Better Game Characters by Design

1st Edition

A Psychological Approach

Authors: Katherine Isbister
Paperback ISBN: 9781558609211
Imprint: Morgan Kaufmann
Published Date: 14th June 2006
Page Count: 368


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Table of Contents

  • About the Author
  • Foreword by Tim Schafer
  • Preface
  • About the DVD
  • I First Impressions
    • What Is Covered and Why
    • Who Will Find Part I Most Useful
    • Overview of Key Concepts
    • Take-Aways from Part I
    • 1 Social Surface
      • 1.1 What Is Covered and Why
      • 1.2 The Psychological Principles
      • 1.3 Design Pointers
      • 1.4 Interview: Gonzalo Frasca
      • 1.5 Summary and What Is Next
      • 1.6 Exercises
      • 1.7 Further Reading
    • 2 Practical Questions - Dominance, Friendliness, and Personality
      • 2.1 What Is Covered and Why
      • 2.2 The Psychological Principles
      • 2.3 Design Pointers
      • 2.4 Summary and What Is Next
      • 2.5 Exercises
      • 2.6 Further Reading
  • II Focus on the Player
    • What Is Covered and Why
    • Who Will Find Part II Most Useful
    • Overview of Key Concepts
    • Take-Aways from Part II
    • 3 Culture
      • 3.1 What Is Covered and Why
      • 3.2 The Psychological Principles
      • 3.3 Design Pointers
      • 3.4 Interview: Ryoichi Hasegawa and Roppyaku Tsurumi of Sony
      • 3.5 Interview: Lewis Johnson
      • 3.6 Summary and What Is Next
      • 3.7 Exercises
      • 3.8 Further Reading
    • 4 Gender
      • 4.1 What Is Covered and Why
      • 4.2 The Psychological Principles
      • 4.3 Design Pointers
      • 4.4 Interviews with Gamers - Personal Perspectives
      • 4.5 Summary and What Is Next
      • 4.6 Exercises
      • 4.7 Further Reading
  • III Using a Character's Social Equipment
    • What Is Covered and Why
    • Who Will Find Part III Most Useful
    • Overview of Key Concepts
    • Take-Aways from Part III
    • 5 The Face
      • 5.1 What Is Covered and Why
      • 5.2 The Psychological Principles
      • 5.3 Design Pointers
      • 5.4 Summary and What Is Next
      • 5.5


Games are poised for a major evolution, driven by growth in technical sophistication and audience reach. Characters that create powerful social and emotional connections with players throughout the game-play itself (not just in cut scenes) will be essential to next-generation games.

However, the principles of sophisticated character design and interaction are not widely understood within the game development community. Further complicating the situation are powerful gender and cultural issues that can influence perception of characters. Katherine Isbister has spent the last 10 years examining what makes interactions with computer characters useful and engaging to different audiences.

This work has revealed that the key to good design is leveraging player psychology: understanding what's memorable, exciting, and useful to a person about real-life social interactions, and applying those insights to character design. Game designers who create great characters often make use of these psychological principles without realizing it.

Better Game Characters by Design gives game design professionals and other interactive media designers a framework for understanding how social roles and perceptions affect players' reactions to characters, helping produce stronger designs and better results.

Key Features

  • Includes extensive illustrations, game examples, interviews with game designers, and clips from popular games on the DVD to illustrate concepts and best practices
    Uses a non-technical approach appropriate for artists and designers as well as developers
    Introduces and explains key concepts from psychology and social science, including cultural and gender specific roles and perceptions, and includes design exercises to explore ideas further


Game designers, programmers, art directors, and sound designers, and HCI professionals. Students will learn how to design effective interactive characters and gain an understanding of social roles and perceptions that can apply.


No. of pages:
© Morgan Kaufmann 2006
Morgan Kaufmann
Paperback ISBN:


“If the characters in a game have depth, complexity, consistency, mystery, humanity, and charm, then they are going to feel real to the player, and that helps the whole game world feel real, and allows the player to suspend his or her disbelief and get lost in the world. Everything the player does will be more exciting if they're doing it for someone, or with someone, or in opposition to someone who feels real. Simply put, good character design helps the player to have what we all know can be an amazing, unforgettable experience. This book is not just about making great characters, but also about making great games.” — from the foreword by Tim Schafer, Double Fine Productions “Katherine Isbister skillfully draws upon various psychological constructs elevating game development to a more comprehensive level. Taking a Psych 100 class? This book transforms the sometimes stuffy theories of Freud, Skinner, Rogers and Maslow into fresh and entertaining relevancy as the author weaves these ideas into game content. The next time you play a favorite video game, read this book-that game will take on a whole new light and who knows you may be able to ace that psychology final.” — Pauline Pedersen, Course Director, Full Sail Real World Education “The notion of using psychological principles in games continues to be of great interest to the games industry, but few researchers have been able to discuss in depth how psychological research can actually be applied to game design. Katherine Isbister's book not only makes complex psychological concepts accessible to the games community, but also demonstrates its application in current games through the use of concrete examples (on retail products), and possible design tips and recommendations.” — Randy Pagulayan, PhD, User Research Lead, Microsoft Game Studios “Katherine Isbister has crafted a text that covers a far g

About the Authors

Katherine Isbister Author

Associate Professor, Department of Language, Literature and Communication, RPI; Director of the Games Research Lab, RPI; Chair of the MS in HCI Program, RPI. Katherine is Director of the Games Research Lab at Rensselaer (RPI), where she has worked to build an undergraduate major in game design, as well as a robust program of games-related research. She is also the Chair of the MS in HCI at RPI, which she helped to redesign to address current challenges facing HCI practitioners, such as the design of games and other social and leisure applications. Katherine is a former MK Game author, having written: Better Game Characters by Design: A Psychological Approach, which was nominated for a Game Developer Magazine Front Line award in 2006. She has published work in a wide variety of venues, and has given invited talks at research and academic venues including Sony research labs in Japan, Banff Centre in Canada, IBM, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and others. The Games Research Lab at RPI has cutting-edge facilities for user studies, and Isbister has used the lab to research innovative methods in user testing (e.g. the Sensual Evaluation Instrument - a project nominated for Best Paper award at the CHI conference in 2006). Isbister has worked in both research and commercial settings on HCI and usability aspects of games and other products. This background, combined with strong connections to game industry practitioners, makes her well suited to put together an edited volume on games usability that is both rigorous and useful to developers in their everyday work.

Affiliations and Expertise

Associate Professor, Department of Language, Literature and Communication, RPI; Director of the Games Research Lab, RPI; Chair of the MS in HCI Program, RPI