Excerpts & commentary on Ian Bogost’s UX talk on ‘fun’

This is the lastest version of a talk that Ian once gave at Macquarie University in 2010 (I think?) talking about some really interesting ideas about what fun actually is, and what we mean and do when we talk about fun. It’s something of a shorthand, a way of telling a story without telling the story, he says.

The first excerpt is from his discussion of the murky origins of the term, and its roots in the practise (?) of ‘fools’ (as in, the satirists and court jesters of feudal times). Here’s Bogost on using ‘fun’ to refer to foolery in this sense:

Fun used to mean a particular kind of jocularity or diversion, and one meant for or done by fools, specifically done by fools.

…Imprudence may characterise one aspect of the fool or the jester, or the trickster, but the flipside of that is actually a kind of commitment. And that may sound strange at first, because we normally oppose indiscretion to commitment… But fools can have their own shrewdness, their own way of approaching things. Instead of toeing the line, instead of maintaining the standard way of things, the fool asks, “What else is possible?”… and then actually caries out that other thing that’s possible, even if it’s outlandish.

And the surprise of foolishness arises form this exploration, rather than being witless, from not knowing what you are doing. The fool finds something new in a familiar situation and then shares it with us.

That description really resonated with me, and with much of what I would call my ‘online practise’ in particular. The question ‘What else is possible?’ is an almost irresistible one for me – and it works itself out in lots of foolish ways: by advocating for revolution and overthrow of capitalism (which Brendan Keogh made fun of me for doing just today!), as well as in my trolling and ‘excessive’ practises on social media that Jason Wilson has talked about at the CSAA conference in Nov 2012, sadly the text to that talk has disappeared from the net along with Jason’s site). And there is a kind of ‘commitment’ to these practises that I keep getting in trouble for… like a foolish tweet/meme I made the other day insinuating that I would try and reclaim the term ‘gulag’ as a superlative (a patently foolish idea! but what else is possible? apparently this! look at the RT’s and fave’s. Why is this even possible, this is so bizzare and foolish…). The commitment is a kind of Zizekian ‘Laibach strategy‘ which is, yes, controversial. I worry about the responses I get for these foolish things, and so I should as a responsible fool, they sometimes cause me to lose sleep. But often I do tread the line between fool and witless, because I don’t often know what I’m doing. In a sense, I suppose that I do – I know that I’m tweeting something outlandish, or jeering something sombre or whathaveyou, but… often times I don’t know what I’m doing in a  kind of considered, conscious, or planned out way. I’m finding something new, but not always in a directed way. In a sense, this is perfectly natural since newness can’t always be ‘thought up’ and must be discovered. But there’s a price to pay for this, I think and it’s not always pleasant. Readers might be surprised to know but I am perpetually terrified of shaming myself, of saying something that is actually witless rather than foolish. Perhaps that’s part of the price of having (this kind of) fun?

Anyway, I thought that’s a fairly useful thing to help me (and others perhaps?) conceptualise my ‘work’ or practise or whatever. Fun is really important to me and what I do, clearly. I have a lot of fun with social media. But what actually is the ‘fun’? Here, again, I think Bogost provides a good account of what “fun” actually is, and why. Bizarrely, rather than the typical conception of fun as a byproduct of experience, he conceives of it as a material property of things:

So along with Merry Poppins, we assume that finding the fun is a task that comes from us, rather than from the thing itself, and we just have to encourage or support that activity… That we have to bring something to the table that makes intolerable things tolerable, or we have to somehow cover over those things so as to make the intolerable things tolerable…what if it’s just the opposite. What if we arrive at fun not by expanding the circumstances we are in, in order to make them less wretched… but by actually embracing the wretchedness of the circumstances themselves. What if, in a literal way, fun comes from impoverishment – from wretchedness.

Again, that makes sense to me, and a lot of the ‘fun’ of, a thing like Flafing on Facebook for instance, is from embracing the wretchedness of the whole thing, and as an activist from the impoverishment of trying to fight back against so much degenerate talk (sexism, homophobia, ignorance and bigotry) with more degenerate talk; more noise and fury and confusion and a further running-into-the-ground of the extremism and blurred lines that come with the ubiquity of Poe’s Law. Bogost goes on to talk about fun as engaging with a structure, and accepting the arbitrariness of things:

…when we’re playing a game, the question we ask is not how to overcome that structure, how to reject it and make it something it’s not, but what it feels like to subject ourselves to it… to take it seriously.

So play turns out not to be an act of diversion, but the work of working a system, or working with it, of interacting with the bits of logic that make it up. And fun is not the effect, it’s not the enjoyment that’s released by the interaction, it’s a kind of nickname for the feeling of operating it. Particularly of operating it in a way we haven’t done before…

I have long had, in the back of my mind at least, the vague notion of fun-as-novelty, I certainly prize that in the games I play and the experiences I have, and Bogost’s account is remarkably amenable to that. But here’s his remarkable conclusion that is a bit otherworldly:

So play is a material property of certain objects like steering columns and language and games. And fun is this sensual quality that emanates from it, when you kind of pet it, when you touch it in just the right way. Fun is like an admiration for the absurd arbitrariness of things. It’s a name for the feeling of deliberately operating a constrained system.

To illustrate that concept, he finishes with the story of Isner and Mahout’s truly epic 2010 tennis final, which went on for three days in a perpetual deadlock. He describes the situation thusly:

Isner and Mahout were there, they contributed to that outcome, they were implicated in it. But they didn’t exactly make it, they didn’t fashion it. And yet neither did the Victorian designers of modern game of lawn tennis, rather Isner and Mahout found something in tennis that nobody had ever found before. Something was preserved in it, sort of durable, even as it was incredibly fragile, it was like finding a fossil at Pompeii. And they coaxed tennis, slowly over 150 years almost, to give up this secret. Because they and those who came before treated it with such ridiculous, absurd respect that the game finally couldn’t help but release this secret. And that’s what fun looks like at its best, when the whole world watches an abstraction give up its secrets.