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Philosophy of Jokes

On Word of Mouth today on NHPR, I heard an interview with Jim Holt, the author of Stop Me if You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes. His book is short, only 160 pages, for a history of jokes. The fact that it contains history and philosophy makes me even more suspicious about how much coverage he could possibly have included in the book. But I was intrigued by the philosophy part of what he had to say. He discussed several theories about why people find some jokes funny and I think these theories can illuminate why people find some things fun.

The description of the interview on the Word of Mouth web site says, “Humor lives in the moment and the more you take it apart, the less humorous it becomes.” I think I disagree with this statement–the reason I say “I think I disagree” is because I haven’t thought about this kind of comment in relation to humor but I have heard similar comments about other phenomena and I disagree with those comments. An acquaintance once said to me that she doesn’t want to know too much about astronomy because that knowledge would take away from the beauty of the stars. I completely disagree with this statement. In fact, Richard Dawkins wrote a book called Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder in which he argues that the more you know about how the world works, the more wondrous the world becomes. In other words, ignorance is NOT bliss! I also hear comments like this when it comes to talking about games. Students often want to begin and end their analysis of a game with the statement: “It was (or wasn’t) fun.” But if I press them to articulate why it was fun, they often complain that doing so takes the fun out of the game. Clearly, I disagree with that idea. Otherwise, I wouldn’t teach game design and analysis. So I think I disagree with the statement that trying to figure out how humor works makes the humor disappear. But I do acknowledge that it is possible that humor is somehow different than these other phenomena.

Anyway, Holt discussed several theories about what we find funny and why. I think at least one of these theories can help us to understand what we find fun and why. Humans have probably been telling jokes since before they could speak (if you consider slap-stick a kind of joke). The oldest known joke book is called The Philolegos, or Laughter Lover, which is a Greek anthology from the fourth or fifth century a.d.

The theory of why we laugh at jokes that I found most interesting (and useful for thinking about game design) is the incongruity theory (which is actually about the resolution of incongruity). We perceive an inconsistency of some sort–two things that don’t normally go together or a sentence that seems irrelevant to the story being told. Inconsistencies heighten our attention–an inconsistency in our world might signal the presence of a predator and if we don’t pay attention, we might end up as someone’s lunch. With our attention (and anxieties) heightened, we try to resolve the incongruity. When the resolution finally comes, we realize that the incongruity was actually harmless and we laugh with relief.

The incongruity theory is useful for us in trying to understand why games are fun. Like Michael Shermer, I believe that we are “pattern-seeking” animals. We have evolved to look for patterns in our world–those ancestors who were good at finding patterns were good at seeing the predator hiding in the trees and so survived while those that missed such patterns ended up as lunch. As Steven Johnson reported in Discover magazine, when we find a pattern, we get a little jolt of pleasure in our brains. Games present patterns for us to discover and it’s pleasurable for us to find those patterns. I’m sure it’s one of the reasons I’m addicted to Dr Mario Online Rx. I get a little jolt of pleasure every time I resolve the inconsistency of the active viruses by manipulating the falling pills. So at least one way to put fun into games is to focus on patterns. The patterns have to present an incongruity that can be resolved by the player, but not too easily. If the player doesn’t recognize the incongruity or the incongruity cannot resolved in a recognizable way, the player will be frustrated. If the incongruity is too easily resolved, the player will be bored.

The use of incongruities in games is related to what the authors of the text that I use in Creating Games (Game Design Workshop) call challenge. In order to make a game more fun, the authors say, a game designer can focus on the dramatic elements of the game, one of which is challenge. By focusing on making the challenge appropriate to the level of skill of the player, the game designer can avoid frustration and boredom, both of which are antithetical to fun. When the level of challenge presented to the player closely matches her skill level, she enters a state called flow, in which the player “is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.” Entering the flow state, being completely immersed in what you’re doing, is pleasurable. As game designers, our ultimate goal is allow someone to enter the flow state while playing our games.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.


  1. Sit10

    Consider this: a male friend once explained that men laugh because “that’s so ridiculous,” and women laugh because “that’s so true.” Not only does this explain the Stooges and Howard Stern, I have found it a generally supportable theory. I don’t know where this fits into your game theory of what makes “fun.” Tell me what you think.

  2. Pingback: » Kinds of Fun Desert of My Real Life

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