Posted by: Sean | August 29, 2008

Pop Culture Bandit

I’ve been accused of losing my humorous edge today, and it is true, my last two posts have been a little straight. Mea culpa. I’ve been tired and firing on half-cylinders. So let’s talk about something a bit more humorous then; Warcraft and pop culture. World of Warcraft is probably the most humorous MMORPG on the market, and a big part of that is the way in which is freely quotes popular culture at will. I can’t promise this article will be any funnier than my previous ones, but at least it’ll be about something funnier.

Now, some of you, perhaps named Wayne, are asking: Are you permitted to do so in role-playing? Well Wayne, that’s a hard question. But I would have to answer with a qualified yes, although it does seem that until you remove the socialist party apparatchiks, there will be no real change in the Soviet Union.

Now stop. See that? That is a full-fledged textbook example of how not to do a pop culture reference. It breaks all but one of the rules regarding how you do this and how you do it well. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

  1. Don’t do it when the stakes are high. Probably the only rule I didn’t break, although at least I chose to obey the most important one. Look, there’s a time and a place for this stuff.  When you’re riding around, feel free to make every pop culture reference you want. It’s light-hearted downtime. But when you’re gearing up to take on Archimonde, you may wanna pull back. While you can manage the way that a pop culture riff pulls you out of the immersion of the game, (And I’m getting to that soon,) you will manage to pull other players out of the game. The pop culture reference is for humor purposes only.
  2. Try to make it work straight. See my example above? It makes no sense at all unless you remember the time Aerosmith was on Wayne’s World. If it had somehow fit into the question it would be a different matter; the reference would have worked fine and those who got it as well would have had a quiet smirk to themselves. This is a classic immersion retention skill; the best pop-culture references are quick and glaringly obvious to anyone who knows the referenced material, but absolutely invisible to the uninitiated.This sounds a lot harder than it is. All that is required is a bit of common sense and an ear for dialogue. One of the most staggeringly hilarious pop culture references I’ve ever encountered was while doing the Valentine’s Day quests with a friend whom, upon having her heart broken, proceeded to quote verbatim an entire monologue from Friends. It was beautifully done; not only was the reference funny, but the actual dialogue was screamingly funny in its own right and perfectly suited to the scene at hand.
  3. Try to link it back into a World of Warcraft reference. This can either be to a piece of the lore, or it could be to a pop culture reference made by the game. My undead warrior, upon receiving the Sword of Omen, changed his signature cry of “Tally ho!” to “Tally, tally, tally, HO!” Hardly high comedy, but an amusing change, and one that was justified by the previous pop culture reference. And yet, honoring rule one, I would have reverted to “Tally ho!” had we been fighting, say, an instance boss. The reason to do this is that linking it back into the world in one way or another justifies the reference to a degree, it helps remove the immersion killing aspects of the reference. If you link it into lore, it’s helping the immersion even as it harms it, if you link it to another pop culture reference you’re not introducing anything new, you’re just extending a previous element.
  4. Know your audience. If you’re playing with a pickup crew, you won’t have a clue what they know or don’t know — So stick with the safety of the popular. If you’re playing with friends, you’ll be able to go more obscure and be assured that they’ll get it. If you’re playing with a mix, then follow the above three rules and just go for it anyway; the damage done to the scene shouldn’t be too bad and if they’re confused, at least you’ll hopefully have made someone laugh.

Last rule: Make sure you include the joke. A pop culture reference in and of itself is not funny. Well, not very funny. But it can be used to be funny by drawing surprising analogies and connections. Quoting Friends at Valentine’s Day is funny because it creates the connection between what you’re doing as a sitcom, which is a funny idea. Pop culture references are funny because they create familiarity, a sense of ‘Hey, I remember that!’. You can build on that by making it clever, or being cute with it, or doing one of many other things in order to sell it as a joke. But a pop culture reference is not, in and of itself, the joke. Always remember that.


  1. […] yes, does break rule #1 in a big way. But it worked […]

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