Stellaris Just Showed Us How AI Can Be Ethically Used In Video Game Production

I’ve been vocally against the use of contemporary generative AI in creative processes in the vast majority of cases – while many businesses and individuals are often thrilled to start playing with new technology, far fewer are as eager to tangle with the thorny and nebulous ethics around the growing field. AI is still in its infancy, and legislation around its ethical use is just as undeveloped.

There are exceptions, though, and Stellaris’ recent DLC might be one of them. In a disclaimer on its new DLC The Machine Age’s Steam store page, a paragraph says:

“We employ generative AI technologies during the creation of some assets. Typically this involves the ideation of content and visual reference material. These elements represent a minor component of the overall development. AI has been used to generate voices for an AI antagonist and a player advisor.”

You can read our review of that DLC here

Can AI Usage Be Ethical?
If this disclaimer immediately rubbed you the wrong way, you’re not alone. Often when AI is found in a project, it’s an indication of a refusal to pay working artists fairly, or even hire them at all, and there’s little to no reckoning with the reality of how AI scrapes stolen work to train its models. This is bad enough, but The Machine Age specifically is about AI consciousness taking over the galaxy, and focuses heavily on “synthetic ascension” as a means of achieving immortality.

However, the game’s director, Stephen ‘Eladrin’ Muray, made a pretty good case for the use of AI in this instance. Firstly, while using AI voice actors would usually mean a voice actor loses a job, Muray says that the AI voice generation tools the team used ensure that the voice actors that built those models receive royalties for every line the team creates.

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But what about the AI-generation visual reference material? Well, Muray says, those never make it to the game. They’re just visual references that go on moodboards, basic representations of ideas that are then taken by artists who might or might not use them as inspiration. Same with generated text, which is used for inspiration but not actually put into the game.

This reasoning is on more slippery ground – there are a lot more ethical issues here to broach than the payment of the artist responsible, like whether any resemblance of the final product to the AI generated image could be considered theft, or if the models being used by the development team are ethically created and the source material provided by consenting artists. But it seems that the team is sticking to strict guidelines on the ethical use of AI, and while we don’t know all the details just yet, Muray has said that a dev diary going into detail on how the team uses AI tools will be released in a few weeks.

In This Case, AI Fits Perfectly
Still, I usually find it in bad taste to use an AI to do a voice actor’s job when the VA can usually do a better, more nuanced job, but when you take into account Stellaris’ specific needs, the AI VA does kind of make sense. The roles that AI-generated voices were used for were specifically a player advisor and the DLC’s synthetic AI queen Cetana. While I’m not so sure about the player advisor, I do think that getting an AI to voice an AI makes a lot of sense because the strange quirks that often come with AI-generated voices would only serve to back up Cetana’s characterisation. Leaving ethics aside for a second, it’s actually a pretty cool use case.

That said, I don’t expect to see this becoming commonplace in the gaming industry – many players are, rightly, suspicious of AI-generated content in their games even when there’s a defensible case for the ethics of it, and we can see that in the recent negative Steam reviews of Stellaris citing the use of AI. Considering that we see headlines about companies embracing AI in the midst of waves of massive industry-destroying layoffs, I don’t blame players who narrow their eyes at the sight of the word ‘AI’. I do it too. It does still feel like AI is too ethically complex for any studio to use it and come out unscathed, but it’s refreshing to see a video game company model a possible way to use AI that’s thematically fitting and thoughtful in how it deals with the ethics around the issue.

Stallaris is a space-based 4X game from Paradox, launched in 2016 fopr PC and consoles. You take control of a corner of the galaxy, and must build and expand your civilization through exploration, research, trade, and warfare.

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{Author}Tessa Kaur{/Author}
{Keywords}Computer Science,Artificial Intelligence,Technology,Ethics,Entertainment{/Keywords}

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