DIGITAL game-playing is big business. Consoles, monitors, peripherals and the games themselves have become a trillion dollar industry and, as the global demand for games rises, so does the number of players and the volume of data divulged by those players.

The other component that is becoming ever more clever and sophisticated is the data-harvesting, machine learning and artificial intelligence that not only underpins the games, but now performs functions that are nothing to do with the games from which the data was collected.

In its most recent bi-annual research funding round, the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) distributed £500,000 in grants to those researchers it judges as outstanding. In this particular round, 27 researchers representing 10 of Scotland’s 15 universities were granted awards.

Among them is Dr Hadi Mehrpouya, a lecturer in computer games technology at Abertay University’s School of Design and Informatics. Dr Mehrpouya has received £58,000 to undertake research into "Gaming in times of surveillance capitalism: A study of player governance in emerging social gaming environments". To that end, Dr Mehrpouya is playing Pubg Mobile, previously known as Player Unknown's Battlegrounds. Why Pubg?

Pubg, released in 2018 is, quite literally, massive by any measure. Developed by Tencent, a large Chinese e-commerce firm, it has 1.2 billion regular players from more than 1 billion downloads and grossed more than $8 billion on mobile devices alone; it is the highest grossing mobile game in the world.

Combined with the $5 billion revenue generated by its PC and console games, Pubg’s total revenue as of April 2022 was roughly $13 billion, making it one of the highest-grossing – and multi-award-winning – video games in history. The game became free to play in January 2022, making it easier to grow the existing player base.

As for the game itself, Pubg Mobile is a player versus player shooter game where the winner is the last man standing. Its clever design makes it easy to play by beginners while offering sufficient levels of complexity for the more advanced player. As you would expect, it’s a beautifully crafted game in any and every element and it’s easy to see why it attracts and, importantly, retains so many players, otherwise known as data sources.

Dr Mehrpouya’s research focuses on the mobile version of the game because most players in the Middle East have access to the game via their tablets or mobile phones, and, from an academic research standpoint, as data sources go, Pugb provides a reservoir of as yet unknown depths.

This is one reason as to why Dr Mehrpouya’s research is of interest to the RSE. As artificial intelligence and algorithms become more sophisticated and their power is harnessed by game developers, they are the engine that feeds surveillance capitalism, an economic system centred around the capture and commodification of personal data for the sole purpose of profit-making.

Of course, in this particular gaming environment, it’s much less about capture and much more about voluntarily, willingly given, personal behavioural data, gathered during any and every interaction with the game.

An important point to consider is that personal behavioural data travels in two directions, most obviously from the player to the game and less obviously via the game’s mechanics to the individual player and to all those in the category into which each individual player has been commodified by the game.

Dr Mehrpouya explains the reason why the RSE funded this specific project: “The majority of games studies are done on Western players. Additionally, and uniquely, it is made by Tencent which was involved in the early stages of developing the Chinese Social Credit System.”

The Chinese social credit system acts like a credit rating agency where people are assessed, graded, perhaps blacklisted according to certain criteria unknown to the player and that behavioural data is used as part of the social credit system’s calculations. So, the type of player that you are when you are playing the game can directly affect your ranking.

The snag is obvious; individuals are slightly different versions of themselves from day to day and that is also true on every occasion that they interact with Pubg Mobile. How, then, are those differences captured, and what difference do those differences make to the players’ credit score?

Dr Mehrpouya explains: “Its really crazy to think that the way you play, or how much you play, can affect whether you’ll get a loan or a mortgage.”

It's in this version of the digital world that Dr Mehrpouya investigates, where real life activities can be aggregated, commodified and traded. The key additional point about his investigation is that Pubg Mobile players play the game while shielded behind avatars and, as such, behave differently depending on their avatar, those with whom they interact in the game and the area of the game in which they are playing.

While the game is definitely a shooting game, there are also spaces for players to chat, drive around, relax with other players and perform functions other than shooting. And, all the while, Pubg Mobile is gathering behavioural data from the messages and conversations that are had between players. There’s even a barbeque in the game around which players chat which generates a different type of conversation and behaviour to that engendered by a fighting scenario.

The idea of surveillance capitalism is relatively new, invented by Google in 2001, as is the idea of a behavioural futures market or markets where personal data can be traded in the same way that coffee, potatoes or any other commodity is traded. In her book "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism" Shoshana Zuboff describes the process as ‘machine intelligence’ where personal data is fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later while many companies are willing to lay bets on future behaviour.

Crucially, as Dr Mehrpouya explains: “Humans have the ability to forget, especially through illnesses like dementia. What happens if we bring human processes and memory functions into the game? Can the data you gave when healthy benefit you when the game detects that your behaviour has changed?”

Tencent, like all digital games companies, has data servers dotted around the globe and players’ data can be processed in any country in which there is a server. In praising the clarity of Tencent’s privacy policies, Dr Mehrpouya also noted that Pubg Mobile was banned last year in India due to privacy and national security concerns.

From a simple shooting game to the complexity of a behavioural data futures market via surveillance capitalism, Dr Mehrpouya has a big job to do on a game that provides a spectrum from the sinister to the beneficial, the only certainty being, so far, that the data never forgets.