WisCon 37, part I: Why Is Pleasure So Problematic?

First part of WisCon 37 that was relevant here: a great panel called “Why Is Pleasure So Problematic?” I didn’t catch the whole thing, but what I saw of the panel dealt in a very thorough, interesting way with the problem underlying things like feeling guilty about reading RPGs and obnoxious-expository worldbuilding: our guilt about experiencing pleasure.

Squeevolution!It’s interesting how much of nerd self-loathing can be boiled down to simple pleasure-based guilt. If we’re not being Productive, our consciences tell us, we’re bad people. This panel did a good job of looking at that guilt and trying to moderate it with calls for “Squeevolution!” It was one of the few panels I’ve seen that didn’t try to argue that fun is good because it lets us work harder elsewhere, or because it makes us more attentive, or whatever other argument that is ultimately rooted in Productivity.

Yet even in this panel, an audience member related a story about a mouse who seemed to be ‘wasting time’ but then, come the winter, was able to entertain all the other mice with stories they’d dreamed up. So, you see, even creativity can turn out to be Productive!

I find the argument from Productivity pernicious, deeply rooted and extremely hard to do away with. Productivity is so deeply ingrained in our society that we have a hard time even framing a conversation that doesn’t proceed from the conceit that Productivity is the highest good. Guilt from lack of productivity is so deeply rooted that even when we acknowledge that we get pleasure from pure creativity, we can’t allow ourselves to let that be as it is; instead, we have to cover up that fun with appeals to Productivity. The panel addressed this, and the calls for “Squeevolution!” impressed me a lot. The panel didn’t go much beyond that point, but I think that’s okay, because even accepting that Productivity isn’t the highest good is a pretty titanic task.

Another insight I got from this panel was how social pleasures are generally less guilt-ridden than solitary pleasures, because they tend to be approved of by society more. Think of the difference in stereotypes between the “group make-believe session” and the “basement-dwelling troglodyte”. Both are looked down upon, yes; but the former is “at least social”. And I think it’s ultimately tracing back to the Productivity argument. Not sure about this, but it feels that way.

As with a lot of insights, this is obvious in hindsight, but I hadn’t thought of it before. I hope that even when I praise RPGs, I avoid appeals to sociability as the reason RPGs are good.

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