Does Fun Require Skill?

Assuming you live on planet Earth, you’ve probably already seen Amy Chua’s article about Chinese parenting, read the resulting can-only-be-described-as-a-shitstorm, and formed an opinion about it.  I’m not, per se, interested in reopening that discussion here, except to mention that Chua reports that her book has been somewhat misrepresented, but I and many others zeroed in on an interesting sentence:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.

Most of the people I’ve discussed this with agree.  I do not.  Although many mitigating factors exist that make activities less fun if you’re less skilled, skill and fun are not, in essence, connected.

Let’s run though the mitigating factors.  First, there is the pleasure of accomplishment.  This is clearly distinct from the fun of the activity.  For instance, if you score 1600 on the SATs, you should feel a sense of accomplishment, but that doesn’t make taking the SATs fun.  And fun exists without accomplishment; the existence of competitive recreational games played among friends and with children hinges on the ability of even the people who lose to enjoy themselves.

Then there’s the factor of your ability relative to other participants.  If you’re the absolute worst person there, then yes, it’s difficult to have fun, no matter how encouraging and considerate everyone else tries to be.  Some activities are geared towards a certain skill level and are drastically less fun if you aren’t at that level: A game where winning is exceedingly difficult would not be much fun for someone who was never able to win.  But this can almost be regarded as a design flaw, since it’s perfectly possible to design a game that is fun for experts and beginners alike.  But regardless, it isn’t your lack of skill that makes the game less fun: It’s the difference between your skill level and that of the other participants (or assumed participants).  Messing around with other beginners is usually perfectly fun.

Finally, I must mention that an activity isn’t fun if someone else is trying to keep you from enjoying it.  Of course you won’t have fun doing something poorly–or well–if your mother is constantly berating you.

So then, assuming that none of the mitigating factors apply, are unskilled activities fun?  Sure they are.  In fact, a key weakness of Chua’s statement is its underlying assumption that a meaningful standard of skill can be applied to any activity.  In fact there are plenty of activities, such as the finger painting shown above, that one can’t really be “good” at: they exist solely for the sake of the process and the result is just a side effect.  There are other activities, including the arts in general, where an emphasis on enumerating skill is detrimental; little is gained by ranking whose painting is the best, whereas it’s very fruitful to discuss each painting in light of its own merits and the differences between them.

Improving can be fun.  But the fact that it can be fun to see that this picture looks much better than the one you drew a year ago is itself evidence that one doesn’t have to already be good before the activity can start being fun.  Indeed, if one is already good and there isn’t any real improvement to be made, what’s the fun in that?

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Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Does Fun Require Skill?

  1. Fun doesn’t require skill. Skill requires fun to develop. It is fun that develops skill, not the other way round. How the hell could anyone develop any skills without enjoying the thing first? If I don’t enjoy arguments, I’d never develop debating skills of any worth. Most people operate like that. Most people also don’t run on jealousy, as Chua obviously does.

    I’m a biker (motorcycle variety). It’s fun and I’m pretty good at it. Good enough to enter in the 2008 Dakar Rally. It’s fun not because I have the skills for it now, but because it was fun in the beginning when my biking skills were (‘scuse my flowery language) abso-effing-lutely crap. I got good because it was fun for me to continue getting banged around all over the place and build up biking skills. If it weren’t fun, I’d probably be playing the violin or something turgid instead. Also, despite not practising law (I work in printing), I have great lawyerly skills, because law school was fun, so I developed skills from the fun. If I didn’t find law fun, I’d probably have studied linguistics or something retarded like that (which I did anyway, oh well!).

    That woman’s an idiot. ‘Chinese’ mothers are anything but superior. I have personally witnessed the brain-damaged things that ‘Chinese’ mothers put their children to, causing various kinds of complexes in them, and the compulsive-obsessive behaviour they develop without even realising. I have a Chinese mother and she was nothing like Chua, who would be exactly the type hated and detested by mum for, ironically, not being ‘Chinese.’

    Ponder: If Chinese mothers were superior to any other kind, how is it that 5,000 years of such superior mothering skills and China is still a developing country? And that many Chinese have to study/emigrate overseas in order to acquire/hone advanced knowledge/skills? Doesn’t that completely destroy that skills-first-then-fun argument? Looks like Chua didn’t get much fun from her law degrees because (as a trained lawyer myself) I find her position reasons to be very weak.

    In case you’re wondering, I too come from a high-(over)achieving family (dad was an architect and mum was an international fashion designer, plus overachiever grandparents and cousins), so it’s not too hard for me to imagine Chua’s family setup. My folks are/were nothing like Chua. I’m also trained in psychology, and Chua’s kids probably need to see a doctor.

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