When asked to think of examples of “gaming comedy,” you probably conjure up a scene from a classic point-and-click adventure that provided silliness through the characters and the situations they end up in. Sure, that’s games using comedy, but that method of finding comedy is also used in other media and works just as well in those. Not that borrowing from what’s come before is ever a problem. But what I want to discuss is how gaming and players have found their own language of comedy that’s unique to the medium.
“It is in deliberately creating a situation in which the player can only encounter tragedy, given the context of the game, that the comedy then emerges.”
I’m going to focus on what I refer to as “dexterity disability,” but I would point out that there’s more than just this form of comedy that exists in games uniquely. Think of glitches and bugs, for example, and how comedy is often found by the player when these fractures in the game’s verisimilitude appear. As with many forms of comedy, we can find it in games through tragedy, and this “tragedy” of the game’s world, the exposure of its manufactured form, stems from human error.
But I’m not going to look at how the faults and mistakes of a game developer can lead to the player finding comedy, but instead, I’ll be looking at the opposite: how a certain game design has empowered developers to create the right circumstances for a player to discover comedy, based on the principles of “dexterity disability.” It is in deliberately creating a situation in which the player can only encounter tragedy, given the context of the game, that the comedy then emerges. It’s tricky, though, because this form of comedy relies on the player’s well-trained fingers and thumbs being disabled or handicapped within the game, and there’s a fine line that’s being trodden here between frustration and laughter.
Computer games take some getting used to on a dexterous level when you’re first introduced to them. Picking up a controller, dabbing a touch-screen or mashing a keyboard takes some getting used to, and the design of these games usually persuades us into a narrative of constant improvement. Jump through that section quicker. Manage your units faster. Roll through that puzzle more precisely. Our dexterity must constantly get better so we can beat the systems of these games. Difficulty curves lend to this narrative enormously, competitive gaming even more so.
Due to this constant strive to better our skills in gaming, there’s comedy to be found through superiority. If there’s a player attempting something that you’re better at, their failings could be a source of comedy to you. This is something that Let’s Plays make great use of as when the player fails at the game constantly, it becomes funny to those watching, mostly because they’re not engaged in the activity and can probably see where the player is going wrong. Look at popular gaming videos like Rooster Teeth’s “Fails of the Weak” and Michael Jones of the same company, who runs a very popular series called “Rage Quit,” which is a comedy show based on a player failing at a game, and then getting really angry about it. Bad players are funny to watch.
“Given that the player is handicapped through the control systems, these situations are inevitably set up for tragedy.”
Have you ever grabbed a friend or relative who doesn’t make a habit of playing games and shoved a gamepad in their hand? It might be funny to us when we see them failing over and over again at a game because the task seems so easy to us, but they lack the dexterity required to pull it off. The regular player can laugh at this misfortune, but if they were in that position, they may not find it so funny. Or perhaps that depends on the context of such a situation.
Whether or not comedy was the original intention, the design of games like Bennett Foddy’s QWOP, Young Horses’ Octodad and Bossa Studios’ Surgeon Simulator 2013 has resulted in comedy being found through taking away the superiority in dexterity that regular players have acquired.
Dexterous capability is limited in everyone through the design of these control systems in a manner that makes the goal feel almost impossible to achieve; it’s unfair. The goal is still reachable, but the likely chances of success are reduced greatly, and this leads to the focus being on the ridiculousness of the task at hand.
Adding further pressure to this, the player’s actions have huge consequences within the game’s world. In QWOP, you’re the only representative of your nation running in the Olympics, so there’s a pressure to perform well. In Octodad, you need to mask your cephalopodic form as you fulfil your role as father in a normal human household. And with Surgeon Simulator 2013, you’re trying to perform life-saving surgery on an individual without their dying in the process. Given that the player is handicapped through the control systems, these situations are inevitably set up for tragedy. And due to the unfairness present, the player is led to react in some manner, and this will be towards laughing or crying. The comedy is helped along by the various unintended contortions of the avatar that the control systems lead to. They’re comedic performances guided by player failings. It’s very much a visual comedy in that sense.
So by limiting the skills of the player, a game can become comedic, but there is a fine line between that and it turning to frustration, which is what you don’t want. No other entertainment has this specific form of comedy as it relies on interaction, and it’s great to both watch and play – funny, either way.
What’s slightly odd is that I’ve seen a number of developers taking issue with games that are designed to limit the player like this for comedic reasons. That’s either because they see it as appealing to low-brow sensibilities, their being too caught up in the usual trends of game design (towards improvement) or perceiving these designers as trying to tap into a current trend that’s gaining a lot of popularity through Let’s Plays. That kind of attitude ignores the balancing that has to go into making a game employing dexterity disability as a form of gaming comedy.
“What it comes down to is finding the comedy in player performance and the many tragedies that come with it.”
Unlike writing a funny line or having a silly animation providing comedy in a game, this is a form of game design that riffs off of player frustrations and failings to find humor. That’s not as easy to achieve as it might seem.
In discussing game narrative before, an idea that has come up quite regularly is that the best stories in games are ones that the player finds within the gameplay, rather than the one being fed to them by the developer. The same can be applied to humor in games. Though there are those who would disagree, I think dexterity disability is a pure form of gaming comedy as it can only exist within games and relies on player interaction specifically. So you’ll hear humorous recounts of players, such as when playing Surgeon Simulator 2013, and they threw a radio in to the patient’s chest by accident. This makes the comedy personal and organic, rather than scripted and enclosed.
What it comes down to is finding the comedy in player performance and the many tragedies that come with it. There have been games in the past that have tried to make a joke out of player death, but it often comes across as the game or the developer being mocking towards the player, and that’s undesirable. By setting up an incongruous situation, a highly pressured goal with an unsuitable means to achieving it, these games manage to subvert the ideals of what is thought to lend itself to fun gameplay as they let the player make a mockery of themselves.