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Mike Cook 2023 ;

Meet: Dr Mike Cook

Turning a childhood love of gaming into a lifelong career in AI.

Mike Cook as a child

Scents, soundtracks, and souvenirs; each of these things have a way of triggering that fuzzy nostalgic feeling that takes you right back to the place you were when you first encountered it.

For Dr Mike Cook, that sense of reminiscence comes in the form of classic 1990s video games. Command & Conquer, Monkey Island, Doom and Broken Sword – any sign of these adventure-filled video games can swiftly transport Mike back to being an eight-year-old boy who, like a lot of children, dreamed of turning his pastime into a career when he grew up.

Fast forward a couple of decades and today Mike works as an academic researcher at King’s, studying computational creativity and applications of artificial intelligence to game design and development.

“The thing I really loved the most was playing games with my mum and dad. We would play these ‘point and click’ puzzle games that felt like we were reading a storybook together. I used to spend hours filling notebooks with drawings of games as a child,” he recalls.

I always wanted to work in games, but I never thought it would be possible.– Dr Mike Cook

While studying his undergraduate degree in Computing at Imperial College London, Mike’s career path was already taking shape in his mind, and it was never far from his childhood dreams.

“I initially wanted to be a games journalist and I actually did work as a freelance reporter for a while during my studies. Computing was just my back-up plan.

“But then I went to a talk by a PhD student whose research was looking at artificial intelligence. Because of my love for games, I’d always been fascinated by AI but back then most people didn’t care about it.

“It got me thinking about how I could do my own research to bring my interest in gaming and AI together.”

At the time, Mike was in touch with an academic who specialised in building AI for creative purposes, for example to produce art.

“I remember this academic said to me, ‘I’ve always wondered if you could get AI to design video games?’ and I was so obsessed with that idea.”

It was that conversation that marked the beginning of Mike’s academic research career.

Doing my PhD was a massive turning point for me. When I was growing up, people would tell me, ‘You can't work in games, only a few people get a chance to do that’ – but I am still doing the same research all these years later, so I feel super lucky.– Dr Mike Cook

Mike’s research involves building AI systems that design novel video games independently, without direction from other people. This requires solving a variety of difficult problems in game design, level design, software engineering, and human-computer interaction, as well as addressing issues like understanding meaning or emotion.

While studying for his PhD, Mike built a system called Angelina which would use AI to design simple 2D arcade games. As his knowledge evolved, so did his games.

“I built a version of Angelina that made games inspired by newspaper articles. It would go on to a newspaper website, look at the day's headlines, pull out pictures and phrases and theme games around them. They were so funny – you would be jumping around a game like Mario and then a picture of Boris Johnson or Nick Clegg would appear out of nowhere!

“It was a lot of fun to experiment and as time went on, I learned more about being a game developer and using AI.”

Newspaper game screengrab

Mike joined King’s Department of Informatics in September 2022, after an opportunity presented itself for him to lead a new area of AI research focused on gaming.

“The AI research at King’s is very much centred around society and how what we do can impact real people and that just felt exciting for me because that’s the direction my research is taking. I’m interested in how my research can help people to feel part of creative communities.

“Most of us have a creative community on Instagram, for example, where we're taking pictures and sharing them. It's easy enough to take pictures but making games is hard, and so I would love my research to help people find those creative communities of game-making, and think about this thing that maybe they haven't considered before as a creative output.”

Mike’s proudest career moment to date is an easy choice. He was awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellowship for his project, ‘Automated Game Design: Next-Generation Creative AI for Games’, exploring automated game design and assistive tools for digital creativity in the games industry.

“Receiving the Fellowship has been lifechanging. It has been really special to be recognised in that way because I wasn't sure if anyone would want to fund this kind of games research. But it just highlights how much the perception of AI has changed.

Ten years ago, I would tell people I work in games and AI and they would be kind of curious but they wouldn’t really know what I meant; people didn’t believe AI could be creative. Now people are almost too willing to believe in the capabilities of AI.– Dr Mike Cook

And that same shift in perception means young people who, just like eight-year-old Mike once dreamed, are actively pursuing careers in the world of gaming and AI.

“Now when I talked to like young people, they are already making games because they have access to all these amazing tools and instructions and YouTube videos. I should probably feel jealous but I just feel excited and happy for them. And lots of them are interested in careers in games.

“It feels amazing for me to be able to give young people concrete help and advice and be the person that I guess I wish was around me when I was at school.

“That feels really encouraging and uplifting.”

Dr Mike Cook is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Informatics, Faculty of Natural, Mathematical and Engineering Sciences.

In this story

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Senior Lecturer in Computer Science

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