Game is an improvisational concept.
In Longform, Game is an improv concept used when describing what was interesting or funny about an improvisational scene. There are about as many ways of describing Game exactly and how to go about finding it as there are improv teachers.
In Shortform, Game refers to a set of pre-determined rules that govern the general structure of any scene.
Finding the Game
In order to find a game in a scene, you typically need to be able to answer three questions:
What is the situation?
Who are the people in the scene and what are they doing? You only need a very basic idea. It doesn't need to elaborate. Here are some examples:
- Father and son cleaning out the garage
- Doctor meeting with a patient
- A police officer interrogating a suspect
- Two friends having lunch
This can be established very quickly within a few lines. In some cases, improvisors might be able to establish this before they even speak through what they are doing where they are on stage. We need to know this because once we know the situation, we will know what kinds of things are normal or typical for this situation.
What is the first unusual thing?
The first unusual thing is the first thing that a character does or says that sticks out like a sore thumb, something that feels novel or strange for the given situation.
If that, then what?
Once we know what is strange, we want to find variations on that which form a pattern and that heighten as we explore the situation.
It's focusing on a funny thing, and heightening and exploring it, rather than focusing on narrative.
I think finding the game of the scene is really fun. You're really paying attention to each other and it kind of falls into the relationship, like the Monty Python scene: 'Is this the room for an argument?' 'I already told you so.' 'No, you didn't.' 'Yes, I did.' 'No, you didn't.' It's just a game. It gives you a fun thing to play.
I think there can be any number of games in a scene, and that makes it fun and it helps you develop the relationship even more. I think if it's just a scene where there is no relationship it's going to stall. I think there are some places that will teach the game and not the relationship and how to build a relationship between two people, and they're not doing really good work because of that.
"The game’s very important in improv like all components. You need all of them. You can’t just go ‘hey, you need environment. Or you need dialog, or chairs or whatever. You need history.’ All those things contribute to the game, so the game is only as good as the specifics that you bring to it. We can play a one-upsmanship game where I would keep on topping you, but what’s going to make it funny are the ways that I top you, the specifics that top you. Therefore, that’s the reason that you want to develop a character, and you want to develop the location, the history, whatever, because then I have lots of interesting, more profound, heightened, high stakes ways to top you.
To me the game is only a structure, the same way that Harold’s a structure. What makes Harold work is what you bring to Harold. And what was great about Del was how much he would inspire people to be able to play the structure, but being able to play it in a way that you aspired to something smart and meaningful. He didn’t say ‘play the game. Play the game. Play the game,’ but if the game’s not meaningful, then it’s sort of not interesting. It’s not going to be very funny. So to me the game is a structure and you can learn to recognize it, but you also have to be an interesting human being and have something to say.
We respond to patterns. We like music and music repeats itself. Music has a verse and a chorus and verse. The rule of threes. We just get used to cycles. The universe is like that for some reason, and every living thing on it seems to be hardwired to it. And there’s probably some kind of Eastern philosophy that talks about this.
So we get pleasure every time a pattern in music happens. The same thing with game, with the joke that keeps coming back. We don’t want to hear it consistently. We want to see it [then have it go away.] In music, there’s this thing: the build up of tension, the release of tension. Most music is based on it. Build tension release tension. There’s a pattern to it. In comedy, it’s the same thing: the building of tension the release of tension. And that’s what the game does. And why that is? I don’t know. I don’t know the nature of the universe, but it seems like that’s just how it is and how we respond to it."
If it’s funny, it is the game. You can do the game badly or you can do the game well, but there is nothing to criticize about the game done well. This thing about relationship scenes, we do have relationship in our scenes. My explanation is relationship is covered by the yesand part of improv. I kind of divide finding your scene into two aspects. The beginning is yesand part where you’re kind of fleshing out the world of the scene. The game part is the if-then part. You’re not just agreeing with the person and adding more information. You stop adding information and narrow it down. You start playing a pattern. If this happens, then this would happen and this would happen. That’s the game part of the scene.
Now, the game can be done badly. That’s a thrust in our organization, to make sure we keep our people [on point]. For us the [crux] of comedy is the game, but you’ve got to play things at the top of your intelligence. What does that mean? It doesn’t mean use big words, or share specific information that only you know. What that means is react like a human being. If people aren’t doing that, well, that’s part of good improv. That sneaks out sometimes. People are playing the game, but not reacting like they would. I always teach people in classes ‘When you start playing the game, do think ‘Oh now I’m doing comedy’ and now you stop being a human being.’ Almost every time you do a scene basically as crazy as that seems it’s probably happened, in the grand scheme of things.
In comedy, you’re showing the day that broke the pattern. The only memories you even have in your life are the days when things didn’t go the way you would have them go. You remember the day that you got the crazy cab driver or you made a fool of yourself or you messed up the dinner. So, when you’re playing a game, don’t now go into some freaky comedy acting. Just respond. Just be a human being. It goes on both sides. When you are kind of driving the game and exhibiting the unusual behavior, realize no one sets out to be an idiot. If you agree that people are pursing pleasure and avoid pain, that’s the best choice they could make at that moment.
Stuff like this gets brought up in straight acting. There’s this quote from Lee Marvin. They asked him ‘How do you feel about having played so many villains through your career?’ He said ‘I’ve never played a villain. I’ve played people who were making the best choices they could given the circumstances they were given.’ Like they say when you’re a villain and you’re acting, don’t twirl your mustache. Don’t ‘be a villain.’ Just be who you are. It’s the same thing. When you’re being an idiot in comedy, think of your own life. Think of all the idiotic, stupid things you’ve done. At the time just before you did these things you said ‘Yup, let’s do that,’ and you pursued it with belief that made sense.
I think sometimes when the game gets a bad wrap it’s because people aren’t doing all the work involved in playing the game. There’s also an acting aspect of it. There’s ‘play at the top of your intelligence,’ which means pursue it like you belief it’s a worthy goal.
We meet these people in life. If there’s someone you can think to imitate, the reason you can imitate them is because you can paw them down to some salient qualities. You’re like ‘Oh, that idiot,’ but they’re a human being in their life. They’re not a comedy character.
So, I don’t know. I think sometimes people aren’t doing all the work, and they’re going around saying they’re doing game improv. They’re just not doing it well. But done well, I don’t see how you can have a problem with it. Improv that uses the game, that’s basically every Monty Python scene, every Kids in the Hall scene, every Upright Citizens Brigade scene. Scripted comedy has a game. If I can make my improv comedy look like scripted, which is what happens if you play the game well, if you don’t like that, then I’m not interested in doing something you like. So, go ahead. You do your thing. I’ll do mine.
It’s anything that you do more than once. If my contact lenses are bugging me at the top of my scene, if I wear them, which I don’t, but let’s say my contact lenses bug me and I’m blinking my eyes within the first three seconds of my scene your audience thinks you’re blinking. Then if your contact lenses stop bugging you and you stop blinking they go ‘Where did blinky go!? Come back!?’ That’s when they get mad. They don’t get mad when you make a choice. They get mad when you drop it.
The key to finding and playing the Game is identifying the first unusual thing in a scene, the first piece of information that breaks from the pattern of normal life. Once this has been discovered, the improvisers will shift away from "Yes...And" and move onto "If...Then" (asking the question "If this unusual thing is true, then what else is true?"). With Yes And, we were agreeing with information presented and adding new information to develop a base reality. Once the unusual thing has been found, we no longer need to develop a base reality; we need to be funny. Repeatedly answering the question "If this unusual thing is true, then what else is true?" creates a comic pattern. Each answer to this question (or similar, related versions of this question) is called a "Game move." A combination of game moves forms a pattern that we call a "Game."
- The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual, pages 64-65. Written by Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh.