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Book Excerpt: 'Better Game Characters By Design'
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Book Excerpt: 'Better Game Characters By Design'

June 2, 2006 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next
The following is a selected excerpt from Better Game Characters By Design (ISBN 1-55860-921-0), published by Elsevier.


6.1  What Is Covered and Why

Bodies reveal a wealth of information about people and their relationships. Designers have far more options for range and subtlety in character movement today with ­better animation tools and more powerful platforms. Although character animators do focus a great deal of attention on the body language of individual characters, there is still little consideration of how characters move in relation to one another. This chapter examines some of the social messages bodies convey, with examples from games that make use of these cues in characters―ICO, SSX™ 3, and There. The chapter concludes with tips for taking advantage of body language in character design. The chapter also includes an interview with one of the designers of There about the forward-thinking choices made in designing the player avatars for this highly social environment.

6.2  The Psychological Principles

Studying human movement and its place in social relations is not an easy task. Until recently, there were no adequate technologies for recording and systematically analyzing motion. Even with these tools in hand, it is difficult to translate insights about holistic impressions of personality or social connection into quantifiable and testable predictions. This predicament is not improved by the fact that most people are dimly, if at all, aware of the incredible impact of bodies in social interaction. Ask the average person if they think body language plays a big part in their assessment of others, and they are likely to say no, even when research results show that they are sensing and making decisions based upon body cues (Nass, Isbister, and Lee 2000).

Body cues have a pervasive influence on social relationships and are therefore an important part of crafting truly engaging game characters that feel lifelike and that evoke social reactions from players. This chapter will present some of what has been unearthed in this still-evolving area of social psychology.

6.2.1  Bodies Show Relationship

Interpersonal Distance and Touch


6.1: What would you guess the relationship is between
these two people?



6.2: How about the relationship between these two?



6.3: How about these people?


One way to begin considering how bodies work in social interaction is to ­consider what proximity (how close people are together when they interact) says about relationship. Consider Figures 6.1, 6.2, and 6.3 for a moment. Most people guess that the first pair are colleagues or new acquaintances. The second pair tends to look like more familiar friends, and the third pair like a couple. Something as simple as how close people stand together has a profound affect on what they are com­municating about their relationship. Edward Hall, a well-known anthropologist, made observations of four zones of interpersonal space in U.S. social contexts:

  • Public distance. Standing more than 12 feet apart. At this distance, it is easy to see everyone’s full body. Typically, people will slightly exaggerate their expressions and movements so that they are easy to interpret.
  • Social distance. Standing 4 to 12 feet apart. This is the zone that most people hover within at parties—the closer they stand within this range, the better they probably know one another.
  • Personal distance. Standing 18 inches to 4 feet apart. At this distance, it is easy to read subtle facial expressions. This is the distance that people use for more private conversations.
  • Intimate distance. Less than 18 inches apart. This allows the people to easily touch and even to smell one another.

As was mentioned in Chapter 3, social distances vary depending upon culture and subculture, but the principle holds true: people can tell very quickly by the distance between people how likely it is that they are already in a close relationship.

Types of touch also contributes to how people perceive relationships (see Figure 6.4). Some key purposes of touch include:

  • Function. Touch as part of a task, such as a doctor’s examination or a coach clarifying a movement.
  • Social ritual. Rituals such as handshakes or cheek kisses.
  • Friendship building. Touches that show care and liking for another, such as a pat on the shoulder or a hug.
  • Intimacy. Touch that expresses sexual interest and/or emotional connection.

In ICO, the player-character (the young boy carrying the stick) finds a trapped princess very early on in game play. From this moment forward, the player takes care of her. The princess (Yorda), is not really able to defend herself and is not as agile as the player-character. She must be led by the hand to ensure that she tags along, and she needs help over obstacles. When the player ­battles the shadows that threaten her, she will stay close by (within social distance).


6.5: Sony Computer Entertainment's Ico



Many players of this game have remarked upon the emotions created by Yorda’s dependence upon them. This dependence is expressed almost entirely through body language. By keeping the two characters close, and by using touch as part of game play, the designers build a powerful connection between the player and Yorda (see Figure 6.5).


Another way people display relationship through bodies is imitation. Without realizing it, people often unconsciously mimic the postures and ­movements of those around them. Certain circumstances evoke this behavior:

  • When the other person is more dominant. People tend to imitate those who have more social influence than they do.
  • If seeking assistance. If a person needs something from another, she or he will begin to adapt the other’s poses when making a request.
  • When absorbed in conversation with someone. Researchers have noticed that ­gesture synchrony happens more when people are highly engaged with an interaction.

People tend to avoid imitating someone’s postures and gestures if in competition with them.

One way to explore the power of imitation is to do some observation in everyday life. For example, in a meeting at work, it is possible to observe body dynamics: who around the table is already holding similar postures? Are they people who share the same views? If you introduce a new pose (such as ­clasp­ing your hands on your head), do people take the same pose? To directly observe the unconscious nature of these effects, you might ask them if they were aware that they copied your pose. Most likely, they will say no. Your ­colleagues can probably tell you who got along with whom in the meeting but may not be able to articulate exactly how body ­language affected their perceptions.

Social Grouping

People also communicate relationship in the ways they orient themselves toward others during the ebb and flow of group interaction. From a young age, humans learn which groups are open to our approach and which are not by observing whether group members seem to “open up” space as we approach. Turning to acknowledge new arrivals, and including them in the sweep of one’s gaze shows acceptance. “Turning a cold shoulder” is likely to cause the new person to hesitate, and if the situation does not change, to move on to some other group.

There are many online 3D social environments and games but few with as natural and inviting a use of body language as There. Figure 6.9 shows how There avatars glance toward the speaker who is taking the current turn and realign themselves as a group to allow newcomers to enter and exit. These subtle automated touches help to tip the balance toward friendly interaction among players. For an in-depth discussion of the design choices made in creating There, see Section 6.4 for the interview with Chuck Clanton.

6.2.2  Bodies Communicate Identity

Posture and movement also communicate who people are as social individuals—what they will be like to interact with and what to expect from them.

Each of the people in Figure 6.10 is sending social signals through posture and movement—clues about how they are feeling and about their general persona. Putting a name on the kinds of qualities one can observe in these examples, and understanding their underlying dimensions, has been an ongoing challenge for psychologists. Some nonverbal qualities easily map to broader traits, such as friend­liness or dominance (which were discussed in Chapter 2). Others seem specific to movement itself. One researcher analyzed nonverbal style by systematically collecting words for movement qualities and asking people to rate friends’ movement styles using these words (Gallaher 1992). Based on the results, she came up with a few key factors:

  • Expressiveness. Using a lot of variety and energy in expressions and gestures when talking with others.
  • Animation. Showing a lot of energy in general movement—a bouncy walk, quick reactions, and so on.
  • Expansiveness. Taking up more space with one’s body in movement.
  • Coordination. Moving smoothly and with grace.

She found statistical connections between these movement qualities and personal qualities. For example, someone who was habitually fearful would typically show less expansive movement and less animation.

She also found a gender-related pattern: women tended to score higher on the expressiveness scale, while men scored higher on the expansiveness scale. And she found trends of connection between a person’s body type and their movement style: heavier people were rated as less animated and more expansive; taller people were rated as more expansive, and people with more muscle were rated as more animated and coordinated.

Gallaher’s findings mesh well with the movement analysis dimensions developed by a famous early-twentieth-century dance researcher, Rudolf Laban (Laban 1974). He created a system of movement analysis in which he coded the following dimensions:

  • Space. Whether movement is indirect and wandering or to the point (shooing flies versus threading a needle).
  • Weight. A light movement seems weightless and easy; a strong movement shows much force behind it (brushing your fingers across a flower’s petals versus wringing a towel).
  • Time. Sustained actions seem to take their time; sudden actions are rapid and over quickly (petting a cat versus grabbing the cat as it is about to escape from the house).
  • Flow. Free movement looks loose and uncontrolled; bound movement looks quite controlled and perhaps even rigid (a dog shaking water off itself versus ­balancing a biscuit on its nose).

Laban crafted a system of movement notation to diagram the qualities of any given action. In Figure 6.11a Laban’s parameters for movement are arranged in a notational space, and in Figure 6.11b, the effort diagram of someone screwing a lighbulb into place shows how the notation gets used for a ­particular motion.

There has been recent work examining the Laban signatures of emotionally-driven movement, clustering emotional movements into different effort signatures (Fagerberg, Ståhl, and Höök 2004). These researchers found some interesting ­clusters of emotions (see Figure 6.12):

  • Excitement, anger, and surprised–afraid (all flexible, fluent, and quick motions)
  • Sulkiness, surprised–interested, pride, satisfaction (all direct, light, bound, and sustained motions)
  • Sadness, being in love (sustained, fluent, light, and direct motions)

There is no definitive empirical strategy for analyzing motion as it expresses emotion, mood, or more enduring personality traits. However, working from ­Gallaher’s and Laban’s dimensions, it is possible to create a profile of a ­charac­ter’s style of movement that can be useful for a design team in guiding choices about animation details. Thinking about a character’s likely emotions in a social encounter, and about the character’s overall personality and build and how these will impact motion, will help take full advantage of the character’s body as a social instrument.

Designers of professional sports games invest considerable design time in recreating the signature moves and general style of athletes from real-world teams. Even games such as SSX™ 3 that do not explicitly recreate famous athletes, exaggerate the qualities that everyday people envy in athletes: their high level of coordination and the magical way they have of making difficult movements seem light, weightless, flowing, and with a sense that they have all the time in the world at their disposal (see Figure 6.13). Watching Clip 6.3 while keeping Laban’s dimensions of effort—space, weight, time, and flow—in mind, it becomes apparent that these characters lift the player out of the everyday by heightening these qualities.

In contrast, consider again the movements of the player-character and Yorda in ICO (see Figure 6.14 and Clip 6.1). Neither has nearly the coordination and smooth grace of the athletes. The player-character uses rapid, sometimes clumsy movements. Yorda is more flowing but also clumsy. Both characters create a sense of ­vulnerability and dependence through their movements, heightening the tension for the player and perhaps increasing the urge toward teamwork for ­survival. By manipulating body movements, the designers have subtly pressured the player’s game-play strategy and emotions.

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