The Smile that Wins: From Infocom to Portal

Sometimes we play to compete, to engage in what the play scholar Johan Huizinga termed agon, or competition. That is why we love athletic contests. And yet many other types of play don’t prioritize competition. Instead they reward the silly and the nonsensical. Recently, watching two of my sons tussling reminded me that tickling contests, humorous ripostes, pun-making….all look for the reward of a smile rather than the thrill of victory.

Clever video game design often evokes laughter in players. Infocom infused their text-based adventures, like Zork, with humor, cheeky comebacks, and amusing descriptions of characters and scenes. The company also based an interactive fiction game on the popular and humorous sci-fi series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry and Tim Schafer’s Grim Fandango include ludicrous scenarios that make players smile. Portal’s witty dialogue charms and its humor amuses. My kids sang Portal’s “Still Alive” song for weeks after they had finished the game.

More often we laugh along with our friends as we navigate a virtual world. Sometimes this is in response to a programming glitch or flaw in the game—we discover we can run through walls or into each other. Good social games, though, set up comical situations. Lighthearted, fast-paced assignments in Nintendo’s WarioWare include balancing the Wii remote like a broom or flapping your arms like a bird. And that silly interaction with others is usually what makes us laugh and smile when we’re playing a video game.

When I first saw people playing Johan Sebastian Joust at GDC, I instantly recognized it as a great social game. The game play is simple. Players holding PlayStation Move Controllers slowly circle each other, trying to jostle their opponents’ controllers while keeping their own still. Move too much and your controller turns red and you’re out of the game. As I watched it, no game lasted more than a couple of minutes. A ring of spectators circled the players, laughing and cheering. When one round ended, new participants eagerly jumped in. Take a look at this video and check out everyone grinning.

By creating a mechanism for players to interact with one another rather than the screen, the designers of Johan Sebastian Joust pointed out something vital: Computers aren’t funny, but people are, whether that’s the people who infused the game with humor or the people who are laughing alongside us as we play.