Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

7 April, 2010

The Role of the Trickster
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 5:56 PM

Another April Fool’s has come and gone. It’s perhaps one of the more important holidays in the year, and not just because I like playing tricks on people.

It’s what the tricks are intended to do.

Sadly, April Fool’s tends to look more like amateur hour as Lum puts it so well. People are too eager to just try to do something that seems funny without really understanding the reason.

Of course, I did the same thing once. My parents enjoyed a morning of peanut butter smeared on the door knob. Once. (I was so proud about how I had done the work without waking them up, too….)

But, if you look at mythology you see the trickster has a much greater role than just putting (metaphorical) egg on someone’s face. The role of the trickster was to teach and train. Not that all tricksters were noble (one of Loki’s pranks did end up killing Baldr), but often the tricks are intended to show some flaw.

Perhaps the best example are the wish-granters of mythology. Leprechauns and djinn are supposed to take great pleasure in twisting the wishes of their victims. The lesson here is the oft repeated phrase, “Careful what you wish for.”

One problem is that a lot of people today hate feeling tricked. Instead of being good-natured about it, they lash out at being fooled. It’s easy to blame the fooler instead of taking a long, hard look at yourself to see why your reaction was out of bounds.

The one joke that Scott did like from this year, Wow’s epeen measurement fits this perfectly. It shows how people love bragging about big numbers and how powerful they are, when it’s just self-stroking gratification for a lot of people. Looks a bit foolish to many people for a developer to support this, so it’s a good opportunity to poke fun at it.

My April Fool’s joke for this year of course touched upon the whole “social games” issue. I cast Zynga into a mustache-twirling caricature in trying to buy out my site in order to kill MMOs. This is an extreme statement of what some people have claimed. Seems a bit silly when it’s put in those terms, but perhaps a bit of silliness is what we needed. A bit of self-depreciation also works to keep things in perspective.

What do you think? Is the Trickster aspect still important? Or are those stupid jokes just too much to bear even for a good cause? Or, should more people take the time for a bit of introspection?


  1. There are the few good jokes, the satires and mirrors. And then there are the simply cruel pranks which not only fail to teach, but aren’t even funny.

    Comment by Klepsacovic — 7 April, 2010 @ 8:45 PM

  2. Well a better example is WoW’s zombie plague of last year. That actually affected people like all good pranks do. Some laugh it off, others bitch and moan. As awesome as WoWs play on the trixster mechanic was , it prove that even a great prank that is avoidable (or easily cureable) has got to be intelligent in hindsite (like WoWs), not just stupid unavoidable bs like a pie in the face from an invisible assailant.

    Comment by Coppertopper — 7 April, 2010 @ 9:28 PM

  3. Yeah, April Fools was much cooler before it got all POPULAR and stuff.

    Comment by Zaratustra — 7 April, 2010 @ 11:33 PM

  4. I dislike being tricked personally because I always feel that somebody abused my trust. My friends know how I feel about it, however, so they don’t trick me. ;)

    On the other hand, I love the non-personal April fools. If they’re done well. A lot of them are so obvious that I don’t even have to think about it. The “epeen measurements” falls into that category. At the same time, this one is rather ironic or even sarcastic and that’s what makes it amusing to me. Some are just lame or totally overdone (like the ones on the radio saying that the government has once more suggested a silly law that nobody wants or needs… *sigh*).

    So, I’d prefer the Trickster to make me think and laugh. Even if they hold a mirror in front of my face (the epeen measurement doesn’t fully apply to me but I guess it does apply to a lot of gamers (including myself) to some extent) and make me also laugh about myself. ;)

    Comment by Mia — 8 April, 2010 @ 12:11 AM

  5. I love April Fool’s and thought they were fantastic this year. Highlights included an election campaign by British PM Gordon Brown based on thumping the opposition with a poster byline “Step outside, posh boy” and SWTOR’s Sarlacc Enforcer.

    Comment by Stabs — 8 April, 2010 @ 1:13 AM

  6. I’m with Klep on this one. There’s a significant difference in intent between the “trickster” and the “jerk”. Tricksters have an important contrarian place in any society or story, while jerks have a malicious mean streak. It’s similar to the difference between constructive criticism and unrelenting cynicism.

    I’ve walked the line between the two, especially in my high school days. It’s terribly easy to flay someone or something by finding flaws and applying leverage. It’s more difficult to try to illustrate problems with an eye to solving them, instead of amplifying them. (And all too often, oversensitive or ignorant people will take offense at any criticism, including taking satire seriously.)

    Comment by Tesh — 8 April, 2010 @ 9:07 AM

  7. April Fool’s is mostly just annoying for me when it comes to the web. It has become just yet another marketing gimmick that makes companies look like attention whores.

    For most people it makes those companies look more “friendly”, “nice” and the companies know that all too well. So the joke’s on the customer that swallow the gimmick being too blind to see it’s just some free advertisement. When it’s expected (like WoW each year) it stops being funny, at least for me.

    I don’t laugh either at jokes that are in the line of “believable lies”. Make the “lie” absurd though and it can be brilliant. I prefer “tongue-in-cheek” stuff than jokes that are only trying to trick me.

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 8 April, 2010 @ 1:46 PM

  8. The Trickster archetype strikes me as a really tough one to justify in games, and for reasons both inside and outside the magic circle.

    My impression is that the primary lesson of the Trickster is humility. No one looks dignified with their trousers down or a pie in the face — at its best, this process is a useful reminder that no human is a god destined to command others; at the end of the day we’re all just fallible beings trying to do our best. (The character Aiken Drum from Julian May’s incredibly good “Saga of Pliocene” novels is a superb modern-day example of this archetype.)

    The problem is that it’s all too easy for the court jester, who serves a valuable function, to morph into a jerk who’s just out for some cheap laughs at someone else’s expense. I absolutely hate practical jokes, partly because I’m naturally reserved but also because too few people these days do it gently to those who deserve it when they can benefit from it. Instead, it’s about “punking” people purely for the sadistic pleasure of the tormentor.

    But let’s suppose we’re in a pre-production design meeting where someone has just proposed adding the Trickster in his positive archetype to the game. What producer in his right mind would go for that idea?

    Inside the magic circle, the Trickster punctures the notion of the player’s character as a/the hero. That’s pretty much the exact opposite of what every game tries to accomplish. Maybe if you’re Richard Garriott in the early ‘80s you can design a game that asks the player to demonstrate the virtue of humility through his character, but today?

    Outside the magic circle is no better. Popping the player’s sense of self-importance is tricky (no pun intended). The diner in Texas that insults its patrons can get away with not being respectful to customers, but that’s probably the exception — a game that deliberately sets out to trick actual players (even with the best of intentions) is just asking for trouble. If you spend $50 on a game, how are you going to feel when you realize that the game has tricked you in some way? What are the odds that most gamers will get the joke (when it’s on them) and feel they got their money’s worth?

    On balance, while I think this is an unusual and excellent design question, I’m just not seeing how it could work in a game. But maybe I’m wrong about that, which is why I showed my reasoning above — I’m sort of hoping someone can show how a Trickster character could really work. :)

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 13 April, 2010 @ 10:53 AM

  9. Great points, Bart. I agree with the general sentiment here: there’s a fine line between trickster and obnoxious jerk. As I said, the stories of Loki show how a single character can cross that line pretty easily. I think the issue here is subtlety, something that game designers often don’t do very well. It’s the difference between having egg on your face and being bombarded by a truck full of eggs.

    I think the trickster archetype would be something that wouldn’t be in the player’s control, very much too much potential for abuse by griefers, obviously. I think there is a place for the archetype: establish player expectations for really difficult tasks. As you point out, players are often built up to be the big heroes. But, sometimes the player needs to understand that there are challenges that they can’t just wade into as a miniature godling. But, it requires a level of subtlety that might be missed by some players.

    Comment by Psychochild — 13 April, 2010 @ 11:13 AM

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