. While Druids channel the forces of nature and ecological balance for their magic.

And Wizards spend years as scholars of arcane arts to learn their spells. How appropriate for a knowledge city like Melbourne.

Unpacking the Algorithm

So, why did Biometric DnD assign these character classes?

Well, it turns out the AI thinks our faces have similar characteristics. People who were assigned Barbarian characters, for example, were rated by our AI as aggressive, fairly weird, and not particularly kind – just by looking at their face.

Biometric DnD provides a playful setting to explore tricky ethical questions about AI with the general public. Picture: Getty Images

Or – when we look at the photos more closely – the Barbarians among us tend to have beards and be reasonably young. Similarly, our Wizards have high intelligence – and the AI assumes intelligence is characterised by nice smiles and wearing glasses.

Biometric DnD is an interactive experience that reveals new opportunities for tabletop role-playing games such as D&D. And our recent experience suggests that many people had fun doing so.

But, behind the fun, is important research.

Biometric DnD also explores a dark side, as if we were truly Lawful Evil characters. We know our AI is biased – it assumes that wearing glasses makes us intelligent and bearded faces are aggressive, when most of us know that this just isn’t true.

A Playful Setting for Ethics Research

So, what if this AI wasn’t used in a fantasy game, but your photo was used to decide whether you could have access to services and goods? What if you’re seen to be insufficiently charismatic for a rental in a trendy suburb, or your low responsibility triggers an insurance premium hike?

Biometric DnD provides a playful setting to explore these tricky ethical questions with the general public. And it does so without having to understand the full technical, legal and social context of the technology of artificial intelligence.

Now, who is the Dungeon Master?

Do you want to find out what Dungeons and Dragons character AI thinks you are? Visit biometricdnd.com for a scan of your face! Biometric DnD will be active until 1 June

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University of Melbourne Researchers