Lesson Plan: Sadism, Identification, Comedy, Videogames

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Ian here—

One of my primary reasons for designing my course “Comedy and the Moving Image” for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s first-year seminar sequence was to give myself an opportunity to expand my knowledge base on comedy beyond the research I had done for my article on comedic videogames. The class gave me an opportunity to teach a whole bunch of readings, films, video art pieces, and television episodes I had never taught before. By the twelfth week, though, the time had come to turn back to my particular hobbyhorse.

In the lead-up to this class, I had screened a few stunts from the Jackass franchise. This included “Paper Cuts” from Jackass: The Movie (Jeff Tremaine, 2002) and “Tee Ball” from Jackass 3D (Jeff Tremaine, 2010). The first half of class was organized around discussions of violence and sadism in physical humor, propped up not only by Jackass but also by Muriel Andrin’s chapter “Back to the ‘Slap’: Slapstick’s Hyberbolic Gesture and the Rhetoric of Violence” and Scott Richmond’s article “‘Dude, That’s Just Wrong‘: Mimesis, Identification, Jackass.” In the second half of the course, things segued into small group work as students played and discussed a group of comedic videogames.

You can follow along with the visual presentation for this lesson here.

A spectre is haunting this class …

We covered Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy of humor during the third week of this course. In some ways, though, the moral conundrums raised by Hobbes never left our sight. Our class still dwelt on plenty of questions of who it was okay to laugh at (and why), as well as who was allowed to ridicule whom (and in what context).

As of this particular lesson, I was prepared to embrace this fact, and return to Hobbes wholeheartedly. As much as we had tried to move on from him, it had become clear by this point that Hobbes was still very much a ghost haunting this class. Although students had rallied in moral opposition to his superiority theory of humor, which holds that we laugh at others because their failings make our feel better than ourselves, I had to admit that we hadn’t ever quite succeeded in exorcising this basic concept from our discussion of comedy in the weeks since.

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When we first examined Hobbes, I brought up the congruence between his theory of comedy and the emotion of schadenfreude, the “joy of watching others come to harm.” We had previously discussed this particular affect in relation to the fail video, a post-America’s Funniest Home Videos style of humor that has become ubiquitous in the era of YouTube. (I began the very first screening of the course by showing this particular compilation.) Here, I attempted to provoke the class: is the feeling of schadenfreude really any different from the impulse of sadism, of pleasure derived from the pain of others? Or is “sadism” just the detached, clinical term we use to hide from the fact that there is a pleasure to be gotten from other’s pain deep within the psychology of all of us?

My main support here in favor of the argument that physical comedy is inherently sadistic was Muriel Andrin. Some choice quotes from Andrin on slapstick:

Violence, cruelty, ugliness, and destruction appeared in slapstick as the breeding ground for a new type of comedy.[i]

Indeed, it seems that to laugh at such violent acts calls into question our relationship to others and reveals our repressed desire to humiliate other human beings.[ii]

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One way out of this is provided by Louise Peacock—like Hobbes, another recurrent figure in the course. In her book on slapstick, Peacock acknowledges that we can laugh at the pain of others, but that we usually feel guilt upon doing so. Theatrical slapstick, Peacock argues, circumvents this feeling of guild by adding in performance as a buffer: We are able to freely laugh at violence committed against others, because we have convinced ourselves that we are really laughing at “the skill of the performer in being able to carry out unusual physical feats.”[iii] This is what allows us to laugh, guilt-free, at pratfalls such as this by Buster Keaton in One Week (co-directed with Eddie Cline, 1921):

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Of course, this focus on “performance” as a kind of catch-all guilt resolver conveniently ignores that Keaton genuinely hurt himself many times throughout his career (including, most famously, breaking one of his vertebrae on the set of Sherlock, Jr.). It also provides us with absolutely no cover when discussing things such as fail videos. When we watch those, we simply have to fess up to gaining amusement at others’ failure and pain. There is no other way around it.

Or is there? This was the primary question I posed to students during this class. If we resist the idea that our laughter can so often take on sadistic dimensions … then what is the alternative? How do we morally absolve ourselves of sadism?

Here, I turned back to something that one of my students said during the very first class where we discussed fail videos, which at this point had been weeks ago. She proposed that perhaps our laughing at others when viewing fail videos is not a cruel assertion of our own superiority, but rather a recognition of shared humanity. We all are fallible. We all know what the pain of failure feels like. To err is human. Perhaps what causes us to laugh is not a feeling of superiority, but rather a swelling up of universality, as we relate to those who are failing on camera.

I used this student’s previously-stated proposal to pivot to the concept of identification. I didn’t want to spend an entire class dwelling upon the psychoanalytic roots of the term’s use in film theory. So, instead, I stuck with one image of the “Tee Ball” stunt in Jackass 3D, in which Johnny Knoxville clutches his balls in reaction to Steve-O getting hit and crumpling to the ground. This image, I glossed, basically summarizes the concept of identification: we recognize ourselves in the other, and on some sort of emotional, physical, or psychological level, we react accordingly.[iv]

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Here, I turned to Scott Richmond‘s essay, trying to untangle the phenomenon of identification and its limits while viewing Jackass (in particular, the stunt “Paper Cuts,” from the first Jackass movie). I have to acknowledge that, considered in its entirety, Richmond’s essay is really too advanced to assign as reading for a first-year seminar such as this course. But before Richmond really gets into deep theory on the third page of the essay, I do find the first two pages to be quite astute and accessible, even for first-year undergraduates. Attempting to tease out his precise reaction to “Paper Cuts,” Richmond writes the following:

I register in my own body the wound inflicted on the body onscreen. But the frisson … that I feel does not register between my toes, nor my fingers, nor on my mouth, even as I may clench my fingers and toes defensively. Rather, I feel the hair on the back of my neck prickle and raise; I feel my throat close ever so slightly, or I swallow involuntarily; I wince…. I feel a mixture of pleasure and aversion—or better yet, I feel my aversion as the occasion for pleasure.[v]

Here, I honed in on the last line of this quote. What, precisely, does it mean to feel one’s own aversion as the occasion for pleasure? How the heck can such a thing happen? I zoomed in on a still frame from “Paper Cuts,” probing the class:

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Here, I opened up the floor, allowing students to respond to these questions as they saw fit. Discussion went some interesting places, some of which I had not foreseen.

On the matter of Steve-O’s eyes in particular, students were fairly unified: They all agreed that we se fear in his eyes, and that this fear is essential to our laughing at this moment. The moment wouldn’t really work, students proposed, unless we saw that apprehensiveness in Steve-O’s face, building up a corresponding apprehensiveness in ourselves as viewers. Before the arrival of pain, we squirm and twitch, as the tension becomes unbearable. Steve-O’s pain, then, becomes a moment of release (for us, and probably, in a way, for him), when the bubble of tension is finally allowed to burst. It’s this release that causes us to laugh, meaning that the stunt’s timing—its build-up of horrible anticipation—is just as important as the pain on display in it.

From here, one student in particular took things in a much broader direction. She was no fan of Jackass, and my showing of clips of it in the course pushed her over the edge, prompting her to lay down a quite serious charge: that all moving-image comedy is centered in some way around violence.  Comedy, she asserted, at least as it takes form in the moving image, is always cruel to some extent.

I was taken aback by this pronouncement, but it did make me think. I had announced, near the beginning of class when we were still watching lots of silent slapstick, that silent slapstick was essential viewing, because you can see in it development of a language of moving-image comedy that persists to this day. I stood by this idea, but it had not occurred to me how much the “language” i had spoken of was, in fact, a language of violence. There were other things I was going to show later on in the course—such as Jacques Tati’s PlayTime (1967)—which I thought would be persuasive rejoinders to this position, but it did strike me that perhaps nothing we had looked at in the course so far fit into the category of nonviolent comedy. This student had a point.[vi]

Once students had debated this point (and other fascinating tangents, such as whether the humor in funny internet cat videos is necessarily more sadistic than internet dog videos, simply because of our associations as to the personalities of the two species), I turned to a specific point I wanted to explore: whether or not some comedy could be considered masochistic, rather than sadistic.

I turned back to the concept of identification, and put the image of Johnny Knoxville clutching his testicles in response to Steve-O’s pain once again. If we really believe that there is some sort of psychological transference of emotions, feelings, or motivations from people we see onscreen to ourselves, then wouldn’t it in some sense follow that we are laughing at our own vicarious pain as we watch these images? Is that one possible wrinkle to complicate Hobbes? Is it an essentially masochistic impulse that allows us to “feel our aversion as the occasion for pleasure”?

I proposed that we place sadism and masochism on a spectrum, where we could then map possible types of comedy. Feeling ambitious, I decided to add another axis to things, to try and make a proper semiotic square of the types of identification and affect that might be involved in our viewing of comedy. There was some disagreement as to what terms the y axis should encompass, though. This is what we ultimately settled upon, although I’m not sure I’m totally happy with it:

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I definitely reserve the right to revise this semiotic square in the future. You should feel free to, as well!

In-class small group work

The idea of masochistic comedy, and the concept that we can laugh at our own pain (vicarious, or otherwise), was the point I wanted to get to in order to segue over to videogames. Once discussion of Jackass and related topics was finished, I broke students into three groups. The groups were as follows (determined, to a certain extent, by the practical matter of the games I could install on my Windows PC, the games I could install on my Mac, and the browser-based games students could play on their own computers):

I had the groups play their games for about 30 minutes of class time, preparing for a presentation on their games to their fellow students. To help them prep for this presentation, I handed out a worksheet with the following questions:

  1. How do these games use violence and/or physical harm for comedic ends?
  2. Who is violence or harm directed to? Your own player-character? Or other characters within the world of the game?
  3. Do these games encourage you to laugh at your own failings, as a player? If so, how so?
  4. Are there things other than violence or physical mishap that provoke laughter in these games?

No pain, no game

The play of sadism and masochism has a rich (if not exactly long) history in videogame-based humor. Super Mario World (Nintendo EAD, 1990) has been subject to various ROM hacks by those who were able to tease out how its engine worked, and one of the most famous of these is Kaizo Mario World (Takemoto, 2007), sometimes referred to as Asshole Mario. This Super Mario mod is so fiendishly difficult that it is impossible to imagine anyone but the most hard-core masochist enjoying it simply on its merits. It rose in popularity, though, because then-newly-established video sharing sites such as YouTube and Japan’s Nicovideo allowed for people to upload footage of themselves playing it, often with commentary. The “Let’s Play” video genre, now such an inexplicably popular cornerstone of internet culture (not to mention genuinely startling economic force), has its roots in people offering up their own experiences of playing games like Kaizo Mario World for our viewing pleasure.

The YouTuber Proton Jon provides us with an early example of this genre, first posted in September 2007. You don’t need to watch the entire nine minutes of the embedded clip below to get a feeling of how the comedy works. Jon begins with sighs of regret (not dissimilar to Steve-O’s sighs of regret at the beginning of “Tee Ball,” in fact), and once he gets into the game itself, he slathers the soundtrack in curses, inviting us to laugh at his own hapless failure, and at the limitless sadism of Takemoto. And, since we’re a degree removed from the proceedings—we are, after all, watching a video of someone fail at Kaizo Mario World, not attempting to play Kaizo Mario World ourselves—we feel comfortable laughing at his expense.

Nintendo was certainly paying attention to developments like Kaizo Mario World (as their repeated attempts to get Let’s Play videos of it removed from YouTube attest). Their release of Super Mario Maker for the Wii U in 2015 was a clear attempt to actually make some money off of the Mario modding scene. Substituting easy-to-use stylus-based drag-and-drop controls for the specialized knowledge ROM hacking requires, Super Mario Maker has sold over 1 million copies and, according to Nintendo, resulted in more than 7 million user-generated levels being distributed online. Clearly, with such a large pool to draw from, the days in which just a single Mario mod can gain the notoriety of Kaizo Mario World are long gone. But you can rest easy: a good portion of Super Mario Maker‘s user-generated levels are just as masochistically difficult.

So it is funny to watch videos of others failing at brutally difficult games, as Kaizo Mario World‘s YouTube and Nicovideo popularity attests. It is also fun to design your own brutally difficult game, as Super Mario Maker attests. But can you actually laugh at your own failure and frustration while playing a game? To re-state the question I posed to students: can a game encourage you to laugh at your own failings, as a player? If so, how so?

QWOPCLOPSurgeon Simulator 2013Sumotori Dreams, and Octodad: Dadliest Catch provide some possible ways into this question. My extended thoughts on these games are available in my article, so I won’t belabor them here. To briefly gloss, though, I wanted to students to express some of how these games’ control schemes are untrustworthy collaborators with us as players. This leads to a situation in which we, as players, are encouraged to laugh masochistically at our own failings. (Or, to complicate things a bit as I propose in my article, we laugh at the failings of a player-character that we recognize as not entirely “ourselves,” but rather as the product of a contentious human-machine collaboration.)

But this small group work would have been boring if all I did was expect students to re-hash arguments I myself had previously made. Some of my other choices for games went beyond the “fumblecore” mode of humor of the games listed above, towards areas that I hadn’t extensively plumbed in my own writing. Here we get into the questions: Who is violence or harm directed to? Your own player-character? Or other characters within the world of the game?

Goat Simulator is one of the highest-profile comedic games to be released in recent years (released in 2014, which for whatever reason was a banner year for comedy in videogames). I only mention it in a footnote in my article, where I note that it “casts players as a puckish goat inhabiting a universe of equal opportunity cartoon violence, in which head-butting a pedestrian into an oncoming car or flinging oneself across the map from a rollercoaster present equally valid paths toward a high score.”[vii] Unlike QWOP or Surgeon Simulator, players aren’t given a task to complete, and then encouraged to laugh at their failure to complete this task. The path to comedy through failure and frustration is completely stripped out of Goat Simulator. In its place, players are simply placed in a sandbox of cartoon violence and absurd ragdoll physics, where any sort of mayhem they can enact will earn them points. Whereas Surgeon Simulator builds in a reward system based on avoiding mishap (making the inevitable mishaps all the more frustrating), Goat Simulator works as a mishap-generating machine, where absurd violence directed toward anyone and everyone is key to getting a high score.

I found it to be worth poking at students with the question of where Goat Simulator stands on the spectrum of sadistic comedy to masochistic comedy. Without praising the stupid little game too much, it is notable how much it radically dissolves the boundary between self and other: violence of any kind is celebrated, without any distinction being made between the player-character and non-player characters. Everyone is just a ragdoll in a wind-up cartoon world, and everyone will eventually get back up again after any sort of violent accident. In fact, playing the game over an extended period of time, it begins to feel less like we “are” the goat in the center of the frame, and more like we’re in something akin to Bugs Bunny’s position in Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones, 1951): an omnipotent animator, doing as much violence as we can to all the figures dancing on this screen.

This Duck Amuck comparison, and the “who are we?” question that undergirds it, is also at issue in Turbo Dismount. The conceit of this game is simple: the player first transforms a roadway into a dangerous obstacle course by adding various ramps, walls, and other dangers, and then sets off a single driver to navigate it. (The game is updated on a quarterly basis, adding new car and driver models. I put together the demonstration below in the summer of 2015, when a game update enabled players to pay homage to the then-recent release of Mad Max: Fury Road.)

During their presentation, the group that had played Turbo Dismount answered the question, “Who is violence or harm directed to?” by claiming that we hurt “ourselves” in the game. I pressed them on this, though. When the player sets the vehicle off on its path, they can control its starting direction, and its initial velocity. But that’s it: once they release the “Dismount!” button to set the vehicle in motion, its fate is out of their hands, and they are relegated to the position of spectator. Although we author the fate of this ragdoll character, the feeling that we “are” them is made tenuous—one can argue, again, that we are back in that “Bugs Bunny” position: an omnipotent, sadistic tormentor.

The interplay of masochism and sadism stand prevalent in all of these games, which are all very much based around violence as their primary source of comedy. (Certainly, one finds no rejoinder to my student’s charge here.) I did want there to be a bit more variety, though, which is why I included Jazzpunk, in particular. Released within just a few months of both Goat Simulator and Turbo Dismount (again, 2014 was a busy year), Jazzpunk offers up a decidedly less violent answer to the question of what a comedic videogame can be. Accentuating the comedic stylings of the 1990s-era adventure games of LucasArts to their breaking point, Jazzpunk is an absurdist adventure game par excellence. Nominally about the adventures of an undercover agent involved in corporate intrigue in a cyberpunk world, Jazzpunk‘s plot provides the player with an excuse to wander through its sprawling levels, chock full with opportunities for interaction which consistently yield aggressively stupid jokes:

Exit strategy

I’ll end here on a pivot point that I used to bridge this class session to the next topic on the syllabus. Sadism, masochism, pain, and failure: in some ways, these had been constant companions of us throughout the course, and definitely provided a compelling lens to look at the games explored here. But certainly there are other pleasures these game offer, unaccounted for by pain and failure, right? If so, what might they be?

Here, I proffered two YouTube clips of moments from my own playthroughs of Octodad: Dadliest Catch and Goat Simulator:

Surely, beyond any violence in these games, there is also some pleasure to be had from the simple visual fact of these bodies, so elastic and so unlike our own. This linked to the following week’s discussion of Sergei Eisenstein’s concept of the plasmatic in animation. I’ve already given one gloss of a lesson on that topic here, but the material went in some unexpected places as I discussed it with students in this class. I’m planning a follow-up where I talk a little bit more about those developments.

[i]. Andrin, Muriel. “Back to the ‘Slap’: Slapstick’s Hyberbolic Gesture and the Rhetoric of Violence.” In Slapstick Comedy. Edited by Tom Paulus and Rob King. New York: Routledge, 2010. Pg 227.

[ii]. Ibid.

[iii]. Peacock, Louise. Slapstick and Comic Performance: Comedy and Pain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Pg 27.

[iv]. A note: Although my students understood the basic conceptual outline of identification just fine, they really resisted using the word. Instead of ever saying, “we identify with this person,” they would instead say always say, “we find this person relatable.” Perhaps film theorists are going to have to follow recent linguistic trends, and start talking about “relatability” instead. True, it doesn’t have the same psychoanalytic associations, but many of us are trying to shed those, anyway, no?

[v]. Richmond, Scott. “‘Dude, That’s Just Wrong‘: Mimesis, Identification, Jackass.” World Picture 6 (2011)

[vi]. One really interesting side-conversation that came out of this was whether awkward humor—designed around feelings of discomfort and annoyance—could be considered to be cruel in its own way. One student pointed out a video of a Tig Notaro bit, in which she does nothing more but push a stool around onstage awkwardly for a few minutes, as a possible rejoinder to my first student’s charge that all moving-image comedy is violent. (The bit can be found here, starting at about the 2:47 mark.) The first student acknowledged that Notaro’s bit isn’t violent, but she insisted that, since it is still based around deliberately causing annoyance, there is a way in which it still operates on a spectrum of cruelty.

[vii]. Jones, Ian Bryce. “Do the Locomotion: Obstinate Avatars, Dehiscent Performances, and the Rise of the Comedic Videogame.” The Velvet Light Trap 77 (2016): 86-99. Quote from pg 98n22.

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