Part of why “it’s just a game” is a misleading idea in a space like WoW is because of the way entertainment is seen in our society. We think of it as this separate, non-productive thing we do when we’re not doing our “real” work. It’s optional, “just for fun,” and basically self-indulgent.
This distinction between work and play/entertainment is kind of new, relatively speaking. The rise of the industrial revolution brought with it an increasing distinction between “home” and “work”. As work was more and more often located outside the home, we strengthened our notion of home being distinct, made for something other than work, made for, among other things, entertainment. “Work,” that remunerated, productive activity that was required for survival, was defined as something we go and do because we have to. Entertainment, on the other hand, was part of leisure, and was something we do because we want to. Of course, entertaining activities like stories and plays and games have been around for thousands of years, but they were arguably not considered as distinct from other parts of our lives. They were, in many cases, even considered essential to communities and part of the educational process.
For a while now, entertainment has been closely associated with media. We watch TV, go to the movies, read books, for entertainment. We also can get news from those things, of course, and the distinction between news and entertainment is blurry, and getting blurrier, as pointed out by Delli Carpini.
Part of the issue with classifying things as entertainment (as opposed to news or work), is that this category brings with it a sense of frivolity, lack of productivity, societal pointlessness. As Delli Carpini points out, news has often been extolled as “politically relevant” and necessary for a functioning democracy, while entertainment’s capacity to contribute has been largely ignored. Entertainment, like leisure, is a kind of “not-work,” and therefore fundamentally something that takes us away from the important thing, the thing we’re supposed to be paying attention to: work.
As part of the entertainment sphere, as it were, online video games like WoW are immediately presumed to be not only politically, but socially irrelevant, pointless, unproductive. They do not contribute, so common wisdom says, to society in a meaningful way.
Well, you know I’m going to disagree with that, of course.
First of all, the assumption that “play” (or entertainment) in general is socially/societally useless is very problematic. Children need play to develop “cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being.” But adults need play, too. Some studies suggest that play helps “create happy, smart adults …[and] stronger emotional bonds and collaboration among team members.” Of course, less play might seem to suggest less productivity and therefore a less healthy society, but some research suggests that isn’t the case. In fact, countries with fewer average work hours show many indicators of better standards of living, longer lives, reduced stress, and healthier people.
Second, I believe play does, indeed, contribute to society. Economic figures of generating jobs, income, and a thriving market aside (in 2008, the US showed over $900 billion in media spending, plus nearly $300 billion in advertising), play is part of social interaction, and we need that.
Imagine this: You only meet and befriend people you work with. You spend no time, energy, or money on activities other than those related to work and running an efficient household. Your only source of self-worth, new ideas, feelings of inspiration and competence, or skills are work-related.
Now, that might be just fine for someone lucky enough to be in the perfect job. But for the vast majority of people, work (even interesting work) is only a small part of what makes us happy. We look to other activities to fulfill other parts of ourselves, like performing in the community theatre, scaling a tough mountain, participating in a local soccer league, and yes, playing video games.
Lumping all that play into “entertainment” may certainly be useful when distinguishing it from other activities, but some of the things that go along with that notion, fundamentally the idea that entertainment isn’t important, serious, productive, helpful, etc., short-changes how much it matters in our lives.
I have a friend who, in spite of rather astoundingly successful achievements in his career, laments with great emotion the loss of time for movies, books, dancing and the like. He is actually one of the lucky few who has a career in something he loves, but without that entertainment, he tells me, he sometimes feels as though he doesn’t really have anything interesting to talk about.
So entertainment is (to bring things back to yesterday’s post) a vital part of our social capital. I mean, really. Do you want to spend the whole dinner out with me listening to theories about cognitive dissonance? Probably not. I saw District 9 recently. That’s probably more fun to chat about.
In short, psycologically we certainly need play and entertainment. But we also need it interpersonally. We create the bonds, ties in Granovetter’s sense, that form the fabric of life. They help us in all sorts of ways: find jobs, make better decisions, learn about our world. Politics, health, economics, psychology are all fundamentally interpersonal activities. Play is part of the mill that feeds our abilities to participate and excel in all these. Study after study shows that the better our social capital, the better all these things are: we find better jobs more easily, we understand and participate more in our democracy, we make more money, we teach our children more effectively, we feel happier.
So go out and play. Play WoW, or Bejewled, or basketball, or chess, or Candy Land. Think of it as part of your investment in a better future.