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I’ll wager that this has happened to you: You were watching a film in a theater when the film snapped, the lights came on, and you sat around — annoyed — for 15 minutes while the projectionist got all the spilled film back onto the platter, taped the broken ends together, and got the thing running through the projector again. When the lights went off and the movie resumed, it took you a good five minutes to remember what was going on and get back into the story.

Interruption of flow is a major drag on the entertainment experience, no doubt.

The state of flow is a relatively well-understood psychological phenomenon. You experience flow when fully absorbed in a task to the extent that other thoughts leave your mind and time recedes from your consciousness. You literally “lose track of time.” The seminal work on this phenomenon is the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He argues that being able to easily achieve a state of flow in your day-to-day activities is one of the keys — if not the key — to living a happy life.

I invite you to consider interruptions to a roleplaying session as the obnoxiousness equivalent of broken celluloid. Interruptions to play — going to the bathroom, ordering pizza, taking a call on your cell phone — disrupt the story and derail the game, and it takes time for everybody to find the flow again.

Now, here are some true facts: you’ve gotta pee, you’ve gotta eat, and (sometimes) you’ve got to answer the phone. That said, I find that the most pernicious interruptions to a game session are the constant interjections from the group’s (self-)designated funny guy, who tosses out a random bit of hi-lariousness at every turn. Rarely is the humor even modestly in-game. Even when it is, it’s rarely relevant to the story, or appropriate to the character from whom the funny activity or dialog is ostensibly flowing.

The reason that downtime — the spans of time when you’re playing a game but you’re not currently able to do anything with regard to it — is of such great concern to game designers is that it’s very difficult to keep a player in flow during downtime. Downtime isn’t the actual problem, it’s the interruption of flow.

Full Disclosure and Confession: I’ve been that guy.

Am I against humor? People who know me would find that hard to believe. But let me be really specific, and enumerate the problems with the funny man’s constant interjections during a roleplaying session.

1. It’s like the film breaking and the lights coming on in the theater. It interrupts everyone’s flow and attention. The story stops.

2. It’s often actually funny, and sometimes even enjoyable for all involved.

Cue that one screeching record sound. “Actually funny,” and “enjoyable for all involved,” — those are problems?

This is the part where I start to sound like an asshole, because why in the hell would I categorize enjoyable humor as half of a major problem of roleplaying? The problem is that since it’s enjoyable, people keep doing it, and — effectively — turning on the lights in the theater every 30 seconds. Do you want to see Aliens in a theater like that?

The game session becomes such a riotous joke-fest that no one can ever remember what’s happening. It’s as much to blame for the “20 minutes of fun packed into four hours” phenomenon as poorly conceived and crafted rules.

I have a theory. My theory is that the guys throwing out the jokes are hungry for approval. Getting a laugh out of your buddies is simultaneously one of the easiest and most obviously observable ways to get it. That is to say, it’s (a) simplicity itself to toss out a one-liner, and (b) you can see the approval because people are laughing. Conversely, it’s hard to create a memorably dramatic character or scene. It takes time, and patience, and style — which are all in even shorter supply when some asshat is turning on the theater lights every 30 seconds. And even when you manage to pull off a moment of awesomeness, it’s not always clear that anyone else at the table appreciated it. A laugh’s great reinforcement. The silent admiration of your peers is indistinguishable from their silent mental note to remember to pay their taxes.

I try to say “That’s awesome,” or something like that, when someone at the table creates a memorable moment. People need to know — right then, at that very moment — when they created a fantastic bit of story or gameplay.

Let’s be clear, here: There’s an enjoyment to the laugh-fest gaming session that’s not unlike the enjoyment to be gained from sitting down with a group of friends and three gallons of margaritas to mock Mars Attacks while it plays on the television. But bear in mind that the activity described in the previous sentence is a lot more like “getting drunk and telling jokes” than it’s like “watching Mars Attacks.”

Should you should become humorless? Obviously not. You should be aware of when you’re tossing out jokes for a quick fix of personal approval, and you should decide whether your need for three meaningless seconds of validation is worth turning on the lights in the theater.