Katherine Isbister: Better Game Characters By Design

[Readings] (01.02.09, 5:32 pm)

This book is primarily pratice oriented, aimed at those who wish to practice game design. The goal is go develop a psychological understanding of game characters. The emphasis on psychology comes in opposition to the method of designing game characters based on cinema and other passive and linear media. Because games are interactive, players interpret characters in richer ways, so a perspective anchored on social psychology is much more apporpiate.

Part I: First Impressions

The early discussion covers visual cues that affect the player’s creception to characters. The qualities that are explored are: attractiveness, baby face, and stereotypes. This is not about social roles yet, but about presentation and expression, which may or may not relate to player expectations. When player expectations are fulfilled, this creates a smooth and consistent experience, but when expectations are broken this can be surprising or confusing to the player. Broken expectations can lead to depth of experience, but if not done properly, the effect can simply be jarring.

This first section is on personality traits which are expressed by characters. These are studied with respect to the building of first impressions. The most important personality traits discussed are dominance and agreeableness. Characters can express dominance through pose and demeanor. Generally, player characters are expected to be dominant to some degree. Isbister cites Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as an example for how to think about how a player will react to other characters. Because safety is one of the more fundamental needs, dominance and agreeableness are the first elements of character that are read by the player. Dominance also resembles the idea of “status” that is derived from Johnstone’s Impro. Dominance and agreeableness may be seen in a spectrum relative to the player character. The attributes are relational, not absolute. Changes in agreeableness and dominance are evidence of significant changes, or are expressions of communicative symbols.

In addition to dominance and agreeableness, Isbister explains that there are five common personality traits that are common across cultures (pulling from McCrae and Costa). These are denoted by the acronym OCEAN, for Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion (dominance), Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

Part II: Focus on the Player

The first section covers culture, from the perspective of design. Design is relevant from the perspective of the audience in terms of how culture is portrayed. The section is primarily oriented around thinking about the culture of the player, and seems to have an underlying goal of teaching designers how to think about culture for games that are going to be marketed in cultures different from the designers’ own. My interest extends beyond this a bit, thinking about cultural representations for characters, as opposed to the cultural world of the player.

Cultural differences are described in terms of:

  1. Expressions and physical characteristics. Gestures and expressions have different values across cultures. This category affects the reception of signals cast in body, face, voice, touch, and social distance.
  2. Social norms and expectations. Roles and expectations of the individual vary among cultures. For example, American culture has a strong ideology that everyone must fend for themselves, whereas within Japanese culture there is an expectation of interdependence. Roles have much to do with games because of the role of the player and the corresponding hero archetypes.
  3. Local media contexts. When marketing to other cultures, one must be aware of the media contexts and traditions there. This suggests consideration of the cultural “grand” narratives which have formal and structural characteristics, in addition to ideology.

Isbister describes gender, but again from the perspective of thinking about the player. The discussion is aimed to encourage designers to think beyond the andronormative perspective that tends to plague the game industry. Gender is the element of sex that is learned in culture, not inherited. It is culturally defined and time dependent, variable, and constantly changing. Discussion describes 3 bullet points aimed at thinking about gender in design.

  1. Play style: what girls like to do in games versus boys. This is an open topic, but has had much research. Isbister lists several findings (p. 112):
    • Girls tend to enjoy games that allow for open-ended play and exploration that does not necessarily require completion of one goal or level to get to the next (Gorriz and Medina 2000, Kafai 1996).
    • Girls play games with puzzles or mysteries over games that involve physical accuracy and acuity (Children Now 2001, Gorriz and Medina 2000).
    • Girls would rather spend their time creating things instead of destroying things (Gorrriz and Medina 2000, Bruner, Bennet, and Honey 1998).
    • Girls enjoy everyday life activities and metaphors just as much if not more than fantasy adventures (Subrahmanyam and Greenfield 1998).
    • Girls may be less comfortable than boys about just jumping in and exploring a game to learn how to do things; they may do better with more explicit mentoring and instruction at the beginning of a game (Subrahmanyam and Greenfield 1998).

    There is furthermore another set of bullets that discusses how girls relate to others (whether players or NPCs): (p. 114)

    • Girls prefer collaboration to violence against others in games (Gorriz and Medina 2000, Subrahmanyam and Greenfield 1998).
    • Girls tend to prefer working in smaller teams than boys do (Subrahmanyam and Greenfield 1998).
    • Girls enjoy forging relationships–visiting other characters, writing letters, learning about how other characters feel about what is going on (Subrahmanyam and Greenfield 1998, Greenfield, Bruner, Bennet, and Honey 1998).
    • Girls are interested in the story behind the story–motivations and interrelationships among characters (Gorriz and Medina 2000).
    • Girls enjoy communication with other girls, and games that encourage or incorporate chat and social activity in conjunction with the game can support this (Gorriz and Medina 2000).
  2. Roles: comfort and fantasy. The essence of discussion on roles is to include a variety of roles for female characters. It is important to have a variety of gender roles that the player may explore and relate to.
  3. Expectations: what is expected in interactions. It is important to have gender aware reactions, and especially not get it wrong. Having characters treat the player with the expectation that she is male is alienating and dissociative. Gender plays a strong role in everyday life reactions, and to ignore the differences in these reactions tends to encourage the expectation that the player is always male.

Part III: Using a Character’s Social Equipment

This part covers the means of expression of a character’s emotion, intention, and personality. The subsections are the face, the body, and the voice. I do not go over this last section in detail, but the first two are fairly relevant, especially from the perspective of simulation and embodiment.

The face is very important for psychological understanding, and the muscles and expressions that act in the face can be divided into action units (Eckman, Freisen, and Hagen 2002).  Isbister also discusses the four basic emotion types, which are so considered basic because they are universally recognized across cultures and share common physical expressions in the face. These are anger, fear, happiness, and sadness. The gaze is also read in the face, and the gaze can also have functional properties. One’s face is an expressive object which can convey emotion and personal state. Finally, faces are tied to emotional feedback, and this produces mimicry. Here are some bullet points that address the communicative symbols of the gaze: (p. 145-146)

  • Dominance or submissiveness (patters of holding or avoiding direct eye contact)
  • Where a person’s attention is at the moment
  • Flirtation
  • Interest in beginning a conversation (or desire to avoid one)
  • An invitation for one’s conversation partner to take a turn in the dialogue
  • Active listening
  • Pondering of a point

Body language may be used in character design. Body language is an expression of embodiment, so describing body language formally and developing a symbolic language for the body is a productive goal. Isbister divides body languagee into four categories: distance, touch, imitation, and posture. The first element of body language is distance, how far people stand from each other. There are four types of distance:

  1. Public distance (more than 12 feet)
  2. Social distance (12-4 feet)
  3. Personal distance (4 feet to 18 inches)
  4. Intimate distance (less than 18 inches)

Touch falls into four functional categories. An interesting thing is that these are used fairly effectively within, for instance, The Sims. These are again culturally dependent, and will operate differently in modern America, versus modern Japan, or Regency England.

  1. Function (a doctor’s examination, or having one’s coat removed by a servant)
  2. Social ritual (a handshake)
  3. Friendship building (friendly hug or a pat on the shoulder)
  4. Intimacy (sexual interest or emotional connection)

Imitation is the quality of imitating someone’s posture or gestures. This occurs most frequently when the imatated person is more dominant, the rest of the group will mimic his or her behavior. Conversation also produces mimicry among its participants. Posture is very rich for expressive signification. Isbister references Gallaher (1992) to isolate four categories of posture. These correspond strongly with the dominance and agreeableness dimensions, and they also are affected by culture and gender.

  1. Expressiveness (variety and energy in expressions)
  2. Animation (energy in movement)
  3. Expansiveness (occupation of space) — this is most strongly aligned with dominant personalities.
  4. Coordination (smooth movement and grace)

Part IV: Characters in Action

The first section in this part discusses player psychology, and the types of engagement the player has with the game world. This relates to thinking of player character design as an extension of the player. Isbister outlines four categories of experience. These can be aligned with the player expectations, and to do so produces coherent and smooth gameplay.

  1. Viseral is the sense of being in the world and having augmented engagement. Visceral experience in games is usually the type of experience that the player would not be able to do in real life.
  2. Cognitive is the way that we map our own problem solving onto the character. When our plans map easily onto the abilities of the character, the expierience is smooth.
  3. Social is the element of interpreting others socially, and enables the player to wear personal masks.
  4. Fantasy is the capacity and appealingness of exploring new identities within the game world.

There are three types of player characters according to Isbister: tools (no PC), puppets, and masks. I think there are hybrids in this mapping. Puppet characters are like characters in platform games, where the character has a distinct identity, and expresses that identity through its behavior in the world. Masks are commonly used in MMOGs, where the player is given rich tools for customization and for performance of the character, especially via emotive expressions. This last category though gets ambiguous with first person games, and games like Fallout 3, which have a lot of mask like qualities (customization, decision making), but few elements of performance.

Discussing NPCs, Isbister uses the language of roles. Role awareness is important in interaction, and consistent role views and expectations create smooth experiences. Misunderstanding of roles will lead to trouble (both socially and within games). This can be productive (when one wishes to create tension), or simply jarring for the player. There are three elements to roles, which are interdependence, power dynamics, and obligations and investment. Interdependence is the objective and ability of the NPC. Even hostile NPCs provide interdependence by providing opposition and conflict for the player. Isbister reviews many common NPC types and discusses them all in light of these three categories, as well as by the defining manner in which they interact with the player.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorIsbister, Katherine
TitleBetter Game Characters by Design
Tagsai, games, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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