Sit10 commented on my last entry that a friend had once told her that there is a difference between what men and women find funny. Men laugh because they think, “That’s so ridiculous.” Women laugh because they think, “That’s so true.” She then asked what I thought of that and how it might be related to game design.
The first thing that I wondered after getting Sit10’s comment is whether it really is true that men and women find different things funny. Sit10 pointed out that many more men than women find The Three Stooges funny and I have to agree with that observation. On the other hand, I’ve observed that it is often the case that opposite gendered siblings find similar things funny. So what role does gender play in what we find funny?
It turns out that there is a large body of literature that examines gender differences and humor. According to Thorson and Powell, an individual’s sense of humor is made of the following elements: 1. recognition of oneself as a humorous person; 2. recognition of others’ humor; 3. appreciation of humor; 4. laughing; 5. perspective (which is the idea of a personal outlook on life that is consistent with being good-humored); and, 6. coping humor. An individual sense of humor is comprised of varying levels of each of these elements. Most of the older studies that I found suggested that women were much less likely to be creators of humor but were more likely to use humor as a coping mechanism. More recent work has suggested that the results of these older studies were biased by the methods and materials used in the experiments and that, in fact, there is no difference between men and women in terms of their ability to create or to appreciate humor. A study from 2006, however, showed that there are gender differences in the kind of sense of humor desired in a partner. The typical man wants a woman who is able to appreciate the humor he creates and is not attracted to a woman who is herself very funny. The typical woman, on the other hand, values humor creation and apprecation equally in a partner.
A study done by Mary Crawford and Diane Gressley tested the hypothesis that men and women find different things funny. Using factor analysis to analyze the results of a humor questionaire, they discovered that there are ten dimensions of humor and that there are gender differences in four of the ten of them, which the authors of the study say shows that “women and men are more alike than different.” Men scored higher on hostile humor, jokes (which is defined as the telling of “formulaic jokes”) and slapstick while women scored higher on anecdotal humor. It seems that this study probably supports Sit10’s comments about what men and women find funny.
So what does this have to do with game design? One of the reasons that people play games is because they find them to be “fun.” If we can figure out what we mean by “fun”, then we can design games that people want to play. And if there are differences between what men and women think about “fun”, we might be able to figure out how to design more games that appeal to women.
One of the difficulties in writing about this topic has to do with the word fun. It seems that fun is kind of like pornography–it’s difficult to define but we know it when we see it. We each know when we’re having fun but can we identify the common features in our fun experiences? For example, I have fun when I play poker with my friends. But I also have fun when I go to an Indigo Girls concert and when I discuss literary criticism with Ann and when a class that I’ve planned goes really well. Of course, not all of these situations involve game playing but I think they illustrate the idea that fun is not just one thing. Any theory of fun (even one that we want to apply to game playing only) will have to take into account that there are different kinds of fun.
Several researchers have attempted to delineate different kinds of fun. Probably the most famous taxonomy of fun comes from Marc LeBlanc (no relation to me even though my brother’s name is Mark LeBlanc). He created an approach (called the Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics approach) to examining, testing and designing games. Ambiguous concepts such as fun fall into the Aesthetics category and he has identified eight different types of fun. Each game uses some combination of these eight types of fun. The eight types are: 1. sensation, in which the game functions as an art object and has some sort of beauty; 2. fantasy, in which the game functions as a vehicle for make believe; 3. narrative, in which the game tells a story that unfolds over time; 4. challenge, in which the game presents the player with obstacles to overcome; 5. fellowship, in which the game provides a social context for interaction; 6. discovery, in which the game presents uncharted territory for the player to explore and master; 7. expression, in which the game allows the player to express herself (for example, via choices in avatar); and, 8. submission, in which the game is simply a mindless pastime that provides pleasure. LeBlanc says that these categories provide a vocabulary for play aesthetics so that as we design a new game, we can identify which type of fun we want and then create a list of criteria that will provide a yardstick for that type of fun in our game.
There is some evidence from a variety of studies (as well as a lot of anecdotal evidence) that men and women in general like different types of games. For example, one study found that women’s preferences for games include lots of opportunities for social interaction (even if only with a virtual character within the game), a non-sexualized role for the female protagonist, and content that is not aggressive. These findings sound similar to the findings about humor and also show why many popular contemporary video games are not very appealing to women.
From a game design standpoint, the lesson from this study is similar to the lesson I take from the popularity of the Wii. Much of the progress in game design and development has been focused on the visual aspect of games–more realistic rendering of the game environment. This means that we can have more realistic visual renderings of in-game characters, including sexualized female characters, as well as more realistic game physics that allow fighting and violence to feel more real. Increases in these areas seem to appeal mostly to hardcore gamers, most of whom are men. To appeal to more women (as well as casual gamers and non-gamers), the game development community should focus on improving other aspects of the game. The Wii shows us that innovative interaction possibilities between the player and the game environment are appealing to a broad new audience. I think the studies I’ve mentioned here show that focusing on artificial intelligence (to create more realistic character behavior within the game) and on facilitating social interactions among players within the game will result in games that more women find to be fun. I hope the success of the Wii means that the game development community will start paying attention to more of these kinds of things. Of course, the number of movies whose humor is aimed at adolescent boys mitigates my hope somewhat.
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 game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.