Researchers unveil new technique to detect bots in casual online games

October 1, 2012 by Matt Shipman

(—Casual online games, such as FarmVille and Fantastic Contraption, have thousands of enthusiastic followers – but the use of automated "bots" to give some players an advantage is short-changing the companies behind the games. Now researchers from NC State have developed a new technique to help companies identify these bots, and take action against them.

Casual allow players to accumulate points, and achievements, which are needed to progress through each game. But while the games are free, it takes time to get all of the online "rewards" needed to advance. Game designers capitalize on this by selling online advertising space that players see during the game, and by allowing players to buy the rewards necessary to advance in their games. These rewards tend to be inexpensive, but can add up to significant revenue for game companies.

An emerging problem in the world of casual online gaming is the use of bots, or automated accounts that pose as players to amass these rewards. Human players can then log into the bot accounts, which have accumulated a host of rewards, and play the game at a high level without having spent the time or money normally associated with collecting those rewards.

The use of bots hurts gaming companies in two ways. First, players who use bot accounts do not buy rewards. Second, since are not on the game when the bots are active, no one is seeing – or clicking on – the online advertisements. This reduces the game's click-through rate, which makes the game less attractive to advertisers.

NC State researchers have developed a technique for detecting these bot accounts without alerting the account holders. "This will allow to differentiate bot accounts from actual human accounts, with confidence, and then cancel the account," says Dr. David Roberts, an assistant professor of at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work.

The new technique works by monitoring game play to see how each player is moving his or her mouse and clicking on the screen. Bots can be identified using only this information because they do not have the same range of variability in how they interact with objects on the screen.

"Depending on the sophistication of the bot program, it may have some variability," Roberts says, "but not enough to fool our monitoring technique consistently. If this technique tracks play for any significant amount of time, it should detect a bot."

One next step for the research team is to deploy this technique in actual online games. "We're optimistic that we'll have agreements with online gaming companies soon," Roberts says, "and can start tackling the bot problem in the wild."

A second next step is to transition the technique from a purely observational process to an active one, which could detect more bots, more quickly. But the researchers want to ensure that their technique remains undetectable by account holders. "We want to make sure that anything we produce does not disrupt the experience of real, human gamers," Roberts says.

The paper, "Spatial Game Signatures for Bot Detection in Social Games," will be presented at the Eighth Annual AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment, being held Oct. 8 to 12 in Palo Alto, Calif.

Explore further: Touch typists could help stop spammers in their tracks

Related Stories

Touch typists could help stop spammers in their tracks

July 15, 2009

( -- Computer scientists at Newcastle University are about to give office workers a perfect excuse to play games: it's all in the name of research. Dr Jeff Yan, together with his PhD student Su-Yang Yu, has created ...

Iconic computer game 'Civilization' joins Facebook

July 6, 2011

(AP) -- Long before "FarmVille" there was "Civilization," the iconic computer game in which players build a civilized world over thousands of years. Now, the game's designer, Sid Meier, is bringing his creation to Facebook.

Recommended for you

MIT's flea market specializes in rare, obscure electronics

September 25, 2016

Once a month in the summer, a small parking lot on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's campus transforms into a high-tech flea market known for its outlandish offerings. Tables overflow with antique radio equipment, ...

Hyperloop pushes dream of low-cost futuristic transport

September 23, 2016

Is it a plane, is it a train? No, say supporters of Hyperloop, a futuristic mode of transport floated by Silicon Valley billionaire Elon Musk that promises high-tech, high-speed and cheap travel over long distances.

First test of driverless minibus in Paris Saturday

September 24, 2016

The French capital's transport authority will on Saturday carry out its first test of a driverless minibus, in the hope that regular routes for the hi-tech vehicles will be up and running within two years.

Feds preview rules of the road for self-driving cars

September 20, 2016

Obama administration officials are previewing long-awaited guidance that attempts to bring self-driving cars to the nation's roadways safely—without creating so many roadblocks that the technology can't make it to market ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4 / 5 (1) Oct 01, 2012
It won't take long for stealth bot programs to beat this...
5 / 5 (1) Oct 01, 2012
It might. Certainly for the short term, and for the majority of the bots out there. You could always create a bot that actually used randomized clicking and mouse movement and keyboard movement - but you would have to also have it watch the screen so it didn't accidentally jump away from where it was 'botting.

Gave it 5 stars because I hate bots.
not rated yet Oct 01, 2012
You can absolutely detect bots (at least the current and near future generations) by analyzing server activity without installing keyloggers and mouse trackers, i.e. spyware, on the client's computer.
not rated yet Oct 01, 2012
The online game sites are driving away players by allowing players with no skill to buy thier way to the top levels. Combat type games are littered with abandoned bases because many people work many hours to build them only to have beginer players that have bought bigger weopons ect destroy or take over bases. While this makes developers money on short term in the long term fewer players view the advertising.
not rated yet Oct 02, 2012
I reserve most of my ire for cheats, who are little more than bots anyway

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.