Katherine Isbister

Working at the intersection of Human Computer Interaction and Games, my research team at UC Santa Cruz builds and studies playful computer-supported experiences that push the boundaries of moment-to-moment engagement with technology. We have >100 peer-reviewed publications. Here are a few of the ongoing themes of our work:

Games and Emotion

Exploring and understanding the emotional impact of game design, and innovating emotional experience with games and playful interfaces through the creation of novel technical prototypes and design research.

Selected Publications
Isbister, K. 2016 How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design. MIT Press.

Robinson, R., Murray, J., Isbister, K. 2018. "You're Giving Me Mixed Signals!": A Comparative Analysis of Methods that Capture Players' Emotional Response to Games. Extended Abstracts of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Paper No. LBW567.

Yannakakis, G., Isbister, K., Paiva, A., and Karpouzis, K. 2014. Guest Editorial: Emotion in Games. IEEE Transactions on Affective Computing, Special Issue on Emotion and Games 1(5): 1-2.

Höök, K., Isbister, K., Westerman, S., Gardner, P., Sutherland, E., Vasalou, A., Sundström, P., Kaye, J.J., and Laaksolahti, J. 2011. Evaluation of Affective Interactive Applications, In Paolo Petta, Catherine Pelachaud and Roddy Cowie (eds), Emotion-Oriented Systems, The Humaine Handbook, pp. 683-700, Springer.

Isbister, K. 2011. Emotion and Motion: Games as Inspiration for Shaping the Future of Interface. Interactions, September/October 2011.

Isbister, K., Höök, K., Laaksolahti, J., & Sharp, M. 2007. Sensual evaluation instrument: Developing a trans-cultural self-report measure of affect. International journal of human-computer studies 65(4): 315-328.

Connecting through Social Play

A detailed look at collocated social game play, building games and studying how they modify social interaction, toward finding design patterns and innovating technological augmentation of in-person interaction. This line of research has included building exhibition-ready games, such as Yamove!, an IndieCade finalist game that debuted at the 2012 NYU Game Center No Quarter exhibition, and was also featured at the 2012 World Science Festival Innovation Arcade.

Selected Publications
Isbister, K. 2016. Connecting through Play. Interactions Magazine 23(4) (Cover article).

Dagan, E., Márquez Segura, E., Altarriba Bertran, F., Flores, M., and Isbister, K. 2019. Designing 'True Colors': A Social Wearable that Affords Vulnerability. Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Márquez Segura, E., Fey, J., Dagan, E., Jhaveri, S.N., Pettitt, J., Flores, M., and Isbister, K. 2018. Designing Future Social Wearables with Live Action Role Play (Larp) Designers. Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Isbister, K., Márquez Segura, E., Kirkpatrick, S., Chen, X., Salahuddin, S., Cao, G. and Tang, R. 2016. Yamove! A Movement Synchrony Game That Choreographs Social Interaction. Human Technology Special Issue on Human-Technology Choreographies: Body, Movement, and Space, Volume 12 (1):74-102.

Abe, K. and Isbister, K. 2016. Hotaru: The Lightning Bug Game. (Presented in Interactivity). CHI Extended Abstracts 2016: 277-280.

Isbister, K. and Mueller, F. 2015. Guidelines for the Design of Movement-Based Games and their relevance to HCI. Human Computer Interaction, special issue on Games and HCI 30(4), 366-399.

Márquez Segura, E. and Isbister, K. 2015. Enabling Co-Located Physical Social Play: A Framework for Design and Evaluation. In Bernhaupt R. (ed), Evaluating User Experience in Games (2nd Edition), Springer.

Smart Fidget Devices

Studying the objects people choose to fidget with, and building smart devices that strategically afford fidgeting to support emotional and cognitive self-regulation.

Selected Publications
Isbister, K. 2017. Fidget Toys Aren’t Just Hype. The Conversation, 17 May 2017, Read by more than 350,000 people, picked up by PBS, the Guardian, Scientific American, and multiple other online venues.

Slovák, P., Theofanopoulou, N., Cecchet, A., Cottrell, P., Altarriba Bertran, F., Dagan, E., Childs, J., and Isbister, K. 2018. “I just let him cry...”: Designing Socio-Technical Interventions in Families to Prevent Mental Health Disorders. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction – CSCW, Volume 2, article 160. (best paper award)

Cottrell, P., Grow, A., and Isbister, K. 2018. Soft-bodied Fidget Toys: A Materials Exploration. Proceedings of the Twelfth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction.

da Câmara, S., Agrawal, R., and Isbister, K. 2018. Identifying Children’s Fidget Object Preferences: Toward Exploring the Impacts of Fidgeting and Fidget-Friendly Tangibles. Proceedings of the 2018 Designing Interactive Systems Conference.

Karlesky, M. and Isbister, K. 2016. Understanding Fidget Widgets: Exploring the Design Space of Embodied Self-Regulation. Proceedings of NordiCHI 2016.


Social VR

Understanding the emerging ecology of interaction in virtual online spaces, and building prototypes that explore potential design futures that take deep advantage of VR's strengths in sustaining and enhancing human connection.

McVeigh-Schultz, J., Kolesnichenko, A., and Isbister, K. 2019. Shaping Pro-Social Interaction in VR: An Emerging Design Framework. Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Paper no. 564.

Kolesnichenko, A., McVeigh-Schultz, J., and Isbister, K. 2019. Understanding Emerging Design Practices for Avatar Systems in the Commercial Social VR Ecology. Proceedings of the 2019 on Designing Interactive Systems Conference, pp. 241-252

McVeigh-Schultz, J., Márquez Segura, E., Merrill, N., and Isbister, K. 2018. What’s It Mean to “Be Social” in VR?: Mapping the Social VR Design Ecology. Proceedings of the 2018 ACM Conference Companion Publication on Designing Interactive Systems.

Avatars and Characters

Longstanding investigation of what makes digital characters engaging and effective, using research from the social sciences on topics including nonverbal communication, social roles, and personality, among other aspects. This line of inquiry includes SimWorks, a series of artworks created in collaboration with Rainey Straus, using various versions of the Sims game. These pieces have been shown in venues including the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, the San Jose Museum of Modern Art, and the Toronto Design Exchange, and have won awards including the New Voices New Visions award.

Selected Publications
Books and Book Chapters
Isbister, K. 2006. Better Game Characters by Design: A Psychological Approach. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann. (Nominated for a Game Developer Magazine Frontline Award)

Isbister, K. 2016. Character. In Guins, R. and Lowood, H. (eds), Debugging Game History: A Critical Lexicon. MIT Press.

Journal Articles and Refereed Conference Papers
Kolesnichenko, A., McVeigh-Schultz, J., and Isbister, K. 2019. Understanding Emerging Design Practices for Avatar Systems in the Commercial Social VR Ecology. Proceedings of the 2019 on Designing Interactive Systems Conference, pp. 241-252

Isbister, K. 2009. Parappa the Rapper: Or how I learned to love Rodney Alan Greenblat and Masaya Matsuura. In Davidson, D. (Ed.) Well Played, etc press.