Better Game Characters by Design: A Psychological Approach

   Scott Jenson    Katherine Isbister, Rensselaer

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University March 2, 2007

Increasingly, HCI practitioners are turning to digital games and other leisure technologies for insights into how to approach design outside the workplace and the office. Games themselves are currently engaged in a major evolution, driven by growth in technical sophistication and audience reach. One essential innovation games can bring to HCI practice is the tremendous success of interactive characters in games--both as player avatars, and as 'NPCs' (non- player characters). In this session we'll examine the underlying psychological principles that help to make the best game characters compelling to players. Taking a psychological approach to understanding their design allows us to extend the insights their designers have had into other application areas in which social and emotional principles come into play.

Katherine Isbister is Director (and founder) of the Games Research Lab and Program Chair of the HCI M.S. program at Rensselaer (RPI). Before joining RPI's faculty, she developed and taught a course at Stanford on the Design of Characters for Games. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford, with a focus on using ideas from social psychology to design better, more effective interactive characters. Katherine's recently completed book--Better Game Characters by Design: A Psychological Approach--was awarded 4.5 out of 5 “skunks” in a review in the October issue of Game Developer magazine, and also nominated for a Frontline Award (given every year to tools and books that help game developers do their jobs better and more efficiently.) She has published in a wide variety of venues, and given invited talks at research and academic venues including Sony research labs in Japan, Banff Centre in Canada, IBM, Electronic Arts, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and others. In 1999 Isbister was chosen as one of MIT Technology Review's Young Innovators, for her work on trans-cultural interface agents. More information about her work is available at

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