What is fun?
By Lauren Vespoli, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, July 15, 2011
What is fun? A question rarely on our minds, but a business we pursue constantly. Its definition is hard to pin down because it is essentially subjective. What is fun for one person might be torturous for another. Yet the ability to conceive of fun is hardwired into all humans. We inherently know when we’re having fun, and when we’re not. And as a socialized species, we all have generalized conceptions of what is fun and what isn’t.
I will define “fun” as anything that is done solely for enjoyment or amusement, making us happy, and I consider it synonymous with “play.” As Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play said in a 2008 TED talk, “If the motive is more important than the play itself, it’s not play.” He also stressed the importance of play in human development and intelligence, providing an apt justification for going to the ledges instead of studying for a psych quiz.
This is not to say that difficult things, like academics, can’t be fun. I will also assume that since we go to Dartmouth, we all possess some degree of love for learning. And though we whine, most of us do enjoy the pursuit of knowledge, even though it involves a lot of hard work. If you go to classes solely for the motive of getting a grade to get a degree and then a job, and not in any part for the intellectual “play,” then you should probably switch your major. This type of fun requires a lot of give, but in the end there is a lot of take. We study, we learn, we laugh. Mostly.
But a lot of what we consider fun is purely and instantaneously pleasurable – we don’t have to do any “work,” or sacrifice any present satisfaction to enjoy ourselves. Eating with friends, going to parties, reading a good book, hanging out at the river – we don’t have to put much effort in other than simply being in order to attain “fun.”
Where fun gets confusing is when we equate societal, or mainstream, conceptions of fun with the definition of fun. If the definition of fun is fundamentally subjective, there is no one way to have fun and there is no real or universal fun. So when we do token fun things, we might not be having fun at all, and when we do token not fun things we might be having a blast. Fun is a multifaceted concept.
However, sometimes fun — or rather, how we perceive other people’s definitions of fun — can be problematic. “Social play” fun is extremely important for developing relationships, just as individual play is important for personal intellectual development. At Dartmouth, there are lots of opportunities to have fun — made accessible by the Dartmouth Outing Club and the beautiful northern New England environment we live in, by Dartmouth’s sports and arts facilities, and mainly by our friends.
One of the more controversial sources of fun at Dartmouth is what we term “going out.” And by out, I mean in — to frat basements, tails events, Friday Night Rock in Fuel. Going out is equated with fun. “Did you go out last night?” — a common question we ask each other in the Novack line or while whispering in the stacks. What we’re really asking is: “Did you attempt to have fun last night?” The question is inevitably followed with a sigh, “No, I had to stay in and work,” or “Yeah, I spent three hours at [insert frat].” So automatically, if you didn’t go out to seek out fun, it was because you were held back by not fun obligations like studying. The sequence follows with an “Oh, sorry, hope you ace your paper!” or “Nice — was it fun?” So now the person being questioned is forced to determine the success of their pursuit for fun. This success is generally determined by the amount of alcohol consumed, the number of games of pong won, the quality of the dance music played and the quantity of friends socialized with. But this definition rests on the assumption that the above listed activities are universally fun.
So fun, what it is and what it is not, is in a sense defined by the culture in which we live and play — in our case, the Dartmouth culture. The trouble with this is that very often, we do not seek fun based on our own enjoyment, but on perceived notions of what we are supposed to enjoy.