Get to Know a GameDev: Katherine Isbister


Katherine Isbister is a games and emotion researcher, future game controller prototyper, and probably one of the coolest professors you could land in Computational Media studies.

We first featured Professor Isbister when her presentation was included in the mediaXstanford continues Interactive Media & Games Seminar Series. Her talk, How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design, explores how game design affects us emotionally, and she has spent her career studying computer-human interaction.

With such a fascinating focus, we were excited to chat with Professor Isbister about her work, and find out how someone might pursue a career in games and emotion research.

What would be your official and unofficial title, if you were describing your role in gaming?
Official title: Professor of Computational Media, UC Santa Cruz
Unofficial title: Games and emotion researcher, future game controller prototyper

That’s a unique job! Is there anything ‘weird’ about your role?
Not weird, but great that I get to study and build games for a living, including some pretty futuristic ideas about where games can go.

Did you always want to work in games?
I knew pretty much right after college that I wanted to get to the bottom of what made games so powerful for players. Later I realized it would be really fun to build the future controllers/interfaces for games and think about how that could apply to tech outside gaming, too. At first I wanted to design rather than be a professor, so I did that for a while after grad school. But I realized I loved to teach and ended up back in the university after all! I still get to do design, but in a more long-term thinking way, asking and answering research questions along the way.

What did you do before this job?
Before I went to grad school to study games, I worked at a zoo in Chicago. In fact, a videogame I saw there got me really excited about the emotional impact of games on players. I also worked as a designer of other digital experiences outside games during and after working on my Ph.D.

You worked at the ZOO?!
My favorite moment at the zoo was when I got to help judge a family halloween costume contest. Best costume my year–a family dressed as the five senses. Dad was a giant hand 😉

The videogame was a kiosk that asked you to try to be a redwing blackbird for a season. You had to make decisions about where to build a nest, select a mate, guard your eggs, take care of your babies. It really gave me a different perspective on the life of the bird.

Game Developers ConferenceSo is that how you broke into the games industry?

I started out as a conference volunteer at the Game Developers Conference when I was in grad school, all starry-eyed about the amazing developers I met there. I loved the community and realized I had found my home.

The moment when I felt I ‘made it’: giving my first GDC talk: terrifying and exhilarating! That talk led to my first book written for game designers, and from there I’ve never looked back.

What was your first GDC talk about? Any general advice for first time speakers?
My first GDC talk was about using psychological principles to design great game characters. It actually made the 10 best talks DVD that they did that year (I think it was 2004), and led to the book I published in 2006, called Better Game Characters by Design: A Psychological Approach. Giving that talk gave me great perspective on the most useful parts of my research work for game designers, and led to lots of connections that helped me gather the interviews that are in the book.

So far as advice for first-time speakers, I’d just say that the audience is passionate about games like you are, and will deeply respect and appreciate the expertise that you bring to them. Treat them with respect, and make your talk clear and personable and full of great ideas, and you’ll do fine!

Have you faced many personal challenges during your career?
It’s not always easy to be the bridge between practicing professionals and researchers–each community can be skeptical or confused about the other. I’ve had to navigate that gap carefully to make a stable trajectory for myself as an academic who also has street cred and practical value for designers.

Professionally, what have been the high and low points?
High points have been working on projects with designers, writing books they find valuable, and all the great conversations over the years. Low points have been journalists asking me the same old questions about videogames and having to explain over and over the incredible value and subtlety and mastery of games as a medium–to press, to people in my everyday life, and sometimes even to academic administration.


Katherine Isbister with Thorsten Storno of A MAZE.

Do you have any heroes/role models in terms of your work?
So many! I have so much admiration for intellectually curious and accomplished designers like Tim Schafer, Will Wright, Raph Koster, Dan Cook, Rich Lemarchand, Robin Hunicke, Steve Swink. I’ve loved working closely with indie designers and curators like Kaho Abe and Syed Salahuddin. The games community is so full of talented, smart, generous people.

Do you notice more people are studying games academically?
Yes, there has been tremendous growth in the number of programs in game design and development, and thus a rise in the number of students as well. (The ESA has numbers on degree programs, if you are curious).

I think the academic route offers people structure and scaffolding for getting skills together, learning to work on teams, and for creating games that they can show to others to help them get a foot in the door. Schools also try to place students in good internships to help them get experience and connections. I think you can do all these things without school, as you can learn any set of skills without school if you really work at it, but school definitely can help you get up to speed faster! So I’d say it really comes down to the particular person and the best path for them.

But I think it’s great there are so many options out there now for learning these skills–so many different programs with different specialities and industry/indie ties.

What has been the most striking change in games since you first started playing?
Hard to choose just one–there has been an incredible proliferation of genres, of modes of play, and of ways to get hold of games. Almost everything has changed since I was playing Centipede in the local pizzeria 🙂

What game has had the greatest emotional impact on you?
Recently, That Dragon Cancer was a real punch in the gut for me–being a parent, and getting a feel for what the family went through. I think the game has really great aesthetics–the audio, the visual style–and also makes very skillful use of giving the player a limited palette of actions, simulating the helplessness of trying to be there for a child in this situation.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about games and emotion (recently published a book called How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design), and this game is an example I often give to people who are wondering about the emotional range of games.

Do you think games can be therapeutic when it comes to emotional resilience or intelligence?
I think that they can, it depends upon the game. A game can scaffold the player into fortitude and persistence, can drive commitment and passion, can encourage and reward taking a second look and forming astute hypotheses. And games can also reward crazy button mashing and antisocial behaviour. So much of it comes down to design choices. Like any other medium!

What do hope to see from games in the future?
I am very excited about where AR can go, and also doing research on wearables for social play that I’m very excited about.


So finally, if you could make any game, with no limits on IP or budget.. ?
Wow. I think I would throw myself into AR and wearables and make an immersive social experience that ranged through the forest at UC Santa Cruz. Actually, I’m nutty enough to be attempting to work on that without unlimited IP or budget 🙂

Do you know someone in the gaming or game development community with a unique perspective, interesting project or creative take on the industry? We’d like to talk to them!
Let us know who we should feature next:





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  • On December 22, 2016