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Comedy of Contingency


My piece on user-generated slapstick in video games has just been published in the International Journal of Communication. I did most of the research and writing for it while on a PhD internship at Microsoft Research New England’s Social Media Collective.

The article was inspired by the amazing work of YouTubers like HelixSnake, and also by the recent trends of slapstick games such as QWOP. I also wanted to engage with the research on online humor, which tends omit the role of technology in the creation of humor, and the research on machinima, which tends to focus on video game environments as empty sets rather than lively environments. In my view, HelixSnake’s and his peers’ videos are in fact celebrations of computer-generated (chaos and) contingency.

Here goes the abstract:

Although mediated humor is pervasive in our media cultures, media studies have largely glossed over the role of technology in the process of making humor. This article brings that topic into focus, while examining the Machinima-related subgenre of gameplay mischief video—the video montages of physical humor captured or staged in the simulated spaces of video games. Based on close reading of videos from three contemporary 3D action titles, interviews with the makers of these videos, and an analysis of humor techniques they employ, I argue that this vein of humor arises from the interaction between the player and the game. I also claim that the capacity of games to generate unexpected and contingent events is instrumental to this process.