Beck: Quick sidebar: What do you think of the phrase "Work hard, play hard?"
Bogost: Any phrase that suggests play is this domain that’s the opposite of work, or the thing that you do when you're done working, should trouble us. Because it means that play is always relegated to the exhaust of life. It's the thing that you do after you do the important stuff, it's what you do on your own time. Play becomes a distraction, something you don't really need to do. It's not for serious people. They work hard, they don't play hard. Yes, you can say play hard, but that really means, keep working hard, right?
Beck: It usually means drink.
Bogost: Right, it means people get totally drunk and go do foolish things. I think this dichotomy or opposition between work and play, between leisure and serious stuff, is definitely a bad way of thinking about the useful insights that play provides. You can experience play at work, not because you’re messing around or wasting time or something, but because you’re looking really deeply and seriously at things and asking what is possible, what can be done with them, what new ideas might emerge?
Beck: Then can you define fun?
Bogost: The problem with fun is we really don’t know what fun means at all. If you stop someone who's talking about something being fun, and say “Well what do you mean?” it’s almost impossible to answer. Generally speaking, when people use the word fun, it's like a placeholder. You know, “How was your evening?” “Oh it was fun.”
For me, what fun means is finding novelty in the suffocating familiarity of ordinary life. Every now and then if you try, you can discover something new. When we use this word fun, it sort of bangs up the ordinary and the extraordinary altogether. Fun has to do with habitual activities but then also terrifically novel or unusual ones. It works as a sort of strange milkshake of those concepts. When we think about play and games and the situations in which having fun is seen as an outcome, they often have to do with repetition. You're returning to something again, and even despite that similarity, you squeeze something new out of it.
Beck: So can it be both novel and horrible? Can a fresh horror be fun?
Bogost: Fun doesn’t have anything to do with pleasure, necessarily. I think this will be terrifically unintuitive for people. Because we're used to thinking of fun as a sort of synonym for light pleasure. A fun movie is something that is pleasurable without being demanding, you don't have to think too hard.
But if you think about the contexts in which we talk about things being fun, often there’s a certain kind of misery or effort that's involved with it. The difficulty of travel, getting all your bags packed and your work done and navigating the airports and all that. That sort of struggle. With sports and games, you have fun despite working very hard, even despite failing repeatedly. Even the fun of a night out, you have to get somewhere and do all the conversational, social work of being out. There's effort involved. But then when you're finished, you can conclude, “Actually there was something gratifying about the hardship that I just encountered.” That discovery of novelty is where the molten core of fun is.