Humor in Games
by Brian Sowers


Video games, just like books and movies, can utilize comedy to become more appealing to wider audiences. Often a welcome distraction from the plethora of explosions, villains and violence that usually inhabit game worlds, good humor is something nearly everyone appreciates. However, implementing humor effectively within a game can be a daunting and perilous task for both experienced and inexperienced game designers. Special care must be taken to incorporate the right types of comedy at the right times. The type, the timing, and the implementation of humor are all things that must be thoroughly considered so that a game does not lose its appeal. However, if humor is added correctly, it can be a powerful attraction to any game.

What Humor Brings to a Game

Humor is radically unique from any other type of entertainment. Comedy is one of the few things that can make even the saddest or darkest of people smile. Basically everyone likes some type of humor, and there are very few people who can't be reached with a good joke. In books, movies, and music, humor has been exploited for generations. Weird Al Yankovic, Douglas Adams, and Jerry Seinfeld have all been made famous because of their effective use of humor in their respective fields of expertise.

Comedy movies are one of the most common types of movies. However, the same is not true for video games. Very few developers have used comedy as one of the major selling points in a game. Game franchises such as the Monkey Island series and the Space Quest series are few and far between. Most other games either completely neglect comedy or use it as a minor incentive to purchasing the game. It would seem that the gaming industry hasn't quite grasped the power of good humor.

It's time that changed. Humor has been the single selling point of various other types of media - it's odd that humor hasn't had a larger impact on the gaming community. Humor brings a great deal to whatever it graces. People talk about humor, mimic jokes they've heard, and idolize people that use comedy effectively. If a game can make good use of comedy, the game will reach wider audiences and be much more popular.

Types of Humor

A thorough understanding of the various types of comedy is essential to anyone hoping to incorporate humor. This next list is by no means exhaustive, but it presents many of the popular types of humor:

Satire - Making fun of idiosyncrasies within the world.

Irony - When something occurs opposite what was expected.

Situational - Unlikely events with a humorous twist.

Toilet - Crude jokes such as bodily functions.

Pun - A play on words.

Impersonation - Making fun of well-known people by imitating them in a ridiculous fashion.

Generic Jokes - Standard verbal jokes that generally involve a punch-line.

Over-emphasization - Expanding events such as exploding heads to ludicrous proportions.


Timing is possibly the single most important thing to scrutinize when implementing comedy. Humor can bolster gameplay and save boring areas via providing the player with something more to enjoy. Humor is a large selling point, just as it is in movies and books. However, if not timed correctly, humor can destroy the sense of immersion that many games strive to achieve. Once immersion is destroyed, it is hard to be regained, and players are likely not to see the game in the same light they would have before.

When to Add Humor

There are some places where developers can safely add humor to a game with little to no worry. Unimportant conversations, especially in RPGs, are generally good candidates. Conversations occur so often in RPGs that players practically expect humor somewhere. Even in games where conversations aren't the focus, if there is a conversation, adding humor is generally safe so long as the conversation does not carry a serious tone. Humor can also save empty areas, such as when the player is wandering around doing nothing. Boring areas aren't usually a good idea in games, but if they can't be avoided, humor might as well be added to keep players interested. Tiny amounts of humor can be sprinkled in other places, but do not overdo it. Over-exaggerating events is often a good idea. Some people find it hilarious to watch an alien's head blow up in green slime or a creature die in an overly-elaborate way. In comedy-oriented games where the main focus of the entire product is to make people laugh, comedy can generally be added anywhere at any time.

Of course, humor can be added in other places. It is solely at the designer(s)'s discretion, and there are certainly other safe places. However, taking unnecessary risks can be hazardous. During the playtesting phase of a product, developers should ask the playtesters if the humor adds to or contracts from the game.

When NOT to Add Humor

Developers adding humor must be very cautious. This can not be stress enough - adding humor at the wrong times can DESTROY a finished product. Many games attempt to provide the player with a suspension of disbelief, that is, the belief that the player is actually within the game. A best-seller's success is often determined by its ability to immerse the player. Providing the immersion is a very delicate process, and practically everything within the game influences the immersive qualities. Humor is no exception, and just like every other factor in a game, implementing comedy in the wrong way can jerk the player from his disbelief.

Important scenes in a game are rarely a good time to incorporate humor - especially toilet humor. Imagine a highly developed character has just died, and during the middle of a heart-wrenching scene someone flatulates or says a ludicrously out of place joke - not good, and players won't appreciate it at all. Seriously toned games generally have no room for comedy. Games like Rainbow Six and Total Annihilation didn't have humor because comedy would have been out of place in those games. Action packed scenes are also not the prime place for a joke. Players can't blast 100 enemies if they're too busy laughing, and although they might appreciate the humor it is still not a good design choice.

Like many things, there are no hard and fast rules on when definitely not to add humor. The rules mentioned above could very well be broken safely, and it is up to the designer to make that critical decision.

How to Best Add Humor

It's difficult to decide how to add humor when an ample situation is uncovered. Choosing the right humor for the situation is absolutely necessary - toilet humor works in some places, while a pun will work best in others. Also, the type of humor needs to get to the audience(s) the game is intended to reach. Most children will not appreciate lewd jokes just as most adults will not appreciate childish jokes. Be appropriate with the types of humor utilized. Do not offend people. Racial slurs and jokes about school violence are entirely inappropriate anywhere. Try to avoid offensive religious jokes as well - nobody wants the entire Christian community boycotting his product.

Once you have decided the type of humor and have avoided all the pitfalls, it's time to implement something. Humor often relies heavily on catching the viewer off guard - that is, do something players won't expect. Simple jokes are often successful because the end result is something unexpected and relatively funny. This feature is generally true for all types of humor. Few people expect a high pitched shrill when an alien is blasted or a giant walking head or a cute flesh-eating chicken, and if done correctly similar humor can often leave players crippled in laughter. Run-on-gags work as well, but they can backfire if the gag isn't innately humorous.

Now that you have implemented something funny, test it on people. Test it on MANY people. Make sure it is genuinely funny, and not the product of a deranged mind or an incredibly bland sense of humor. Also makes sure it doesn't offend anyone. You may not think it's offensive, but the thousands of people who kept slaves didn't think that was bad either.

Once the comedic part has been fully implemented, remember it. Often jokes set themselves up for other jokes later on, and it'd be a shame to miss an opportunity for something hilarious to be added.

Finding Inspiration

There are plenty of places to find inspiration for humor if someone is not innately funny. Stand-up comedy is easily viewable on television as well as series like Saturday Night Live. Numerous books, including the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the Discworld series, are an excellent place to find inspiration. Comedy oriented games are also a good place to look. Games such as the Monkey Island and Space Quest series are good examples.

The best place to find humor, however, is in real life. Most everyone is at least a little funny or has a humorous friend. Living, breathing people keep with current humor trends better than twenty year old books or games, and they are an inexhaustible resource. People are the first place any developer should look to incorporate humor.


Humor can obviously be a very tricky thing to add effectively, but players really appreciate it. Developers should thoroughly consider whether comedy would work within their game. Afterwards, they must thoroughly consider when, how, and what types to add. Even though humor can be hard to add, it should certainly not be neglected - it is an invaluable tool in any developer's list of qualities.

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Date this article was posted to 11/25/2001
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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