Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It's Not Just About "Fun"

Let's say I'm talking to some coworker or new acquaintance about one of my many different endeavors (possibly medieval wargaming, or music, or even mathematics). Maybe we're not quite making a connection about why it's important to me. How can I make them understand why I spend time on these projects? As I struggle for a conclusion, I might say something like, “So yeah, we're having fun”. And the other person will then say, “Oh, all right then”. Apparently, they'll achieve closure from that, and walk away untroubled.

And you know what? I'm trying really hard to stop doing that, because for the most part it's just total bullshit.

I know a lot of us have the same problem. Our art and our gaming are important to us. We feel it in our gut. But when it comes time to explain it, we routinely say “It's just fun”, or “As long as we have fun,” or “The only important thing is having fun”. We wave the word “fun” at the problem of explaining ourselves and assume that it suffices.

But I hereby choose to resist that temptation. Our gaming and our art are so much more important and multifaceted than that! The “fun” explanation is really just a convenient cop-out. It leaves mute the vast majority of our experiences in any of these deeply-felt projects. Like the best literature (or theater or movies or TV), they may be: sad, scary, inspiring, informative, arousing, inflammatory, tragic, dramatic, elegiac... without necessarily being "fun".

You can see one iteration of this in the “AngryMath Manifesto”, on my math blog (over here). Most mathematicians tend to describe their work as “a play of patterns... a wonderful beauty... a crystalline serenity”. But that's not an accurate representation of our actual work in math – it's trouble, it's a problem to be solved, it's a barrier seeking destruction, and it's the jolt of relief and excitement when the light-bulb clicks on.

Consider the experience when I'm playing drums with my garage-punk band Victor Bravo (blog over here). If I'm weak-minded, I might describe the experience as “fun”, but that's not really truthful. It's hard work, and it's pre-show-anxiety, and it's also the overcoming of all that in myself. It's fast and hard-hitting, it's incredibly precise, and yet it's totally chaotic at the same time, too. We're singing songs about people's failings and disgust and destruction – and the heartfelt desire for things to be better. I'm trying to hit, I'm trying to listen, I'm trying to move my wrists and fingers properly, I'm trying to track what instruments are being damaged, and I'm trying to simply breathe properly. People are jumping and dancing and shoving each other in our mosh pit. Sometimes I'm trying to dodge stuff being thrown at us, and occasionally I'm trying to track how badly I'm being damaged (for example). That's many things, but “fun” is probably the weakest, faintest of all approximations of the experience.

Now let's come back to our gaming hobby, which is all of these things all at once. Whether players or DM, when we're at the table, we're trying to: Solve problems, support our teammates emotionally, improvisationally act out our character personalities, remember rules, crunch probabilities in our heads, decide whether to use our resources now or later, gauge risk-versus-reward, and consider a simulation of near-medieval life and technology. We're trying to manage our own emotions and come back from a bad beat or a difficult situation, and find some way to fight on (!) to victory. We're listening and parsing language and narrative descriptions for meaning. It's a puzzle and math and theater and history and a sporting event all at once. I've seen players go directly from sputtering anger to cheering joy at the roll of a single die or the discovery of a puzzle's solution (and vice-versa).

Is all of that “fun”? No, I don't think so. Much of it is heartache and uncertainty and struggle against overwhelming odds while the game is in progress. And that emotional, intellectual test is so very much more than just “fun”.

So, if “fun” is so miserably incomplete, what would a fuller explanation look like? Obviously, I can't pretend to think that I have a complete answer. But let's say, just for a moment, that we consider Aristotle's famed analysis of “Tragic Poetry” (and if he's not completely right, we can at least take this as a carefully-considered initial hypothesis). He specifies six components: (1) Plot, (2) Character, (3) Thought, (4) Diction, (5) Melody, and (6) Spectacle. Now, isn't that an almost eerily prescient description of our fantasy role-playing games? (And possibly even moreso, good rock'n'roll?) The Plot is meant to contain “reversals, recognition, and suffering... arousing horror, fear, and pity”, and meant to effect catharsis of same; the Characters are expected to “change from happiness to misery because of some tragic mistake” (see here). Is that not a fair description of our games that have no “win” condition for our avatar-selves, but only, ultimately, ways to lose?

(Now, obviously, there's another volume of Aristotle's analysis lost to us over time; but I think it's rather obvious that our RPGs are more like “Drama” than they are “Comedy”.)

Now think: Where is “fun” in this analysis? Has it been overlooked? Is it fundamentally unnecessary? Is it implied by the last and least-important item of “Spectacle”? And are the other rewards from our dramas, from our own Tragic Poetry, not immensely deeper than just “fun”? Let us be courageous and assert all of these deeper aspects, together, and not be satisfied with talking about the merely consolatory notion, which is to say, “fun”.

13 comments:

  1. "Fulfilled" instead of "fun".

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  2. When I wrote "I Hate Fun" last year, I had no idea that I'd still be catching crap for it (and have it be the biggest traffic-driver to my blog) for so long.

    Good luck to you if people decide to descend upon you too. :D

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  3. I'll just get it out of the way...(please engage sarcasm receptors, if sarcasm receptors are offline, please leave the internet immediately until repairs are made)

    By definition, if you are enjoying an activity then you are having fun. You may or may not be experiencing a variety of other emotions whilst doing some activity, But if you keep coming back to do it, then I'm going to assume you are enjoying it, and thus by any reasonable definition wherein words mean things, you are having fun.

    I know this makes many of you uncomfortable, seeing as you have gone to great lengths here and other places to avoid the appearance of having any fun, primarily by placing the word fun in "scare" quotes, or quite unnecessarily larding the activity with extraneous meaning in order to reduce the profile of fun in the public's perception of the activity.

    That is fine. I assume since you keep doing it, this must be a fun activity for you. Please do not allow me to interfere.

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  4. You know how some languages have words that express things that are important to their culture?

    Well I want a word that expresses the conflicted, often positive, often negative, sometimes creative, gently inquisitive feeling that you get when experiencing art. Certain music. A few video games and films.

    I can't call it "fun" in the same way an activity that produces mosty joy is fun. My favorite video games affect me, but they're so difficult at times that the word fun doesn't cut it in describing them.

    We need that word. That word is what roleplaying games provide.

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  5. "Well I want a word that expresses the conflicted, often positive, often negative, sometimes creative, gently inquisitive feeling that you get when experiencing art. Certain music. A few video games and films."

    That is not a bad observation (and poetically phrased, I might add).

    Again, what Aristotle used for this was the word catharsis (purification). It's not perfect, but in the right direction...

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  6. "By definition, if you are enjoying an activity then you are having fun."

    Here you're playing word-games; that is not an accurate dictionary definition of "fun". Per my Webster's, it includes the connotations of "joyous play.... amusement... not seriously". It derives from the Middle English fonne, "a fool, foolish".

    The games I've seen played are not always joyous, not always amusing, and usually quite serious. They are definitely not foolish! (Excepting perhaps a game of "Toon".) Therefore the word "fun" rather explicitly fails us.

    Attempting to redefine the word to be "whatever it is that you keep doing" is not logically tenable. Usually word-games like these are used by those who then wish to make unwarranted prescriptions on our games, so as to enforce all these other connotations on us all the time.

    The same could be said for other forms of sport and art, as well.

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  7. Ok... duly chastened... I'll stop having fun now.

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  8. As we're scrambling for words, I'll merely point in Levi's direction at Amagi Games' glossary.

    One of these usually covers it.

    Yes it's possibly prescriptive so I'm going to point at a Clive Barker speech on the death of genre.

    Excellent post & provocative stuff.

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  9. "As we're scrambling for words, I'll merely point in Levi's direction at Amagi Games' glossary. One of these usually covers it."

    I agree, that's a pretty good list.

    My one concern is that the author tries to put the whole work under the heading of "here are different kinds of fun", and (as evident from my main post) I think that's inherently forced and unworkable in many of the cases.

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  10. I'm not in it for the fun, I'm in it for the endorphin rush!

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  11. All fun things are enjoyable, but not all enjoyable things are fun. Fun is a subset of enjoyability.

    I can enjoy the awesome majesty of snow-capped mountains rising like sleeping giants from the sea; but the view is not fun.

    I can enjoy a day of quiet exploration and serene introspection on a deserted beach, without having fun.

    I can enjoy a nice old scotch without having to call the scotch "fun".

    I can enjoy hot towels straight from the dryer without misapplying "fun" to the sensation.

    I think the problem, and the root of the objection, is that because it's a game, people seem to assume that it can't be more than (or other than) merely diversionary, shallowly-entertaining "fun".

    It's a stigma that's unjustified, much like the stigma that is attached to animation as a story medium: "that's for kids."

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