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Opinion: A theory about humor in games

Spry Fox's (Triple Town) Dan Cook argues there are plenty of humorous games out there. Oh, and did you hear the one about the two hunters who were out in the woods...?

Dan Cook, Contributor

January 2, 2012

7 Min Read

[Spry Fox's (Triple Town) Dan Cook argues there are plenty of humorous games out there. Oh, and did you hear the one about the two hunters who were out in the woods...? (Reprinted with permission)] Much of humor comes from the unexpected -- a twist, an insightful observation, a new/odd perspective. Consider the following two recent theories of humor: - Indiana University researcher Matthew Hurley suggests that humor is an evolved response that helps up rectify gaps between our current mental models of the world and reality. - University of Colorado professor Pete McGraw's research suggests that humor involves "benign violations" of expectations. We laugh when we can safely fix Hurley's gaps in our mental models. This safe updating of mental models ties in rather neatly with Raph Koster's theories of fun the brain's reaction to mastery. Both the theories of humor and theories of games involve an "A-ha" moment and as such it would seem that humor might be a rich topic for whole categories of games. Yet a common lament is that there are so few funny games. Humor through storytelling Dig into the lament a little further and it is specifically focused on a lack of humorous content in the form of funny settings, writing, dialog and visual jokes. "Why can't there be more funny games?" is actually someone saying "Why can't there be more games with humorous writing and cut scenes like in a funny adventure game like Monkey Island?" This "humor-through-storytelling" is what modern audiences know and identify as the type of media that creative people create when they try to make others laugh. It pervades our culture in everything from stand-up comics to viral email jokes to television to cute sayings on birthday cards. Humor is defined, shared and critiqued in our mass media culture as a prepackaged joke. From a game creator's perspective there are certain pros and cons to this class of content. Pros - Easily produced in small quantities. It is relatively easy to come up with a joke or two. - A ready audience that enjoys and understands how to consume "humor-through-storytelling." Cons - From a game design perspective, a joke is consumable content much like a puzzle. You pass through the loop a single time and then the insight contained within is mastered. Once you've heard the joke, it is less humorous the next time around. - Expensive in large quantities. Unlike an algorithmic system like Tetris or Bejeweled, the cost of producing your hundredth hour of jokes is just as expensive as your first. - Jokes are rarely integrated with gameplay. An investment in disposable content often (though not always) means a reduction in the tuning and improving the interactive systems of the game. Humor through mechanics However, not all laughter within games is based of prepackaged jokes. The player's interactions with the mechanical systems of the game also can evoke laughter. This still drives the desired results, but the designer must use very different tools. Consider the laughter that occurs in a friendly game of Scrabble or Spin the Bottle. The chuckles that occur are just as honest as those that come about when listening to a stand-up comic, but the means of creating the insights are different. Game are unique in their ability to set up systematic, repeatable opportunities to create and confront mental models. Specifically in multiplayer games, the rules of the game often deliberately encourage players to create their own time, place and group specific jokes. Pros - "Humor-through-mechanics," when properly executed, can create evergreen humor. Sticking a knock-knock joke into the middle of Tetris does little to improve it over the long term, though it does have some novelty humor. Asking players to play Tetris with the shapes of their bodies in a party setting is likely funny many times over. - Builds stronger relationships between participants. When you are in a group that engages in a friendly game, you undergo a process of forming social norms. You find out who is reliable, what makes people nervous and what is acceptable behavior to the group as a whole. Laughter comes from the constant updating of your mental models of how other people should and do act in the group. In the best games, you come out with mental models of others that you are more likely to trust. And in turn, you may trust the other players just a little bit more. - There are many folk and board games that use humor-through-mechanics. This is a rich treasure trove of proven mechanics that we can mine when creating computer games. Cons - Humor-through-mechanics is hard to talk about. Such humor exists within the magic circle of the game and as such is often difficult to talk about or transfer to others. There's a ritual that occurs at most game conferences in which friends play a mobsters boardgame and then when someone loses a character, the entire table yells "He frickin' dies!" in their best Chicago accent. There's a glimmer of humor in retelling the story. However the actual game (complete with the appropriately Steve-esque GMing) lets you be there, as a participating member of that bizarre microculture. You don't merely laugh at the joke, because to a large degree, in a humorous game you are the joke. We are trained to communicate through mass media, and game humor is inherently intimate and personal, not easily communicated for the benefit of others. Predictions Neither humor-through-mechanics nor humor-through-storytelling is in anyway superior to the other. However, due to structural difference in how they are crafted and consumed, we'd expect to find each technique to find its own distinct sweet spot in the landscape of game design. 1) Traditional consumable humor is most likely to be found in games that make heavy use of traditional consumable evocative content. So it makes complete sense that the most common uses of humorous content would involve the following: - Puzzle-style adventure games - Cutscenes - Micro moments of feedback (a bird hitting a pig...hilarious the first time around) 2) There are many other mechanisms for generating laughter in games that are not traditionally recognizable as "humor." Instead, they are laughter-generating systems. Some examples might be the game of spin the bottle played by teenagers. Or Twister, which generates a steady stream of hilarious insights via a systematic exploration of personal spec. Or Pictionary, where ambiguity due to lack of skill creates "A-ha" moments. 3) There is little language for talking about humor-generating systems because their output is so heavily localized and ephemeral. Bad jokes about mobsters don't survive their conversion into consumable media. Until very recently, we lacked the tools for transferring and selling social systems. To a large degree, we still lack the language or interest. Until there is a broad recognition that there is such a thing as humor-though-mechanics, the lament that there are so few funny games will continue to be mindlessly and incorrectly repeated. Funny games exist. We just need to stop insisting they must look like Monkey Island and start realizing they can look a lot more like friends playing a game and laughing together. Some additional notes about humor Science: -Humor in the gaps - Pete McGraw's theory of humor: TEDxBoulder - Peter McGraw - What Makes Things Funny Humorous games that rely primarily on mechanics (and people!) - Twister - Magicka - Transformice - Two-player Lemmings - Spin the Bottle - Most drinking games World's funniest joke (according to American men) Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy takes out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps: "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator says: "Calm down, I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: "OK, now what?"

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