Pragmatic Solutions wants to learn about you through online games.
The Westlake Village-based company provides the technical back-end for titles such as “America’s Army,” its main effort. It has partnered with the U.S. Army for the game, a recruiting tool designed to give potential soldiers a virtual taste of what it’s like to serve.
Pragmatic Solutions was founded in 2002, the same year “America’s Army” launched. Since then, more than 8 million users have played the game. The company employs 22 people.
It’s Pragmatic Solutions’ software that lets players log in from any computer and save their games and scores. But those routine functions are only the beginning. “The crux of what our company does,” said Robert Brown, co-owner, general counsel and chief operating officer, “is data collection.”
Pragmatic Solutions gathers immense amounts of data about every detail of players’ experiences – what type of character they choose, what kind of weapons they choose, how proficient they are with a given weapon and whether they tend to be aggressive or measured. The data can be used to adjust the game to make it more challenging or tailor it to specific educational or training goals.
“Our attitude has always been to collect everything,” Brown said. “We sort of take the approach of collect first, figure out what to do with it later.”
Although Pragmatic Solutions sweeps up quite a bit of information, Brown said, its data is either in aggregate form or associated only with online user names. “You tend to get a little less pushback about invading privacy and other things that I think people have good reason to be sensitive about,” Brown said. “Because of the nature of it being an Army game, we don’t deal with any personal information. We don’t know that it’s Joe Smith of Los Angeles.”
There’s plenty to do with the data. It’s useful in placing in-game advertisements, a growing practice that grabbed headlines recently when presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., made his pitch to gamers.
But Brown said the company has viewed the data as a more natural fit for educators, human resources departments and others looking to use games for purposes beyond entertainment. The Holy Grail – for advertisers, educators and corporate trainers alike – is using data from gamers to predict real-world behavior.
“We firmly believe learning about people and ultimately being able to make a predictive analysis of the way they behave is the future,” Brown said. “As you begin to see in-game advertisements and commercial activities mature, we’re getting better data and feedback about whether those things are successful. The one thing that’s consistent is that people are interested in things that are relevant to them.”
Social networking sites such as Facebook employ user data, such as a person’s list of favorite films, to sell targeted advertising. But Brown believes gaming can provide better insight into a user’s personality.
On social networking sites, users put conscious thought into the data they enter. The same is true when gamers pick avatars for online games such as World of Warcraft – players can choose characters to reflect who they wish they were, rather than who they are.
But once gamers start to play, they can become absorbed in the game and act like themselves, yielding data more predictive of actual behavior, Brown said.
“When people play games, the longer they play them and the more rapidly they have to respond to them, the more true they are to their personality,” Brown said.
That personality data can be used to further the interest of the game developer. If a player consistently chooses to serve as a medic in “America’s Army,” the data could be used to offer the player more information on first-aid training.
But more subtle connections prove trickier. Pragmatic Solutions is working with Educational Testing Services to develop models that could help make its data more useful for educators.
“Everything you do, we think it’s important because ultimately it can reveal something,” Brown said.