What Talking To Video Game NPCs Can Teach You About User Experience


Buying is, if nothing else, an expression of the self.

Clothes, gadgets, movies, furniture, books; each of these represent a tiny fragment of who you are as a person, and how you’d like to be perceived in the world.

When someone asks, “Hey, is that the new iPhone?” or comments “I really like that dress!” it makes us feel good - connected even - and if only for a fleeting moment, we feel anchored to the world around us. It is deeply satisfying knowing our decision to make that purchase made someone notice some part of who we are.

It should come as no surprise then that one of our three core psychological needs is to feel that the things we do matter to others, so that we may relate to them and better understand our place in the universe.

One of the definitive qualities of our era is the pervasiveness of social media in our daily lives. That Americans spend roughly 25% of their waking hours using social media is a testament that many of our “relatedness” needs can be satisfied in a virtual environment.    

It’s reasonable that sharing with our real life friends online can satisfy those needs, but what if some of those same needs could also be fulfilled by beings that exist solely in a virtual world?

As the final entry of my three part series on what we can learn from video games, we’ll examine how developers create NPCs (non-playable characters) in which players can form real emotional bonds with, and how those lessons can be translated into the overall design of a customer’s ecommerce experience.

Forming Emotional Bonds With Digital Entities

At first, the idea of developing an emotional connection with a “digital” being sounds crazy. These are programmed 1’s and 0’s that are incapable of ever feeling anything for you.

It’s crazy, until you consider that people have been forming bonds with literary characters for hundreds of years.

Well written characters make you feel the entire spectrum of human emotion. You feel like you’re there with them. You’re scared when they’re scared, you’re surprised when their surprised, and you genuinely feel a deep sense of loss if they meet their demise (R.I.P Albus Dumbledore).

As you immerse yourself in their world, it doesn’t even occur to you that the characters you’ve become so attached to are nothing more than text on a page.

In video games, this connection becomes even more real. You, the player, are there with these characters. You’re not a passive observer, but an active participant in the story and unlike with the characters in books, it is your actions that determine the outcome for these characters.

Forming Emotional Bonds With Digital Entities

In “The Last of Us” you play as single father Joel Miller, who during the prologue fails to protect his teenage daughter Sarah during the initial moments moments of a zombie-like outbreak.

20 years go by and we discover that the outbreak wiped out millions, leaving the U.S in a post-apocalyptic state, forcing survivors to live in militarized quarantine zones.

Joel is a smuggler, and after a series of unfortunate events, he is forced to smuggle Ellie - a headstrong 13 year old girl who may be the key to finding a cure - cross-country from Boston, Massachusetts to Salt Lake City Utah.

As the story unfolds, you and Ellie navigate this post-apocalyptic world, forming a father/daughter like bond, and struggling to keep each other alive.

The relationship with Ellie is visceral; as you play, you become genuinely invested in her well-being. It’s because of relationship you form with Ellie that The Last Of Us has been described by critics as “poignant”, “well-drawn”, and “the most riveting, emotionally resonant story-driven epic” of the console generation. This game is considered by many critics as one of “the greatest video games of all time. ”

To understand why players form such a powerful bond with Ellie, PBS’s Game/Show explains the psychology behind our relationship with fictional characters.

One reason is because NPCs are functional. They’re what sociologists call “Task Attractive” meaning they advance the story and provide you with direction.

In the real world, task attractiveness is causes us to pick the most athletic kid for our basketball team or top performers for a vital work project. We’re attracted to these people because we know they can get the job done.

(This is also why we hate them when they’re useless.)

Forming Emotional Bonds With Digital Entities

Another reason we care about NPC’s is because in plenty of games they’re the only being in the world that isn’t out to kill you.

But what about your feelings are deeper - you know, like when you actually care about Ellie, and you're not just protecting her because it helps you win the game?

The Parasocial Relationship - Why You Emotionally Connect With Beings That Aren’t Really “There”

In the 1950’s, researchers Donald Horton and Richard Wohl described the ways in which audience members develop one-sided relationships with the media being consumed as “Parasocial Interaction” or PSI.

“PSI is described as an illusionary experience, such that media audiences interact with personas (e.g., talk show host, celebrities, characters) as if they are engaged in a reciprocal relationship with them, and feeling as though a mediated other is talking directly to him or her.”

Sometimes these interactions can be developed to the point where audiences begin to view the mediated others as “real friends.”

The Parasocial Relationship - Why You Emotionally Connect With Beings That Aren’t Really “There”

Horton & Wohl found that people form the strongest parasocial relationships when three different conditions were met.

  1. Non-Verbal Communication
  2. Physically Attractive and/or Easy For The Audience To Relate To
  3. The Performer Addresses The Viewer Directly

Research later found that when these three conditions are met, PSI serves two essential functions for the viewer: companionship and personal identity.

For example, a Western Connecticut State University study found that the more time a female college student spent watching daytime dramas, the stronger they would have feelings of “friendship” or “relationship” with onscreen characters.

“Theorists have claimed that these relationships can in some cases be life changing and personality molding, but definately life impacting; More importantly it appears that they can occur and one may not even realize it.”

Similar findings have occurred when studying online communities, video games, and of course e-commerce.  

How Parasocial Relationships Work In User Experience Design

Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on what we’ve learned about what makes a good NPC companion.

  1. Task Attractive
  2. Uses Non-Verbal Communication
  3. Attractive and/or Easy For The Audience To Relate To
  4. Addresses The Viewer Directly

If you wanted to buy something, aren’t these the exact things you’d want from a site’s user experience?

How Parasocial Relationships Work In User Experience Design  

This screenshot for example, fulfills all four of these criteria.

  • The copy gives you a task, and provides you with tools to guide you toward it.
  • The layout, the “shop now” button and suit work together intuitively so you understand their function.  
  • The model and the suit are attractive, and the main headline is easy to relate to.
  • The headline addresses you directly while the model is facing the viewer.  

What I find even more fascinating about this image though, isn’t just it’s ability to guide you toward the task, but how the model is a projected vision of the viewer.

Look at the message, “Dress Better Than Your Boss” long enough, and you imagine yourself being like the guy in the picture. In your daydream, you imagine the promotions, cocktail parties, and admiration you’d get if you were dressed like that guy. At the same time, that guy also serves as a mentor to help you navigate your new world of success and prestige.  

“To say that he is familiar and intimate is to use pale and feeble language for the pervasiveness and closeness with which multitudes feel his presence...They 'know' such a persona in somewhat the same way they know their chosen friends: through direct observation and interpretation of his appearance, his gestures and voice, his conversation and conduct in a variety of situations.” Horton & Wohl 1956

This is reflected through many other areas of the site.

Different models embody the same persona, but are shown in different contexts and are guiding you to handle different tasks on the site.

How Parasocial Relationships Work In User Experience Design

Going deeper into any part of the experience, like when I clicked on the “Showrooms” link, the copy, images, and even quotations, make me feel like the people on the screen are personally invested in my success not just as a customer, but as a happy, healthy human being.

How Parasocial Relationships Work In User Experience Design

This is all parasocial interaction at work.  

It’s very difficult to put into words, but I think this is what we’re really trying to get at when we discuss typography or product photography or copywriting strategies.

It’s not about “taking photos” or “writing descriptions”, so much as it about using these as tools to capture the soul of your brand, and make it one people can relate to.

Ongoing Relationship Means Being Consistent 

Making a good first impression is the first step in making the first sale of course, but if we’re looking about building an “ongoing relationship,” we need to think about what it takes to keep people engaged for longer periods of time.

That means applying these relationship building type elements to every tiny detail of your online presence, from the calls to action, to microcopy, to 404 pages, and to each confirmation email.

Ongoing Relationship Means Being Consistent 

That also means working these details into a long term follow-up strategy to keep people excited to see communications from your brand.  

It is a lot to keep track of, but consistency is important in any relationship, right?

Free People, for example, invites new visitors to sign up for their email newsletter and teases a “treat” for new subscribers.

Ongoing Relationship Means Being Consistent 

In their welcome email, you’re presented with an offer for free shipping on your first order, a way to use their app on the iPhone, an invitation to their style community along with a few other ways to connect with their brand.

Related: How to Write An Effective Welcome Email  

Ongoing Relationship Means Being Consistent 

After this, their email strategy becomes a daily invitation to check out their latest collection and newest sale items.

A daily email might seem obtrusive if you’re unfamiliar with the brand. But look at the level of detail that goes into each piece; it feels like they’re investing in a relationship with you and making your day better.

Ongoing Relationship Means Being Consistent 

Ongoing Relationship Means Being Consistent 

Ongoing Relationship Means Being Consistent 

The subtext of these emails isn’t, “Hey, buy more stuff!”

Each email serves as an invitation for you to go back to the Free People world, a world where you are a muse and your fashion sense inspires the people around you, and where you regularly hear, “Oh. My. God. I LOVE your outfit.”

“While I get similar emails from plenty of other brands, I only open Free People’s.  Why? Because their content is rich with eye-catching imagery and flowery language that I, a fashion lover, find engaging.
For instance, the email promotion for Valentine’s Day featured images of dried petals, lacey materials, and capricious phrases such as “light my fire” and “sweeten the deal.”I can almost smell the scent of rose petals emanating from my computer screen as the content is that vivid. Before I know it, I’m on their website shopping; it worked, they reeled me in.” - Diana Bishop, Content Boost

It’s not just that there are aesthetically pleasing images in these emails either. There’s depth to the relationship and lots of things you can “do” together. For example, you could:

  • Download their app for exclusive deals
  • Read the blog for style tips
  • Upload your photo on instagram and get featured on the product page
  • Create collections and daydream
  • Attend real life music festivals and discover cool music
  • Connect with other “Free People” and get fashion tips
  • and more

Communicating all of this adds so much more dimension to the brand’s personality and the virtual world they create, giving you real reasons to stick around and become invested in their success as a business.

They don’t just sell you products.

They sell you confidence, a reason to dream, a form of self expression, and those small fleeting moments of connectedness, where you matter so much in a moment, that another person can’t help but remark, “hey, I really like that dress.”


When you think about it, the goal of video game designers and ecommerce founders is nearly identical; to create an environment that immerses the player and keeps them wanting to come back for more.

Doing this is straightforward:

  • Respect the player's intelligence, allow them to feel competent, and encourage their mastery.
  • Provide them with meaningful options so they can choose the best way to accomplish their goal.
  • Give them guidance and accompany them on their journey. Give them feedback that their choices make a difference in the world around them. 

Build a world they'll have fun exploring. Let their imagination run wild. Give them better ways to buy as a form of self-expression.