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Future Character Design: Out of the Lab and Into Your Game
Posted March 30 4:00 PM by Kelly Murdock
The final GDC session for 2006 that I was able to attend was titled, “Future Character Design: Out of the Lab and Into Your Game,” by Katherine Isbister. This session highlighted several recent research projects that are directly applicable to the game industry. Katherine Isbister received her Ph.D. from Stanford University and recently helped develop a Game Design program at CSI. In this session, she shared her background in social psychology as a means of designing characters for future games.

Finding Innovations

The current landscape of games is changing as the platform’s change. There is a drive towards larger and more diverse audiences. Within games, characters are a powerful tool representing the “player’s suit.” As game designers, we should push to create new experiences for players. A good goal is to introduce 1-3 new innovations per new game.

The games industry started in a garage and is still just a baby in diapers when compared with other industries. Innovation can be learned from the weird researchers. Through this talk, Katherine is hoping to build a conduit to other researchers acting as a bridge between academia and the games industry.

Game Useful Research

Katherine then presented several unique research projects that could potentially impact game design including the following:
  • Tone of Voice: This research focuses on the emotional quality in the tone of voice. Imagine a game where the characters respond based on a system that analyzes the pitch and energy of a player’s speech.

  • Facial Expression: Several projects are working on facial recognition systems that work in real-time and that aren’t constrained by having the character stand still. By analyzing the movement of the main facial features, scientists can predict the intended emotion. This technology could enable social games where players learn from each other by mimicking actions, much like an infant learns from their parents. It could also lead to empathy-based games.

  • Eye Tracking: One example of this research tracked the eye movements of Tetris players to learn the successful strategies for wining the game. From this research, the team learned that expert players differed quite a bit in where they focused their eyes from novice players. Game possibilities using this research could involve learning to control your behavior so the player isn’t suspicious.

  • Gestures – Sentics and eMoto: Concerning gestures, Katherine mentioned two different research studies. The Sentics project was published over 30 years ago and dealt with touch patterns. By tapping on a device to convey specific emotions, the researchers found common touch patterns across all the tested subjects. This presents the idea that gestures are used to convey emotions. The eMoto project enabled emotional messages through an SMS texting service. These research projects could lead to some rather interesting party games.

  • GSR and Beyond: The EdgeLab project tracked the emotional response of players by detecting smiles and frowns on their face along with the resulting heart rate. They found that the emotional response was much greater when a player scored against another player than when they scored by themselves against the computer. They also learned that the calmness of the character in the game tends to calm the player.


The market is open to games that are based on these and other research projects. The game, Journey to the Wild Divine, is a good example of what is possible. If game designers can learn to work with social scientists using biosignals, then games that have a unique social flow can begin to appear. By tracking player’s feelings and emotional responses, games can be created that produce a better social experience. Researchers are open to feedback from game developers and game designers should seek out researchers that can help them with their games.

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