Monday, July 27, 2009

Only When It's Funny

As I believe the purpose of life is to be enjoyed, making people laugh to be one of the most important things I do. That's ironic, given that this blog is particularly unhumorous. Don't worry thought; that's not a mistake I intend to correct today. Rather, I want to share a bit more about humor and what makes things funny.

When I was a kid, I saw the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit. While it's full of cliche and loaded with cheap slapstick gags, it also includes a surprising amount of sophisticated humor and wit. I'll always remember one line from the movie though. Roger Rabbit is wanted for murder and trying to avoid the police. He inadvertently handcuffs himself to detective Eddie Valiant. The two finally make their way to a safe location where Eddie gets his hands on a hacksaw to remove the cuffs. If you want to watch how the scene unfolds, here it is.

Roger just slips his hand out of the cuffs and asks if that helps. Eddie is clearly pissed and asks if Roger could have done that at any time. Roger responds:

No, not at any time. Only when it was funny!

I love the implication that the toons don't have complete and total power over reality. They can only break the laws of physics when its funny to do so. For example, Wile E. Coyote is only allowed to run off a cliff and walk on air when he doesn't notice he's not standing on solid ground anymore. Once he realizes that he's supposed to fall, he falls.

Furthermore, Roger's response speaks to the value of comedic timing. Things are funny in large part because of their context. If you watch any professional comedian, you'll see a clear difference between waiting one and two seconds before delivering the next line. Some responses would simply be less funny if the response was one second sooner. John Stewart of Daily Show fame is a particularly good example of this. Comedians with perfect timing learn just how long they need to wait before their audiance comes to a certain mental conclusion. The humor derives from constrasting the comic's next statement with your current thought, and if the line is delivered too soon (or too late), it doesn't provide the right contrast.

Of course, knowing that timing matters isn't the same as knowing what to say or when to say it. No two people laugh at the same things either, so humor is a very personal thing. What makes something funny anyway?

I believe all humor reduces to cognetive dissonance between expectations and reality. When you expect life to be one way and it's different, your mind has a few possible responses. You either get offended or you laugh about it. Which response you have depends on how much you care about the topic. For example, suppose you mention that you've been feeling a bit sick for the past few days and your friend deadpans, "It's probably swine flu." Whether you chuckle depends on whether you actually think you have swine flu.

Not to be pedantic, but it's worth analysing this joke in detail. The crux is that people overestimate the probability and danger of catching swine flu. Your friend is pretending to be one of these people who overreacts, pointing out the reality of these people. Rationally we know that the odds of actually catching it are extremely low-- more people die of the regular flu than swine flu. So in an ideal world, people wouldn't be worried about it, and that's the source of cognitive dissonence. The joke boils down to, "people are worried about swine flu but shouldn't be."

If you agree with that statement, you'll laugh with your friend. But if you think people aren't overestimating the deadliness of an epidemic which has claimed far fewer lives than car accidents have in the past six months, you'll be offended. Your friend's joke became a criticism of your own perspective.

And that's the beauty of comedy. Laughter is a reflection of what we consider unimportant, and the vast majority of our lives really don't matter. A 14 year old girl might be mortified for farting in class, but she would be a lot happier if she could laugh like the rest of her classmates. After all, no one cares as much as she thinks they do. If you want to be happy in life, you have to be humble enough to accept that you just aren't that important. Only then can you laugh at just how crazy and awesome this world really is.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Imitating Life

As a hobbyist game designer, I quickly learned a simple truth about game players:

Players always know whether they are having fun but rarely know why.

If you don't believe this, read the fan forums for literally any game you can think of. You'll see all kinds of suggestions, 80% of which would clearly make the game less fun. But when someone says, "I don't like it when this happens," then they're stating a personal opinion. It's not a debatable point-- they are certainly not having fun. This is a bit ironic. How can they know what they like but not why they like it?

The answer is that while humans are capable of self reflection, they aren't actually that good at it, nor do they usually enjoy it. Humans excel at pattern matching and general recognition problems. Not coincidentally, the vast majority of fun in games comes from what could be abstractly labeled "pattern matching".

Pattern matching is more than just seeing the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. In an abstract strategy game like Chess, it involves recognizing a board position as similar to one you've played before, so you have an idea for how to approach it. In Poker, you learn to recognize how a player's bids correspond with their potential hands. Basketball and football players need to recognize openings in the opposing team's defense. Party games like Charades and Apples to Apples are nothing but pattern matching: can you connect the dots between someone's gestures and a previously known phrase?

So I was intrigued after reading an article by Mark Rosewater on resonance in Magic: The Gathering. A game mechanic has "resonance" if it reminds the players of already known concepts. If you see that a dragon has the special power "flying" or giant has "trample", you don't even need to know how the game works to appreciate the design. We know that dragons fly, giants are large, zombies are slow, merfolk swim, and so on. It's just fun when a game does a good job of embodying its theme! And game mechanics with resonance are also easier to learn, since you can apply your standard intuition to situations they apply in. You would assume that a creature with flying is harder to attack and has an easier time attacking other people. A trampling giant probably causes more damage on average than another creature would. Zombies are probably weak overall, but easier to use as minions than something like a Dragon.

I confess this lesson took me a long time to learn as a game designer. The first games presented players with interesting decisions but totally lacked theme and resonance. This made them as entertaining as sudoku, which puts them the same realm as, "things I'm willing to do while in a train." Not exactly a rousing endorsement. But just because of how our brains are wired, humans just like seeing connections between abstract actions and known concepts. When kids play cops and robbers, "house", or pretend a doll is a real baby, they are taking enjoyment from resonance. Since even the very young participate in imaginary play, it suggests this enjoyment is somehow wired into our brains. Some people think of games as escape from real life, but it's specifically when games are connected to life that they are most enjoyed. A game doesn't need dragons, ninjas, aliens, or Roman emperors to be fun, but these things help a lot. Especially the ninjas.