Self-entertainment and the end of newbies

So for us the idea of spending a lot of time in front of the TV was a bit alien. Sure, it was “fun” too — but it was not the right kind of fun. Watching hours of TV would “distract” us from the real fun, which came from coming up with novel ideas on how to destroy our toys 🙂 Nevertheless, TV was always a great inspiration. Science fiction and fantasy series, detective stories, war movies — all those were inspirations for the next day, when we would attempt (and utterly fail!) to reproduce the designs and city layouts we saw on TV with our poor, limited toys. It’s no surprise, thus, that when I found out about pencil-and-paper role-playing games, where we could just imagine things in our minds, but didn’t actually need to recreate them physically, I became an addict quite quickly 🙂 And, again, so did most of my friends who had a similar background — even during college days.

But it was perhaps during my college days when I started to look around the group of colleagues and neatly split them in two types. One, which was our “losers’ gang”, discussed philosophy and literature, played role-playing games, and devised our own forms of entertainment; the rest watched TV, went out dancing in clubs, or roasted their skins at the beach. This second group was, by far, the largest. It doesn’t mean that we were that different; we did all those things, too, just to a lesser degree, and they weren’t high on our priorities. What the two groups had as a fundamental attitude was that my gang was never bored; while the rest seemed to complain about it all the time, and we couldn’t really understand why. They vaguely alluded to our own activities to spend time engaged in creative things (and just talking about Life, the Universe, and Everything was also counted as “creative talking”!) as being either futile, a waste of time, intellectual snobbery, or, well, just plain boring. In our minds, however, we had just replaced our toys from our youth with some more “serious” toys, more adequate for our age; but in a sense we were a bit ashamed for never having stopped to play and have fun playing.

There was — and still is! — a crucial difference. Our group had learned, from their tender age, the ability to self-entertain. We never required others to entertain us — we could always create our own entertainment. Also note that we weren’t really good at it. Few among us were actually talented (although a few were, and took up artistic careers later on). Most were not even really creative. Nevertheless, at the root of all that was the ability to self-entertain, and that is never a passive activity, but always an active one. We would just fall back to watching TV (or going to the movies) if there was no other option; it’s not as if we scorned TV, it was simply the last type of entertainment that was on the bottom of the list, because it simply wasn’t engaging. Still, if we watched it, we would at least talk while watching — something which requires some explaining: in my country, everything is subtitled, so you can actually turn the sound off and continue to chat with your friends while you watch TV. (I might one day look for some research done on the advantage of subtitles. When I was around 4 years old, one of the reasons for learning to read on my own was to be able to watch the cartoons on TV, because every single one of them was subtitled. And I had to learn to read very fast, because the subtitles are just on for seconds. Later, the ability to multitask and follow several conversations, while you are watching TV with your friends, was another necessary skill to develop. I wonder if anyone has seriously studied this!) “Watching TV” was not the ultimate passive form of entertainment but just really a conversation piece.

Time has passed. Over the years, TV has become more and more widespread, has more and more content, and instead of having to wait a whole week until you got the next episode of a series you liked (as we had to do in our early teens), you can basically get them all the time, at all hours. Or you can just buy (or rent) DVDs with all the episodes. Or watch it on the ‘net. And, of course, we also have computer games to entertain ourselves (even though they require some ability of self-entertainment and are not at the same level as TV).

This is really not a rant against TV 🙂 but just an admission of facts. They do indeed lower the expectations to make one believe that everybody in the universe is out there with the only purpose to entertain us. Just drop into any adult chatroom some day. What you’ll notice is that most people there are bored all the time, and they join the chatroom expecting to be entertained (and leave for the next chatroom when they don’t find enough entertainment). When I started joining chatrooms regularly, back in 1997, the first thing that got on my nerves was that I had to type all about myself, over and over again. These days we have profiles on pretty much every social networking website, but back then, I just wrote a short biography of myself, put it on some static webpage, and sent them a link. I was always surprised how people almost never read it. After all these years, this feeling has increased — with the difference that nowadays people tell me that they got bored reading my profile, and gave up. They wanted to be entertained, not bored. And I was supposed to provide that entertainment — reading things is not really what they wanted to do.

And indeed, the other thing that shocked me was to see how violently people react when they do not get entertainment out of a simple chat. They become aggressive and rude. It’s not that they expect to be entertained, they demand it. Ironically, if you drop into an average “generic” chatroom, the most curious thing you’ll notice is that the whole conversation is incredibly boring, as people tell each other how bored they are, and how they wish to have cybersex at least to spend their free time… the irony is that if they would engage in any kind of conversation (instead of constantly demanding cybersex and getting frustrated when they don’t get it!), they wouldn’t be bored. But they cannot even understand the concept. Every type of conversation is boring to them. I usually label this as “the bored generation”, people who completely lost the ability to entertain themselves, and, except for TV and the occasional party or night out at a club, their whole lives are successions of boredom, from work or school to home, punctuated with a few moments of passive entertainment which becomes less and less fulfilling. I think that people are much less addicted to TV than we think — they even get bored with TV — but these same people still spend 6-7 hours watching TV because they don’t know what else to do to have fun.

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