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  Airport Screening Is A Badly-Designed Game  
Posted 2006-04-15 by Tony Walsh
I was reviewing Bruce Schneier's Crypto-Gram newsletter over a cuppa joe this morning and came across a couple of passages about the shortcomings of airport screening techniques that I think are related to game design--in particular, to some of the thinking put forward by Raph Koster's Theory of Fun.

Schneier writes: "Airport screeners have a difficult job, primarily because the human brain isn't naturally adapted to the task. We're wired for visual pattern matching, and are great at picking out something we know to look for -- for example, a lion in a sea of tall grass."

Koster writes: "People are amazing pattern-matching machines."

Schneier writes: "But we're much less adept at detecting random exceptions in uniform data. Faced with an endless stream of identical objects, the brain quickly concludes that everything is identical and there's no point in paying attention."

Basically, Koster says that when there aren't enough random exceptions, we "chunk" up a routine. "We rarely look at the real world; we instead recognize somethiong we have chunked and leave it at that. The world could easily be composed of cardboard stand-ins for real objects as far as our brains are concerned."

Schneier writes: "By the time the exception comes around, the brain simply doesn't notice it. This psychological phenomenon isn't just a problem in airport screening: It's been identified in inspections of all kinds, and is why casinos move their dealers around so often. The tasks are simply mind-numbing."

Given that (according to Schneier) "between November 2001 and February 2002, screeners missed 70 percent of knives, 30 percent of guns, and 60 percent of (fake) bombs," it seems that the game of Airport Screening was poorly-designed. Schneier does add that technology can add random exceptions into the inspection process, and that the job of screeners can be made easier through digitally-enhanced imagery. But this doesn't seem to be enough to liven things up.

I think Airport Screening needs to be redesigned. Most massively-multiplayer games feature mind-numbing tasks (known as "grinding") as part of the standard game-play experience, and have never been more popular. What can we take from this that we can apply to the game of Airport Screening?

Airport Screening is a game where the player must review a never-ending stream of individual objects to identify items of concern associated with those objects. It seems that one or more of the following probably is true:
1) There aren't enough exceptional items.
2) Each exception is exceptional (all exceptional items are not guns, for example).
3) There's not enough incentive to pay attention to exceptions.

Here are some suggestions for improving the game:
1) There aren't enough exceptional items.
    The game will use an augmented-reality overlay and pre-screening process to superimpose collectible items atop screened items. I'll call these "vItems." The game adds a vItem to every recognizable item in a containing object. Most vItems come in clusters on a per-container basis, for example, one container is overlaid with hearts, another with stars. Every time the player acknowledges a vItem (through clicking or touching), the vItem is collected, until the entire container is cleared.
    Exceptions are generated fairly commonly, either based on an actual computer-detected exception, or as a "fake" exception. Exceptional vItems are represented graphically as one of a series of known collectible premium items. Most exceptional items are fake, but are still collected. Real exceptions are not collectible (but are still represented by an exceptional--apparently-collectible--vItem). This will immediately attract the attention of the player and require further investigation.

2) Each exception is exceptional (all exceptional items are not guns, for example).
    A redesigned game of Airport Screening would homogenize the exceptions somewhat, in order to create attractive, collectible sets of vItems. Real exceptions are still likely to be as exceptional as ever, once investigated. But hopefully we are encouraging more investigation and focus at this point.

3) There's not enough incentive to pay attention to exceptions.
    This has, in part, already been covered in the suggested improvements. We have turned Airport Screening into a collecting game. That's part of the incentive, but it shouldn't be the only incentive. Obviously, there's the incentive that people's real lives are at stake, and there's the whole idea of keeping the real job you signed up for, but let's assume these are already accounted for as incentives. Let's set up player characters, inventory items, and a leaderboard. Each player can customize their own alias and appearance. As part of the standard interface of Airport Screener, players are shown their character, their character's current rank (or title) and ever-increasing inventory of collected vItems. At the beginning or end of the work day, or during a lunch-break, players may review their overall progression as compared to others, using the leaderboard. Using an in-game store, and collected vItems as currency, players are able to buy customization options (clothing, accessories, skins, etc.) for their character. Certain goods can only be purchased using certain types of vItems. Furthermore, we could add real-world perks to reward player performance: vItems could be cashed in for airport merchandise, for Air Miles points, or vacation-time.
I don't really think airport screening is a game, and I have no experience in airport security, so the above suggestions should be taken as intended: A fanciful (albeit unrealistic) approach to improving an important but routine task based loosely on concepts from MMOGs such as World of Warcraft.

Going even further than this, in an increasingly digitally-networked society, could airport screening tasks be integrated into a game available to the public? Instead of having a computer review baggage as a pre-screening process, why not have masses of humans review the images to pick out areas of concern? A properly-designed game could make this an enjoyable part of play, without privacy risks. Harnessing the wisdom of a MMOG crowd might prove useful--while one player might deliberately sabotage the screening process, 100 unrelated players are not likely to do the same. Raph Koster introduced this idea on his blog in January, 2006.
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Comment posted by Secureplay
April 15, 2006 @ 4:49 pm
Tony -

I love the concept! But I think you over-engineered the solution.

Just go back to simple "car games".

"I spy with my eye, something beginning with ..."

State games.

A simple collection game. 8 Laptops, 15 pairs of loafers, 2 turtle doves.

A race game... First person to collect 10 items beginning with the letter "b" wins.

Though it would be hard to take a TSA guard saying to another (looking at your carry-on under the X-Ray) "I spy with my little eye, something beginning with "G""

A gun?

A Gortex jacket

A grenade?


Heck, get the people in line involved - put things up on a big screen so everyone can play... then you would have more fresh eyes as people who are waiting get to watch other people's stuff.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
April 18, 2006 @ 7:58 pm
Dave Edery agrees with you on the over-engineering front. I'm prepared to agree as well, but I'm not ready to yet :)

Just to respond to a couple of your suggestions, I think Airport Security is a game that should be played thoroughly but not quickly, so a competition based on speed is probably not conducive to thoroughness. Also, involving people in line is involving potential evil-doers, so I don't think we'd want to do that either--also, there'd be social and political pressure on the people in line. If you opt not to participate in the game, you might be a terrorist (or, at least, that's the way the social pressure would work).

I had considered making the collectible items representative of the actual items in the luggage, but I hadn't expected to have computer technology sophisticated enough to to accurate shape-recognition. With shape-recognition advanced enough to ID a comb versus a loafer, and combined with X-rays and electronic sniffers, I'm not sure we'd need to involve humans at all. My assumption was that the computer could detect the type of material in the luggage, and distinguish most objects from most other objects without knowing what the objects specifically were.

I'm not trying to shoot down your ideas, by the way, just giving some rationale missing from the blog post. If you've got any more ideas to simplify the game, I'd be happy to hear 'em. I might actually put some work into fleshing out a design -- not so much because I think anyone would implement it, but because it's an interesting concept and example.
Comment posted by Thomas Forsyth
November 11, 2007 @ 3:02 pm
I think you've got a good point about airport screening, but I also think that the key to making it work does not lie in ranking or point system, but in multi-sensory stimulation.

1. The 'game' uses a touch-screen.

2. With current screening, I believe, you are essentially conducting two seperated tasks: searching visually for 'exceptions' and then using your hands to instruct the conveyor belt to move (on a keyboard/joystick away from the screen). By bringing these tasks together you create hand eye co-ordination (using more than one sense).

3.The 'game' will essentially be of simple systematic elimination. Technology is not my field, but if it was possible to create a program (based on the 'magic wand tool' in Adobe Photoshop, that separted out layers of shapes, then you could systemtlically touch each shape that you percieve to be of no threat, (hopefully) until all of the shapes are eliminated.

It is the interaction between eye, hand and 'game' that, I believe, would prove to be much more efficient and effective. These are just ideas off the top of my head, and I can also see the problem that the 'game' could become "grinding", or slow using the wrong technology, but thought I'd throw it out there anyway.
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