Interview: Katherine Isbister

Excerpts from a conversation with Katherine Isbister, associate professor at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University and director of its Social Game Lab, conducted for the piece "How Does It Feel?" in Kill Screen Issue #3.

Can people become too attached to their virtual characters—like the MMO players in Asia who have died at their computers, or the people who become obsessed withSecond Life?

I think it has to do with boundaries in people's lives. I've definitely met people who have gotten stuck in their everyday lives and are tuning out using a computer, whether it's for Internet surfing or gaming.

If you find an accepting community on the other side, in that computer; and at the same time, you're feeling really left out of the world in everyday life, I think, for some people, they just dive all the way in. If they could, they would crawl into their computer, because they're just not happy with being in this world. But [there's] always been an issue of people just hiding in a mediated experience, just checking out of real life. I think it gets more compelling and more persistent when there are other people meeting you in the middle.
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You mentioned that one of your projects is to show how to teach math through games, but a lot of people think games are just for fun. How do you think the medium can overcome that barrier?

The thing is, videogames are a medium; they can do so many things. I think the problem we have is that "game" is a cultural label that's got a little tiny box. It's like "comic book" and "videogame" sit side-by-side. And they're very delimiting boxes. But games are so powerful. I think it's really too bad, in a way.

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