This is a written-up, not-verbatim version of the notes that I used for my Feb 2015 intro talk on Eyebeam’s Playing For Laughs panel.
When I think about humor and games, I focus on two things: affordances and ilinx.
One of the first things you learn about in design school is affordances. By affordance, I basically just mean a property of a thing that indicates the way the thing could be used. (Yes, I’m going to play fast and loose with the definition–if you’re already mad, close this tab now.) Quoting Donald Norman:
“Affordances provide strong clues to the operations of things. Plates are for pushing. Knobs are for turning. Slots are for inserting things into. Balls are for throwing or bouncing. When affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction needed.” Donald Norman, The Psychology of Everyday Things, via
So, let’s say you have a door with a plate on it. The plate suggests that you push the door open, rather than pull it. Folks get upset if you put a pull-able handle on a push door, so you make sure that the door’s affordances line up with its actual use. Boom, design in action.
Maybe better designers don’t get impatient with this. I do. Yes, affordances are great for designing intuitive products and games. Yes, the feeling of harmony that comes with a well-designed thing is amazing. But I started to chafe at the restriction.
So I asked myself: what happens when we purposefully ignore affordances? What happens when we take a tool that is meant for a particular use, and use it in the wrong-est way possible?
The idea made me start to giggle to myself, which has always been my signal that I’m on the right track.
The other thing I’m obsessed with is ilinx.
If Donald Norman is Design 101, Callois is probably Game Studies 101. To be honest, I barely remember anything about Man, Play, and Games other than ilinx, because it grabbed me so hard when I read it. Ilinx refers to games that:
“momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind. In all cases, it is a question of surrendering to a kind of spasm, seizure, or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness.” Roger Callois, Man, Play, and Games, via
I’d known this feeling in many forms. Probably you have too. It reminds me of jumping into piles of leaves, kicking over stacks of blocks, spinning around until I fell down, leaping around in a mosh pit. Those situations don’t have a ton in common, except for the wide grin that was always plastered on my face after I did them.
Even thinking about the sensation made me smile–another good sign.
Ignoring affordances and pursuing ilinx feel like they have something critical in common: play. And by play, I don’t mean play as in games–I mean delighting in creating a separate world where the typical rules don’t apply, where spontaneous experimentation is expected and encouraged.
And when you create an environment for participatory experimentation, when you subvert expectations to generate absurd surprise–well, that seems like a fast-track to laughter for me.
So let’s talk about some games.
2nd Amendment is a game I made with Ramiro Corbetta and K. Anthony Marefat. It might be one of my favorite games I’ve done. It’s a 3D Unity text adventure that explores the true meaning of the 2nd Amendment. Go play it.
2nd Amendment is all about messing with affordances. In an exhausted, giggly stupor in our Unity class, my team and I asked ourselves: what if we use Unity for a genre of game that is basically the opposite of what Unity is usually used for?
After all, Unity is a 2D/3D engine for games, most of them pretty graphics-heavy. Text adventures are, well… text adventures. Not particularly graphics heavy, not about reaction time, not the kind of first-person games you typically see on the platform. But what if we made a text adventure in Unity? What if the arm, usually seen in games carrying a gun, was now responsible for the much more delicate task of typing? And what if we took ourselves seriously the entire time?
So we set off to use Unity in the absolute most ridiculous way possible, making a mechanic and writing a narrative that was mostly about making us, the developers, laugh than satisfying the player.
We released it. It got covered by Kotaku a few hours later. I remember shrieking with delight in my tiny garbage apartment.
What was so amazing to me was that no one got mad. People filmed themselves doing Let’s Plays, groaning and laughing at the ridiculous ending. Folks made puns in the comments section. People felt in on the joke, had fun beeing fooled. By totally ignoring the affordances of the tool we were using, and subverting the expectations of our audience, we hit on something that caused people to lose their shit laughing.
Scream ‘Em Up is a game I made much earlier in grad school. It’s an installation game, so you can’t play it unless you hire me for a bucket of money to set up the approximately eleventy billion services that go into running it. But here’s a video.
I mostly talked about Scream ‘Em Up as being about physical creativity, which it certainly was. But SEU was also my subconscious first stab at playing with affordances and ilinx.
In terms of messing with the former, I was interested in taking something well-designed (a game controller) and mapping it to something that was way worse at the task (the human body and voice). SEU is exhausting to play. It runs for several minutes, so your body gets tired from running around and your voice is already gone from screaming super-loud at the start. This worked pretty well on its own–people would notice their voices breaking or realize that they still had a few minutes of running around left and start giggling, which would make their partner giggle, which would make the audience giggle. Off to a good start.
The ilinx, however, is a lot more interesting to me. The boundaries of the game are poorly defined, and it’s competitive, so you’re constantly jostling for space with your opponent. The enemies move in weird waves, meaning you have to sway around. Plus, you’re screaming–and you have to scream really loud for the mic to pick it up–which is already distracting and disorienting. You get into this bizarre fugue state where you’re all sensation, all bumping into your partner and yelling and hearing the audience yell. It feels a little like a mosh pit. It’s more overwhelming than I thought.
A lot of childhood behaviors overlap with ilinx. Running around and screaming turned out to be this overwhelming and also slightly transgressive public activity for folks to partake in. The game gives you an excuse to basically have a gleeful tantrum in public. You can shove, you can delight yourself by playing with your screaming, you can sync up with your partner or deliberately create cacophony. Plus, it’s hard as an audience member not to get into it, so you have a whole crowd of people having a freakout gleeful tantrum with you.
This combo of combining a clear win condition, a super-simple mechanic, and a slightly transgressive, disorienting behavior led to this wonderful space with emergent behavior, surprise, and delight. No team walked away without a gleeful grin on their face.
Trying to explain these things feels a bit like trying to explain a joke. But I think there are general methodologies we can use to touch this magic.
Mess with affordances. Use the tool in the most wrong way. Implement the mechanic with the worst controllers or devices. Stretch the limits of your tools. Room of 1000 Snakes only ends (I think) when the Unity player crashes due to too many snake objects. Goof around.
Subvert platform expectations. If the story typically cares about the player, ignore them. If the platform is typically used for one kind of behavior, remove it. Punish the thing typically rewarded, reward the thing typically punished.
Dip into ilinx. Disorient your player so everything is surprising. Let your players surprise themselves. Play with transgressive behaviors that lead to this voluptuous panic. (But, if you have any sense of ethics, please design games that still allow people to feel safe. Punch up at game tropes or societal constraints–not down at your players.)
Want to see my attempt at this for a more standard arcade game? Check out Slam City Oracles, a 2-player, collaborative, Katamari-inspired riot grrrl slam-em-up where you try to cause as much chaos as possible in 2 minutes.
Liked this post? Want to buy me a coffee? Throw me a tip here, if you like.