Katherine Isbister

Games, Emotions and Believable Characters

Katherine Isbister is well-known for her work exploring how emotions are evoked through interactive entertainment. She’s an accomplished game designer and educator who works with students and collaborators to bring innovative ideas to life. Her new book, Games and Emotions, will be out in February from MIT press. Join me for a glimpse into Katherine’s approach to teaching, researching, and creating emotionally evocative games.

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More on Katherine Isbister

Katherine’s Website: Katherine Interface

Katherine’s Book: How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design

Connect: LinkedIn @kcisbister

Episode Transcript

[Amy Jo Kim] Give us a whirlwind tour of your background. How did you get started and how did you decide what to pursue along the way?

[Katherine Isbister] Well I actually have a PhD in Communication from Stanford and I was driven to go get that PhD because of an experience I had in my first job out of college. I was working at a zoo in Chicago and we had an exhibition that was all about birds. I have to tell you, Amy, that I’m not a fan of birds.

They’re not my favorite animal and I used to pass through the bird house at the zoo every day on my way to my office and didn’t really think much about birds. One day, an interactive kiosk appeared, in which you had to try to be a Red-winged Blackbird for a season.

You had to choose where to put your nest and who to try to attract as a mate. How to take care of your babies and you could lose nestlings along the way. I suddenly found myself very caught up in what was going on for birds. I thought you know that is amazing, that such a sort of not very interesting and rich media experience yet an interactive experience basically a game could create so much empathy in me. That’s what got me interested in pursuing what exactly was going on with games and how they affect people.

I talked to a lot of people and they recommended that I pursue that by getting a PhD in Communication and so that’s what I did. After that I did a Post Doc in Japan and I worked for some startups. Then I ended up being a full-time career academic and I’ve helped to build game design and research programs at several universities, both here in the US and also overseas. Now I’m at UC Santa Cruz in the computational media department.

There’s a thread that runs through so much of your work. That you just told us a story about how this all got started which is the emotional thread. Your specialty is games and emotion and you have a book coming out about this right?

That’s true I spent the last few years trying to polish this book which is coming out in February. That really summarizes some of my thinking about how game designers evoke emotion in players. To get people to have a more subtle and interesting discussion about why that happens. How it happens with a lot of examples of game that are, off the beaten path that are games that everyday people don’t always think about when they think about emotions and games.

How did you develop this point of view about games and emotions?

Well I was actually an English literature undergrad and I always loved the written word. I loved the way that identifying with characters and travelling alongside a narrative could make you feel as a person. I think this experience that I had at the zoo with this interactive kiosk was, “Wow, the minute you have agency and you have choice, and you’re more active in what’s going on there are whole other set of emotions that can be unlocked to create a really powerful experience.”

From the beginning though I love the fact that games are goal driven and get people interested in complex systems, and get them thinking in different ways. My own personal person around games was always around building emotion and empathy and connection for people and helping them in a sense deep in their own humanity through the playing experience.

Today in your practice you are now a professor at UC Santa Cruz correct?

That’s right.

What role are you going to be playing in bringing new games and new ideas to life in that role?

Well for the past few years before I joined the faculty here I was the research director of the game innovation lab at New York University. While I was there, I built a suite of games that were looking at co-located physical play. When people play together and particularly when they’re moving around together, how do you design really interesting and engaging social and emotional experiences for players.

We did a B Boy, B Girl dance battle game, we did a game that used surveillance cameras and most recently we did one that used costumes as game controllers. I expect that one of the things I’ll do here is continue to build on that work and deepen the research questions that I’m asking about how we can shape the future of games and gaming technology. Also technology in general by getting a little outside of the box in how we think about supporting that kind of interaction.

Of course there’s a lot of really interesting things people are doing. Santa Cruz has a particular specialty in thinking about artificial intelligence in games and building new kinds of narrative game experiences. I’m really looking forward to collaborating with my colleagues here on working on those sorts of questions and challenges in gaming.

I want to follow up on what you’re talking about with the different aspects of experiencing a game, because it really touches on something I’ve been noticing a lot about game designers and designers in general. There isn’t just one kind of designer. Designers come at what they’re doing and players come at their experience of the game from really different points of view. Both as a player and as a designer you focus in on emotions. That’s your north star, that’s your point of view? 
I’m a system designer I’ve always enjoyed in systems. Taking systems apart putting them back together. When I’ve worked on games I participate in the whole, but I’m often designing a system. I’m also a game designer, I know people they start with the narrative. Tracy Fullerton who runs the department at USC very much a narrative game designer, brilliant at that.
It’s so interesting because we all collaborate together but people come at their creative endeavors from different points of view.

I think that’s very true in what you’re saying made me think about this last collaboration on the costumes as game controllers project. I was with an artist Kaho Abe who actually was the artist in residence in my lab at NYU. One of the things I really enjoyed about working with her is she was beginning from a very particular aesthetic experience she wanted … aesthetic and emotion I would say experience she wanted to happen between the players of this game that she was working on.

Everything about the decision she made in the crafting of these wearable components. The interaction strategies that happened, in the positioning, in the ways that people would pose and engage was driven by that core aesthetic and emotional goal. I would say that’s really where I’m coming from in doing the kind of exploration I do.

It moves from games proper into play and playful situations and taxonologies. The unifying factor is really if we start from a position of thinking about people’s emotional and social experience. How can we re-think what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, to create an experience that’s supportive and compelling in this particular ways.

In that endeavor what games that are out there that we could look at and play on any platform have inspired you? What games do you think deliver really interesting compelling emotions?

I think that one interesting trend that’s happened recently is an attempt to capture subtle everyday experiences of other people. An example there would be Cart Life. I don’t know if you’ve played that game, but that was a game that took many awards at the Independent Games Festival.

It was just designed for you to try to survive as somebody running a food cart in a city. Nicely combined these minutiae of making decisions about pricing and what to put out there. These kinds of management mechanics was just enough narrative and background flavoring about who you are. How you related to other people really evoked something of what it was like to have that kind of daily existence.

I thought that was a really nice. It was like a haiku or sort of poetic endeavor right creative particular aesthetic experience for people. That is the kind of resonant an experience that I find interesting.

When you were talking about it made me think of Journey.

Sure, Journey is another great example.

It’s actually the only game I can think of that felt like it was created in an artistic way and delivered a very singular powerful emotional experience, with enough variability to make it game like.

Absolutely and another interesting thing about Journey is that it is a social game. It’s very difficult to artfully craft particularly networked social interaction. I think in person interaction the kind of thing that Kaho and I were working on in that costumes at this game controllers project.

You have a lot more control over social dynamics when you are controlling the here and now. The creator of Journey, that was absolutely masterful what they did there in terms of shaping how you encounter others in that game. Constraining what you can do to create the emotional and social bonding experience they wanted you to have without it going off the rails.

That’s a high art form actually and there’s a lot potential in approaching social gaming in that way.

A lot of what they did in Journey is take a lot of things out.

Yes, I think that’s true. There’s so many things going on when people engage with one another. People bring so much to the table emotionally too. I personally think it’s a lot better to make artful use of ambiguity and simplicity to try to work with the richness of what people are bringing to the table. Instead of try to sort of bold them over with a lot of high-fidelity material coming their way. That can easily backfire.

You’ve worked with and around a lot of different people bringing their ideas to life? What are some of the really common mistakes you’ve seen people make and frankly you yourself have made, that you now work hard to do things differently?

Part of my training is actually in user research and usability. One of the biggest mistakes people make is they’re afraid to share their ideas early. They don’t put enough work into figuring out the best ways to prototype and convey and test out their ideas with others early and often.

I’ve had that issue myself even in the area of human computer interaction research which is where I usually publish. If you look at how often people iterate a system it’s not nearly frequently enough. It’s not nearly along the lines of what typically happens in game development. That’s quite frankly necessary in order to achieve an actually engaging highly interactive experience. That’s one of the big mistakes I see beginners make.

What did they do instead?

They talk about their idea a lot, they spend a lot of time in this verbal idea phase. Then they may linger too long in trying to craft a prototype that gets to where they would like it to be without sharing it with people and getting feedback.

With game design students, sometimes that can mean they really don’t actually have the technical or artistic rather chops they need to get a prototype together that represents their idea. Part of what they need to be doing is finding the right teammates to do that or modulating their ideas so that they can actually craft something.

A lot of beginning designers don’t realize that the idea is worth nothing if you can’t actually build it and test it and take it to the next step. Even if you love some idea it may just be completely out of scale as what you can actually execute on it. It’s not really worth pursuing for too long. It’s not worth wasting the time on.

As Eric Zimmerman says, “Less brainstorming, more prototyping.”

Yes, that’s one reason why game jams have become so popular. It’s actually a really nice place, apprenticeship place where people can learn about what can actually be done and how you do it. Where like-minded others show up and try their hand at game making.

It teaches people a lot more than becoming expert critics by playing a lot of games. Just sort of like the difference between Quentin Tarantino being a guy working in a video rental shop and actually starting to be a director.

Let’s build on that. I have a couple of really tactical questions about process. How do you approach testing iteration when you’re first engaging in the new project? How do you decide or how do you help your students decide. How do you and your artistic collaborators decide which ideas to pursue and which to filter out in those early stages? Do you have some method or some process that you use?

I am a researcher so I do believe on standing on the shoulders of others. One thing that I always have students do and that I do myself is when I have an idea or they have an idea I say, “Well show me things that are in the landscape of this idea. Are there things that are similar that you like for some reason or another that you think aren’t delivering for some reason or another?” to try and really grasp what the current landscape is and where the thing you’re thinking of making might contribute.

I don’t think that’s always necessary, sometimes people just go off and make something amazing. It just completely creates a new niche, but I think most ideas benefit from doing that kind of landscape analysis where you look at … because it helps you also articulate, “why do I want to make this thing and how is it different from all those things that are out there? How is my thing going to be different?” I would say that’s an important first step that I think a lot of nervous designers don’t take.

Awesome, I’m going to assume that’s one of your top tips for doing faster, smarter prototyping and iteration?

Absolutely. Another thing is to not get wedded too early to a particular technology unless that is an explicit constraint of your project. Because we found in the research projects that sometimes an idea requires a different constellation of technologies than you thought at the beginning.

Don’t just dive right into a particular platform or a particular software. For us it would a game engine, right? But think about where that idea would bloom the best? Then think about who could work on it? What’s the team to get together?

How do you think about designing for a particular player/audience/customer? How do that play because I know you’re doing most of your research projects? You’re also training game designers many of whom are going to go out and get jobs in the world. During your testing phase, who do you tell them to recruit and why?

I actually was teaching a course at NYU called game and players with recent overview of how to engage with players at all different parts of the cycle of game design and development. An interesting thing that I had the students do was learn a little bit about ethnography.

Certainly, once you have a working prototype you can start to put that in front of the kinds of people you think will want to play your game. Although you have to be careful because if it doesn’t have a high degree of polish sometimes people can get very distracted by that. You have to be very targeted in how you ask for feedback.

I also had the students really spend sometime in environments where the kinds of people they wanted to design for were hanging around and playing other things. To sort of open their eyes about the context of play and their motivation for playing. The sorts of rich things that are going on socially around play that could shape the kinds of design choices they might make.

An example of that might be, okay you want to design a casual game. You think it’s going to be played on the subway and kinds of fits and starts by certain kind of person. Well you know while you’re riding the subway think about, kind of surreptitiously, what they’re watching, people who are on their phones and look to be playing games. What’s going on, what are they doing? Do they switch task, what’s happening for them, how are people around them relating to that, so on and so forth.

Have you had experience both with in person and remote collaboration on projects?

Yes I definitely have.

Let’s talk about that, this is a big topic in the world I live in. Both personally because we’re … how do creative people bring their ideas to life? By collaborating with a team. Innovation is a team sport right? It really is. More and more our work takes place with distributed teams or we’re travelling and we need to keep our project going etcetera. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned, starting off with like. What are some of the practices or tools either one that you’ve tried for collaboration that have either worked really well and you’re like, “Yeah I learned something I’m doing that now,” or, “boy, I tried that and it really didn’t work. There’s a great lesson learned there.” What have you learned about getting work done with teams both remotely and in-person?

I would say for my own experience one thing I’ve learned is it’s pretty important to lay the groundwork for a good collaboration with face-to-face time. I think you can build something together once you have got some common ground with the people involved. I think it’s very hard to initiate that and maintain that purely at a distance.

I’d say for me personally I’ve had the best luck with investing sometime upfront. Getting to know people and working with them some in-person. That then carry you quite a ways. The other thing is it’s really important to have regular meetings, just have a kind of a drumbeat especially when you’re working across time zones.
It’s a lot easier to just set a regular time to get together that you know works in both time zones. And just keep doing that have a standing meeting. It gets really discoursing when you spend a lot of playing scheduling tag and doing doodles and that sort of thing. It can just sort of suck the energy out of the collaboration.

Have you experimented with tools to support that like Slack or other collaboration tools?

I’ve used Slack a little bit I have to say that typically with my students and other people I’ve been working with. It’s been more Google Docs and Google Calendars just very basic sharing tools. Then things like Skype and Hangout. I was on one project that used some crazy proprietary file repository that was absolutely awful. Nobody could get into it or figure out how it worked. I did use Basecamp I also found that pretty burdensome and not that intuitive or easy to deal with.

I tried Basecamp and found it cumbersome. I’m finding Slack better, but it requires a lot of setting it up so it works well for the particular team you’re working with.

That makes sense.

Any other things that you’ve learned about collaboration that you would like to avoid? Anything things that you tried that you’re excited about that like really did work out?

I guess one other thing that I think is incredibly important is to be really clear and explicit with everyone who’s on a team. From the beginning about why everyone is involved, what they hope to get out of it and what kind of time they have to commit to it. Sometime you have to really tease those sorts of things out of people.

The projects I’ve had that have gone alright have mostly been because people’s objectives didn’t line up or their time commitments weren’t the same. It’s the kind of thing that can be awkward for people to talk about, but especially since I’m typically in the leader role being the professor, I’ve just learned to just go after those questions and pursue them in whatever way is necessary. To make sure I know what’s going on whether it’s in the team meeting or one-on-ones with people. Kind of teasing those things out because those are really make or break.

Also sometimes you really like a person but they have really a lot of issues in working with other team members. Just keeping an eye out for those sorts of things that can really tank a project.

When you’re collaborating with a team remotely or in-person. What is it that’s your superpower as a designer, an educator, a creator? What’s your sweet spot?

I think that I’m good at seeing people for what they really have to offer and putting them in a position where they’re excited to be doing what they’re doing. I’d say that’s my sweet spot, is seeing people for who they are and what they actually want to do and making sure that all those things synergize and line up.

I think that can allow you to do pretty crazy things if everyone feels pretty comfortable and enjoying what they’re doing. Then they’ll make something that’s pretty far out and not be too worried about the risk because they’re having a good time with it. It feels sustainable and comfortable for them.

What kind of projects light you up the most?

Since I’m in the research world I try to build things that maybe aren’t being addressed in everyday commercial world. That are also beating the path that represent an alternate possibility space for where we could go. In some sense I’m sort of like a science fiction writer.

I mean the project that I’m most excited about are the ones that we build. Then they’re really interesting object lessons for people who are dealing with everyday realities and industry. Who can say, “Oh huh,” kind of scratch their heads and say, “Huh maybe I’ll do a little something like that when the time comes around. That looks like kind of a good idea.”

Even if it just makes them scratch their head and laugh. It can be helpful because it’s breaking them out of the box that they’re thinking in. I believe we can get so constrained by the rapid pace and the exigencies of everyday commercial life. It’s good to have these really interesting left field thing coming out of with the research world. To keep us energized about where we’re going after the next, next, next, next project.

Katherine, what do you think it is that people get wrong about games and emotions?

I think there’s a stereotype, there’s a lot of fear about how exciting games are for young people and how compelling they are. On the surface when people who don’t play games look at games they see a lot of the window dressing of games, which can be very violent and even murderous looking. And sort of be shocked and repelled by that and not actually understand what’s going on under the surface for people emotionally.

Everyday, people in some sense a little bit have been taken for a ride by the press about either games are going to just destroy our youth. Or games are going to save us because we’re going to apply that incredible energy that people have for gaming to solve the world’s problems. The truth is more nuanced and complex. It requires having a little bit of literacy about game design.

Which is opaque to most people who don’t play games. They don’t understand what’s happening as a person engages the game. With my book I’m actually trying to point out some key innovations game designers have made, that really shape how players feel. That can be used for all kinds of purposes that are neither inherently good nor inherently evil. But that are similar to film, the techniques like cuts and close-ups are the materials that game designers have invented to influence how we feel and how we think.

I’m really hoping that it will help to shift the conversation a little bit and give people a little bit more literacy for thinking about games and evaluating for themselves. Is that educational game that their child brought home actually interesting and valuable or not and why? How is it impacting their child emotionally for example?

That’s fabulous so when is this book coming out?

February next year from MIT Press.

The title?

It’s called ‘How Games Move Us, Emotion by Design.’

Great and is there a place people can find out more and perhaps even pre-order it?

I think that MIT Press should have some materials up shortly.

Is there a place that people who would like to read more about your work can find out?

Sure yeah I have a website it’s katherineinterface.com

Wonderful. Thank you so much Katherine, before we go I want to follow up. You’re saying that film has … that if you study film literacy you’ll learn about cuts and close-ups and positioning shots. All the things that only once you make a film you would actually learn about. Does your book deliver that same language but for game emotions?

Yes. The idea is I’m giving a set of starter concepts about game design and emotion to the reader to then go and be able to take apart what’s happening. Some of the examples would be the invention and use of avatars. How profoundly avatars extend the notion of protagonists that we see in film, because the avatar is the prosthetic person for the player. It’s a suit the player puts on and can actually act through. That fundamentally changes the sorts of feelings that can be had in the game. That’s just one example. I talk about also, in social games, how many of the subtle rituals that we enact in everyday life are being heightened and designed in games for example gift giving.

Many people who don’t play games may not know that in social online games gift giving is a very important ritual that is designed to be even more meaningful sometimes than it is in everyday life. These are the sorts of things I think your average person doesn’t necessarily realize are happening in games and they can’t take apart when they hear someone tell them about a player experience. They don’t know how to take apart which parts are influencing that person’s feelings.

My intent is yes to start providing. I don’t claim to have all of it down, but to start providing that kind of design language for taking apart games whether or not you’re a player.