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A theory about humor in games
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 involve '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 'Aha' 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 story telling
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 as 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 for the first time)

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 Aha 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.

take care,
Danc.

Science
- Humor in the gaps: http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2011/11/20/why-our-brains-make-laugh/l0OWxVcnRpzfyIheFgab5N/story.html
- 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
- 2-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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23 comments
 
Good advice!
And it's already in evolution.
Check out 'Magicka', an excellent example. And I'll take a trip to steam and give you a list of games that are bringing humor, cheesy, dark, silly, of all styles, and blending it with the game experience.

Beyond telling you that a solution to your request is not only in the works, but is taking place as we speak, I would also like to say, I agree.
 
The writing in Magicka is awful but the game play promotes humorous moments.
 
The writing in Magicka is translated, the game is, I believe, Danish. I could be wrong.
A lot of indies are doing what you're talking about. You'll find various levels of production value, true. But it's a start!
And Indies, they treat their customers differently than the larger companies do.
Steam also is showing a great interest in getting a diverse collection of games out there, as this is good for their business of providing the games. In doing so, they've been a platform for many small independant games that wouldn't have been able to get the exposure they do. That has helped encourage a lot of other game designers (not all going through steam, and it's not just steam, other companies did this, but Valve is really pushing indie games), and in doing so, lets small companies who have the bravery and sometimes the only option, of thinking outside box just to compete.
If you can't give them great graphics, great sound, you have to give them great gameplay or enjoyable content.

And that, I think, that necessity, is forcing new designers to take the routes we always wished they'd take, but we know will be perilous because a lot will fail.

My four cents.
 
Swedish. Magicka is awesome. And Swedish devs are win this year (DICE, Mojang, Arrowhead, Paradox, etc)
 
Thank you for correcting that error on my part, +Michael Lubker. Yeah, Swedish, I would HATE to take the credit from whoever made that awesome game and give it to someone else. My apologies, everyone.
 
i have a couple of problems with your examples here. You lift up "Boggle while drunk", and a particular house rule or in-joke of Mafia players. Neither game was designed to be funny; these are emergent behaviours you're describing. By the same token, Skyrim is a humourous game. There's no need to shout. (Skyrim) i'm a teetotaler myself, but i imagine ANY game is funny when you're drunk (enough).

There are far better examples of games that were designed to be funny, without using "consumable" humour. Here are a few good examples off the top of my head:

- Balderdash
- Apples to Apples/Cards Against Humanity
- Headbanz
- Time's Up

Really, most physical party games are designed to be funny, although they're arguably consumable because many rely on cards with consumable information. Still, the content is relatively inexpensive to produce.

There are examples of mechanics-based humour (by design) in video games, too:

- QWOP
- Lemmings
- Stair Dismount

... but there are two problems here. 1. The laugh is short-lived. QWOP is funny, but you can eke out an hour, max, of laughs from that game ... more if you share it with friends ... but it's got the comedic staying power of, say, a funny YouTube video. 2. With something like Lemmings or Stair Dismount, unless there's a video capture feature, the moment that you laugh at is unique to your experience and can't be shared. The advantage of consumable, scripted humour - the kind you find in The Secret of Monkey Island - is that it's shareable, repeatable, reliable, and most importantly quotable.

Two guys standing at the watercooler remembering the moment in Monkey Island 2 when you pick up the bloodhound and stuff him in your jacket are going to have a MUCH better time laughing together than one guy trying to explain to the other a particularly zany pratfall in Stair Dismount. It's far easier to rally around a Simpson's quote or Carlin's 7 Words you Can't Say on Television than it is to rally around the guy who rides his bike off the roof of his house on YouTube, no matter how funny it was to watch.

All that said, one of the very best mechanic-designed-to-be-funny video games of all time was Acrophobia. It was a multiplayer game with a Balderdash-like scoring system. Players see a randomly-generated acronym, like TYFFG. Everyone has a minute to type in what the acronym could stand for, and the group votes for their favourite. With the right people playing, the game was hysterical, by design, AND it avoids the problem of repeatability, because you could always repeat a particularly funny acronym at the water cooler to get someone else genuinely laughing (and not just laughing to be polite).

i know you're a big fan of cheap, easy content, but when it comes to humour, i much prefer the expensive, consumable kind for the advantages it provides: it's quotable, reliable and shareable, it lends itself far better to sequels and spin-offs, it extends well to other types of media, and i think it's much more relatable to mass audiences than mechanics-based humourous games like QWOP.

- Ryan
 
There are lots of flash games that give you a quick giggle but than somewhat fail with sustaining it for longer stretches of time. Kind of like a fart joke.
In writing the different types of humor are a lot more defined. Anecdotes, sarcasm, satire, nonsensism, banter etc. We're still far behind in being able to properly identify and translate these into proper game mechanics that are proven to work on consistent basis.
 
+Tomasz Dzierza I think that is where I differ from what you are suggesting. "Translating" content-based humor into mechanics strikes me as a dead end. There are many examples of humor in games that exist and can be studied. There is no requirement that we "translate" anything. Let's map what currently is unnamed yet staring us in the face. Let's understand how it works and expand upon it.

Games can be more than just a container into which we stuff mangled versions of other media.

+Ryan Creighton I agree with the QWOP example. Not all mechanics are evergreen. Nor are all jokes funny.

Personally, I'm less interested in people telling stories about my games and more interested in them having wonderful experiences while they play. I make games where the most detailed story you'll get is "And then there were like 5 Ninjas. And I got a Triple Castle". Word of mouth still works, but it comes from people recommending the activity rather than telling tales. But that's okay...quilting is the same way and I would be ecstatic to have my games placed in the same category as quilting. At a certain point you pick your style of entertainment and you run with it.
 
+Daniel Cook Translating might not have been the right word there. I'm not sure a direct translation would even be possible. Although I'm sure there is some value in using existing knowledge and studies from other media as a foundation instead of inventing a whole new lexicon and than making sure it spreads across.

I'd love to have the time to setup a framework for the type of study you're suggesting. Something I quietly wish people involved in academia and study of game design should be doing more of then sending me a nicely crafted pdf with the results :)
 
Great post - have you played any of the Uncharted games? They manage to make me laugh on a regular basis. Worth checking out.
 
Off the cuff, it seems it should be possible to intentionally create humourous situations procedurally. As evidence, Nethack and Dwarf Fortress-- the unexpected is their primary draw and the combinatoric explosion of different interactions between game objects almost guarantees something outlandish. Coupled to the gradualism of short term mitigations turning into long-term fixtures, eventually the dromedary collapses and things disintegrate into delightfully funny chaos.

I think Disgaea games are endlessly hilarious because of the ways they constantly make you rethink your approach to maximise return for any action and circumvent steady progression with "exploity" mechanics. Of course, it could be that I misunderstand your argument or find things funny more often than others. I could see it.

Adding to your list of humour generated by the collision of warm bodies, I'll nominate LittleBigPlanet, Bananas, and Johann Sebastian Joust.

Anyway, I'll probably decide I explained myself poorly or incorrectly later, but for now, back to work. Cheers!
 
If +Steve Jackson were to make video games, I wonder how that would work out. He does a lot of fun social gaming.
 
+Jera Wolfe As more games are made by single developers, we'll naturally see their sense of humor come through a lot more. I think the connection is much stronger when it comes from a single source rather than a committee.
 
Let's not forget unintentional mechanic humor. The best laugh I had in a game recently was playing Dragon Age 2. In the prologue, I beat up some ruffians outside the city gates. This was followed immediately by a cutscene, during which three days elapse. At the end of the cutscene, I was returned to control of my character, and there he was, standing amid the corpses of those he had slain three days before. My mind went wild with possibilities, trying to reconcile these in the story---much as the research suggests. I belly-laughed for a full minute, knowing that all I was really seeing was an engine/scripting oversight, and yet my mind still tried to complete the story.
 
I think the Worms games are a great example of creating a funny context with visual and audio presentation, and then filling it out with slapstick-producing mechanics.
 
The funniest moments I've seen in games tend to be unintentional bugs. Red Dead Redemption Donkey Lady Woman Horse Bug Doesn't say a lot for the current state of humour in games!

Although it's an interesting topic, comedy is not a feature that makes a game memorable for me, or draws me to play a game in the first place (unless virally). I wonder how many people actually want to play games that make them laugh. I think humours games is a very difficult goal especially if you want to appeal to a wide audience with varied tastes and at the same time despise hand crafted content.

It seems the most successful games at making people laugh in recent times are dancing/singing games. But when you get over the fact that the person is abnormally bad at the activity... the humour also dissolves.

I think making a joke machine is a very hard problem. Once the unexpected becomes expected, or the pattern is revealed. Everything becomes a whole lot less funny again. Humour is a true art, it requires talent, timing and understanding people... something I think only a few talented people can do.



“From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend on reading it.”
― Groucho Marx
 
I thought about this some more last night. I do think if you could make a truly humours game it would be a masterpiece and very memorable. Besides the external social banter that can come from playing games, there isn't a game that I have played yet that has truly made me laugh.
 
The problem with humor is that a lot of it is NOT cross cultural. Even in the US, where there is a fairly hegemonized culture in Ameria, you find many jokes don't cross our sub-culture borders well.
It would have to use a lot of universal commonplaces, or else constrain itself to having a possible short lived lifespan.
Humor is very context sensitive, and if you don't have the right mindset and data, you'll miss the clues and the joke.
Setting up jokes is something that Comedians can live on, but only a few do it well. Game designers, programmers, seldom think like Comedians.

I agree, humor should be pursued in game design.
Formulating it is something we've not yet been able to do to the point that we can keep things funny for very long.

Novelty, as was pointed above, wears off once you realize the mechanics.
 
Having worked on two games intentionally meant to be funny (DeathSpank 1/2, with old Ronnie G. himself), this is definitely something I've thought about plenty. But to start:

"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."

This seems a bit reductive. At least as far as television is concerned, a lot of sophistication in recent comedies like Arrested Development, Party Down or Community rely on the viewer having familiarity and understanding of the characters, situations, etc. Essentially, the more you "master" something like Arrested Development, the funnier it becomes. If you were just jump into Arrested Development at season 3, episode 4, you'd easily miss half the jokes (if not more). Mentions of "hop ons" and David Cross is jean cutoffs would make no sense. And even watching from beginning, there are jokes you won't catch until the second or third viewing. Rather that decreasing in humour, these shows have the potential to be even funnier the more they are watched.

Compare this to most traditional sitcoms, which largely hinge on stereotypes and people being sarcastic to each other. You can jump into the middle of just about any sitcom and easily and reliably understand what's going on (and if you stumble, well, the laughtrack is there to provide a cue! Uggh).

So long story short, all I'm saying is we should acknowledge there's something of a humourous hybrid that can exist between pure storytelling/mechanical humour and if it's utilized well, it can deliver some fantastically hilarious moments. How to apply that in a game context though is less clear (but it certainly ripe with potential).

Perhaps as an reference, there are some interesting tabletop RPGs that are intended to be humourous, but they seem to accomplish this largely through providing the players with just enough context that they can do absurd, amusing things (that fit within the context of the game). Unless the players themselves are willing to be humourous, the game itself won't create hilarity from the ether, but the framing it provides largely means the players can't help but be funny. Paranoia is the prime example (by Greg Costikyan no less), but there are others as well. Sea Dracula was a hit at a friend's recent birthday and it was basically just 2-3 hours of insane improv with just enough grounding to keep us going (the booze also helped).

This is a great subject to discuss though and I definitely wish there were more funny games, of all stripes.
 
I was recently reminded of the old Experimental Gameplay Project game, Attack of the Killer Swarm. That's a great example of humor through mechanics. It's slapstick, but it's pretty consistently funny for anyone who plays it.
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