Tag Archives: commonplace

The paradox of fun

Play Anything by Ian Bogost

The paradox of fun is this: we think fun is enjoyment, but in practice it often feels like quite the opposite. On the one hand, we’d never think to describe uncomfortable or distressing experience as fun ones, but on the other hand, discomfort or distress often characterize the experiences we later describe as fun. A fun match of soccer might involve physical and emotional injury; a fun trip to the zoo might entail heat exhaustion and stained overalls. And yet fun doesn’t feel like suffering either, exactly, even when it literally involves suffering. Otherwise we’d not call it fun, but hardship.

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We’ve misunderstood fun to mean enjoyment without effort

Play Anything by Ian Bogost

What does it mean for something to be fun? If you wanted to design a fun toaster, or lead a fun classroom, or advertise a fun job, or write a fun book, how would you go about it? If you wanted to find a fun appliance to buy, or a fun course to take, or a fun career to pursue, or a fun book to read, what heuristic would you choose to select one? Most of us have no idea. We don’t even know what fun is, even though we claim to want it in everything. We’ve misunderstood fun to mean enjoyment without effort. Nothing has been spared the cursed attempt to “make it fun”; everything whatsoever hopes to transform itself into a delightful little morsel of sugar in your mouth.

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Under the sail of generosity rather than selfishness

Play Anything by Ian Bogost

My daughter’s mall game illustrates these principles. She saw and acknowledged the tiles, which are separately laid and grouted for the ease of manufacture, transport, installation, and maintenance. But rather than allowing that material distinction to recede into the background, to become mere substrate for our far more urgent pursuit of retail commerce, she made the tile / grout pairing the focus of her attention. She added to them the speed of her gait as pulled along by me, my hand and body as it attached to and pulled her to and fro erratically, the shape and size of her feet, the traction or slipperiness of her shoes, the vectors along which runs counter to our ordinary conception of play as a release of tension and responsibility.

Then, even though I was merely an accessory to her game rather than a party to it, she forced me to recognize and acknowledge the space she’d created. The tiles, the grout, her shoes, and so on—I became newly aware of these things simply by virtue of attending to her indirectly. We must seek to capture that magic everywhere; in everything. Not the pleasure of realizing our own goals—as if we even know that they are or ought to be—but the gratification of meeting the world more than halfway, almost all the way, and reaping the spoils of our new discoveries made under the sail of generosity rather than selfishness.

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The limitations make games fun

Play Anything by Ian Bogost

The lesson that games can teach us is simple. Games aren’t appealing because they are fun, but because they are limited. Because they erect boundaries. Because we must accept their structures in order to play them. Soccer sees two teams of eleven players attempting to use their feet, torsos, and heads to put a ball into a goal. Tetris asks you to position falling arrangements of four orthogonally-connected squares in order to produce and remove horizontal lines. And yet the experiences games like soccer and Tetris create are far larger than those boundaries convey on their own. That bounty results from the deliberate, if absurd, pursuit of soccer and Tetris on their own terms, within the limitations they erect. The limitations make games fun.

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The television equivalent of the novel

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

Art is the aftershock of technological plates shifting. Sometimes the aftershock is slow in arriving. It took the novel about three hundred years to evolve into its modern form after the invention of the printing press. The television equivalent of the novel—the complex serialized drama of The Wire or Breaking Bad—took as long as seventy years to develop, depending on where you date its origins.

I’ve often thought about today’s serialized, bingeable, Golden Age of Television as the visual equivalent of the novel. Rich worlds. Deep investment in characters. Time to marinate with relationships and stakes.

Before the Golden Age of Television, I was captivated by trilogies — hell, I still am — namely Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (Extended Editions!) I hadn’t read the books, but I felt an attachment to the characters. Its cohesive production, year-over-year release schedule, and follow-through of Tolkien’s parallel stories and stakes built a world I was able to immerse myself in.

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings runs 9 hours in total, the extended editions running 11 hours — not dissimilar from a Golden Age television series.

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Music seems to send us out on a quest for new experiences

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

One premise unites both sides in this debate: that music “presses our pleasure buttons,” as Pinker describes it. Yet there is something too simple in describing our appetite for music in this way. Sugar and opiates, to give just two examples, press pleasure buttons in the brain in a relatively straightforward fashion. Given a taste of one, we instinctively return for more of the same, like those legendary lab rats endlessly pressing the lever for more stimulants. And we put our ingenuity to work concocting ever-more-efficient delivery mechanisms for these forms of pleasure: we refine opium into heroin; we start selling soda in Big Gulp containers. But music—like the patterns and colors unleashed by the fashion revolution—appears to resonate with our pleasure centers at more of an oblique angle. The pleasure in hearing those captivating sounds doesn’t just establish a demand for more of the same. Instead, music seems to send us out on a quest for new experiences: more of the same, but different.

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Modern life itself could make you sick

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

Visible in these perplexed diagnoses is a new way of thinking about the psyche. Diseases of the mind did not have to be rooted in some biological deformity, as the phrenologists had contended; nor was it attributable to some abstract “lesion of the will”; nor was it tied to basic biological realities like menstruation or masturbation. Instead, the root cause of the disorder was to be found somewhere else: in the lived history of social and economic change. Modern life itself could make you sick.

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You will find the future where people are having the most fun

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

This phenomenon turns out to appear consistently throughout the history of humanity’s trifles. The guilty pleasures of life often give us a hint of future changes in society, whether those pleasures take the form of English ladies shopping for calico fabrics in London in the late 1600s, or ancient Roman feasts laden with spices from the far corners of the globe, or carnival hucksters promoting strange optical devices that create the illusion of moving pictures, or computer programmers at MIT in the 1960s playing Spacewar! on their million-dollar mainframes. Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions, it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms. The institutions of society that so dominate traditional history—political bodies, corporations, religions—can tell you quite a bit about the current state of the social order. But if you are trying to figure out what’s coming next, you are often better off exploring the margins of play: the hobbies and curiosity pieces and subcultures of human beings devising new ways to have fun. “Each epoch dreams the one to follow, creates it in dreaming,” the French “historian Michelet wrote in 1839. More often than not, those dreams do not unfold within the grown-up world of work or war or governance. Instead, they emerge from a different kind of space: a space of wonder and delight where the normal rules have been suspended, where people are free to explore the spontaneous, unpredictable, and immensely creative work of play. You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.

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Third Worlders are forward-looking

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

“When I started in real estate, I considered renovating old houses instead of tearing them down, but it didn’t make sense. Nigerians don’t buy houses because they’re old. A renovated two-hundred-year-old mill granary, you know, the kind of thing Europeans like. It doesn’t work here at all. But of course it makes sense because we are Third Worlders and Third Worlders are forward-looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of that past.”

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Obama could actually win this thing

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

Blaine’s knife stopped moving. He looked up, eyes lit, as though he had not dared hope she would believe the same thing that he believed, and she felt between them the first pulse of a shared passion. They clutched each other in front of the television when Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses. The first battle, and he had won. Their hope was radiating, exploding into possibility: Obama could actually win this thing. And then, as though choreographed, they began to worry. They worried that something would derail him, crash his fast-moving train. Every morning, Ifemelu woke up and checked to make sure that Obama was still alive. That no scandal had emerged, no story dug up from his past. She would turn on her computer, her breath still, her heart frantic in her chest, and then, reassured that he was alive, she would read the latest news about him, quickly and greedily, seeking information and reassurance, multiple windows minimized at the bottom of the screen. Sometimes, in chat rooms, she wilted as she read the posts about Obama, and she would get up and move away from her computer, as though the laptop itself were the enemy, and stand by the window to hide her tears even from herself. How can a monkey be president? Somebody do us a favor and put a bullet in this guy. Send him back to the African jungle. A black man will never be in the white house, dude, it’s called the white house for a reason. She tried to imagine the people who wrote those posts, under monikers like SuburbanMom231 and NormanRockwellRocks, sitting at their desks, a cup of coffee beside them, and their children about to come home on the school bus in a glow of innocence. The chat rooms made her blog feel inconsequential, a comedy of manners, a mild satire about a world that was anything but mild. She did not blog about the vileness that seemed to have multiplied each morning she logged on, more chat rooms springing up, more vitriol flourishing, because to do so would be to spread the words of people who abhorred not the man that Barack Obama was, but the idea of him as president. She blogged, instead, about his policy positions, in a recurring post titled “This Is Why Obama Will Do It Better,” often adding links to his website, and she blogged, too, about Michelle Obama. She gloried in the offbeat dryness of Michelle Obama’s humor, the confidence in her long-limbed carriage, and then she mourned when Michelle Obama was clamped, flattened, made to sound tepidly wholesome in interviews. Still, there was, in Michelle Obama’s overly arched eyebrows and in her belt worn higher on her waist than tradition would care for, a glint of her old self. It was this that drew Ifemelu, the absence of apology, the promise of honesty.

“If she married Obama then he can’t be that bad,” she joked often with Blaine, and Blaine would say, “True that, true that.”

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