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  • Forging Bonds Between Players & NPCs Via Group Conflict

    - Jonas Pastoors

  • But wait, there is more. We even found a few factors that seemed to modulate the strength of intergroup bias in players. The first one is, that the level of bias seemed to get stronger as the experiment went on. The differences between the reported reactions grew larger between the first and second round of questions. This makes sense as emotions should get stronger over time, while relationships begin to develop.

    Yet, we also saw that player performance (i.e. their win-rate) seemed to affect their feelings. Players had the possibility to win up to two rounds of the research game, before reporting their reactions for a second time. All empathy ratings seemed to decline the better players did (most at 0 wins, the least at 2 wins). 

    Counter-empathetic reactions did not follow that trend. Instead, they seemed to peak when the gameplay experience was the most contested at 1 win and 1 loss. In both cases, the differences in empathy between the player- and opponent-group remained constant.

    Differences in participant ratings about their empathetic reactions by number of wins (different scales used for better readability)

    In Conclusion

    Our experiment clearly confirmed our expectations that intergroup bias will appear in a gaming context, as it would in the real world. It seems likely that enhanced empathy through a targeted use of bias could lead to stronger relationships with NPCs and as a result, improve player-enjoyment and -retention. Just introducing intergroup conflict could lead to a higher degree of empathy for player NPCs per default. Likewise, having recurring NPCs compete in groups of equal standing would add meaningful rivalries into the mix. Finally, we not only know that it works, but also how we could modulate the effects. Having control over data about factors like the time of exposure and player performance in our game should make the efficacy of bias as a design tool easier to test for.​

    How to apply it

    If you are interested in exploring how intergroup empathy bias could be useful for your game, here is a short check-list of things to keep in mind:

    • Recurring NPCs - Naturally, for any relationship to form, you need familiar faces that reappear over the course of your game. Be mindful to not introduce too many, as increasing numbers will make it harder to focus on individuals.
    • Time of exposure - The longer we expose a player to a particular NPC, the stronger a relationship will become. Give players plenty of opportunities to interact with individual NPCs, ideally with some quality time where it's just the two.
    • Team competition - Make sure the teams are actually competing and the success of one impacts the other. If the opponents win, the player needs to feel that. A way to achieve this could be to take important resources away from them and then display them in the hands of the other team. Gloating about the other's failure and envy of their success are powerful means of creating emotion.
    • Opportunities for empathy - As hinted at in the last point, you should create situations that will make the player go "Hey, that sucks for them", or "Oh, good for you". That could, for example, take the shape of someone finally getting their comeuppance after landing a series of crits on the player, or getting a long awaited promotion. Bonus points, if NPCs are able to emote, as  this will strengthen the effect.
    • How to handle failure - Our data showed that empathy for both groups was lowest when players dominated. Ideally, your games should be challenging. To maximize empathy and counter-empathy you should allow for failure to happen. Be careful to keep players in a flow-state on one hand, but also to maximize evoked emotions. A good compromise would be to achieve similar amounts of failure as success, which ideally also maximizes counter-empathy. Don't be too harsh with punishing failure; having the player reload constantly for a perfect win-rate, or quitting the game in frustration is the last thing we want.

    Author Bio

    Jonas Pastoors is a game designer currently looking for new opportunities in NPC-design. His most recent projects include Iron Harvest and Maze Slaughter.

    To get in touch, visit:

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    I would like to thank Thomas Buijtenweg and Mata Haggis-Burridge for their valuable input and review of this article.


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