“Fun” Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum — Why Context Always Matters

I want to open with certain unavoidable caveats, just in case anyone leaps first to any assumptions about what’s being said here. No one is saying you can’t have fun.

Let’s make that damned clear.

No one is saying you can’t have fun. In fact, we’re saying you must have fun. Have fun! That’s an order, Ensign!

But fun is… a thornier thing, all the time, beyond just whether or not you are having it.

In fact, let’s put it in a simpler way:

You’ve just seen a trailer for the latest high-octane action movie that’s getting hyped online, and you decide to invite your friends to the cinema to see it with you, because you want to share this with them, since it looks like so much damned fun.

And when you’re both just stepping out of the theatre after seeing it (all while you were wondering, why aren’t they laughing? Or cheering? It’s like they’re not even having fun!), you ask them to make sure.

“Wasn’t that great?”

“… Eh.”

Eh? You want to kick something. “What’d’ya mean?”

“I mean, it was fun. It…sure was really explosive. The effects were nice. I just…don’t know.”

You keep pressing. Wasn’t it amazing to watch the hero shoot a railgun, run up walls, get in a fistfight with a literal supernova and win?

“Yeah, but—”

It doesn’t matter what they mention. The opening scene where three black women get their throats cut by terrorists. The later scene where a confidential informant spits on a homeless person and grunts that they’re spreading disease in the hero’s hometown. The early Act Three setpiece where the hero sets off plastic explosives in the heart of a crowded slum just so he could make a giant monster stumble for a moment, the camera panning upward to watch it stagger and cry out, and then panning down and across in the street to watch poor people run helplessly from explosions.

“So? Wasn’t that fun to watch, though?”

Again, this isn’t about the idea of fun.

This is about the assumption that fun is never anything else.

This isn’t merely your yearly reminder to observe Moff’s Law (although this clause placed within these parentheses is your yearly reminder to observe Moff’s Law). There seems to be this relentless undertone in the discourse that insists that any work that is critical, that is socially conscious—or hell, just a work that has different kinds of people in it—is trading fun for… you know… things that just aren’t fun, man.

There isn’t much conversation about the equator drawn between stories that are ‘fun’ ‘escapist’ ‘romps’ through worlds beyond our imagination, and other stories. I’ve seen those ‘other’ stories very often be categorized as ‘political’ by merit of very little, like…having women in it, or something, only for the ‘political’ to be considered antithetical to ‘fun’ and dismissed out of hand. It takes so little for a story to be branded as “political,” after very little observation or analysis, that it seems evident that determining a story to be un-fun often comes down to whether someone resents having to think, at all, about people who aren’t themselves.

The most hilarious recent example of this phenomenon is the vocal minority of gamers who seemed unbelievably threatened by the very premise of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus portraying an alternate-history version of the historical Nazi regime being shot to death by a grizzled, gravel-voiced B.J. Blazkowicz. You know, as if there’s something inherently treacherous about the idea of using force to stop people whose entire existence, in belief and praxis, was dedicated to the destruction of vulnerable people based on their identity.

As if that’s clearly less fun than, say, shooting nameless brown people in The Division. Or Far Cry. Or Far Cry 3. Or the literal wave of others that continues to crash, to dehumanize those who are rarely lucky to get a chance to even play a lead role in their own game. A black woman NPC calls a man “white boy” in a video game trailer in June and we still have to put up with the spiteful murmurs of an uncritical mass of… well, white boys. But when a game guns down oceans of ‘thugs’ or puts the bodies of female NPCs in dumpsters, it’s just ‘fun,’ ‘just a game,’ stop thinking about it so much!

This happens in our books, too. Where it’s ‘fun’ to ‘just’ be steampunk or urban fantasy or military futurism—as if the ‘steam-’ prefix, or the word ‘urban,’ or the word ‘military’ carry no political baggage whatsoever. As if the way those stories are often told isn’t frequently at the expense of specific groups of people or certain perspectives of the world. As if those (overlooked, ignored) perspectives don’t make those stories less fun for readers who actually share things in common with people who usually stay poor, get sick, struggle, or die in these stories without being able to make a choice, or act for themselves. As if those stories often aren’t escapist at all for those kinds of people, because there’s nothing exotic or foreign about it, and the world in the fiction resembles their own.

Let’s make something clear, again. No one is saying you can’t have fun.

We’re asking you why you think this is fun.

We’re asking you whether you can look beyond the singular oft-repeated definition of ‘fun’ that requires not caring very much whose destruction or enslavement you’re simulating, a definition that forbids digging deeper or asking questions about what your actions mean in the world you’re digitally inhabiting. We’re asking why it would be considered bothersome to admit that some of your fellow human beings will have less fun when the thing they should be enjoying spends a lot of time telling them that they’re evil, or disposable, or incapable of heroism. We’re asking why some people find it bothersome to punish literal Nazis for forcibly taking over the United States in a game like Wolfenstein, but those same people are infinitely annoyed when, say, women just… talk online about what kinds of female characters they actually consider fun to play.

Lately, our favourite nerd media has been making some slow and careful strides toward being more inclusive, more radical, more critical, and more fun for the most possible people. That job’s nowhere near done, but advances are being made, and that’s good news. I think this forward motion is making media more fun. And I think that it is wilfully dismissive, even ignorant, to insist that these developments make our favourite new media less fun—and yes, I’m looking at creators, too; any creator who thinks that their readers and fans are being improper for even daring to ask questions about a work’s representation or politics. The ability to see ourselves more in media, to be heroic in them, to stay alive in them, to have happy endings—or even happy beginnings and middles in them—is a lot of fun for a lot of us; it’s important to us, and makes the wall-running or the time travel or the magical combat or the robot-empowered kaiju-punching even more fun as a result.

So, no one is saying you can’t have fun.

We’re saying that, in an industry that likes to show the destruction of brown people regularly and repeatedly, a game about gruesomely destroying Nazis, knowing full well that they’re Nazis, is also fun.

We’re saying that seeing the world more deeply, more fully, is also fun. Really, really, really fun. You don’t even know. And we want more of it.

Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and writer from Trinidad. His work is published or upcoming in Uncanny MagazineStrange HorizonsSunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-SpeculationArsenika, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, among others. He is also the poetry editor of FIYAH Magazine. You can find his blog at therisingtithes.tumblr.com or on Twitter @therisingtithes.

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