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An essay on wasting one's life

This article is reprinted from APA:NESFA 81, February 1977. D&D is short for "Dungeons and Dragons"; SCA is short for "The Society for Creative Anachronism", a geographically dispersed community of people who reenact medieval life; fandom refers to Science Fiction fandom, a geographically dispersed community of people bonding about science fiction. Fanac is shorthand for "fan activity"; it variously includes hanging out with fans, going to conventions, putting out fanzines (amateur magazines), attending club meetings, and diverse other activities.


Mark Keller writes in commentary on AN 78:

"How many years lost in playing Dungeons and Dragons? Yes, and also how many lost in riding horses or playing with children? Or watching clouds? Does life have a goal that should better occupy those hours?"

His comments were, I suppose, addressed to the following remarks by me in AN:78, which I quote:

"... D&D does seem to involve a unique synthesis of the two, combining the seductive aspects of games and of private fantasy worlds.

Game players seem to fall into three categories - those who use it as a pleasant social and intellectual pastimes, those who become absorbed into it to the detriment of their personal lives, and those who make it a profession. The latter two categories have surrendered to their addiction. The professional, at least, has found a way to come to terms with life and his obsession. It is hard to argue with the professional bridge or chess expert. They do, after all, make a living at their game, and they can argue that they bring pleasure and instruction to those that enjoy that game. The second category, however, is often pitiable. One wonders how many college degrees have been lost at the bridge table. Or, for that matter, how many years have been lost from how many lives in the total absorbtion in such things as D&D and the SCA. Or, for that matter, in fandom?

Or should one count such time as lost? I suppose not, if the individual involved finds it personally rewarding. However I cannot quite believe that it is sound to be involved in a hobby to the point that one cannot interact normally with the society around one."

As I have said before, I never reread what I have written. However that doesn't stop me from quoting myself ...

I submit that Mark's comment is not quite to the point of what I said. It is tempting to suggest that it reflects a certain amount of pique, a temptation I shall resist only in part. There has been a great deal of enthusiasm for D&D of late. There have also been many who have sneered at it and at those who play it. It is natural for those who are D&D players to resent disparaging comments about the game and those who play it. When riding horses is the first item is the list of other activities favored by the sneerers, D&D players might well ask, "Why is D&D, which we like, any more of a waste of time than riding horses, which you like." This is, I admit, the rankest sort of speculation.

Still and all, I think that the remark, considered as a comment on what I said, is somewhat wide of the mark. I was not putting down D&D as a waste of time, per se. As a leisure time activity it is no better and no worse than chess, or bridge, or poker, or any other leisure time activity. What I was pointing out was the danger of letting a leisure time activity become an obsession to the point it dominated and interfered with one's whole life.

Should one count D&D or horse riding or playing with children or watching clouds as time wasted? Of course not. But what of the chap with a first rate mind who drops out of college and ends up in a second rate career because he would rather play bridge than go to class. I have known many such. Or the chap who hold an obscure job or no job at all and devotes his time and energies to D&D or the SCA or fandom (or to writing an apazine called APASTAN, - but no, this is just a hobby, goddammit, a hobby.)

Or, more ominously, the chap is talented, but who has personality disorders that prevent him from exercising those talents in work that will make full use of them, and instead uses recreations as an escape from himself and his failure in life. And I will submit that things like games, the SCA, and fandom are particularly attractive to that sort of person.

Consider, for example, P who lost his job as an editor because he spent too much time doing fanac on company time, or M, who was unemployed for several years. He could not quite find a job but he could become a big name fan. Or J, who dropped out of graduate school and holds one menial job after another while spending all of his time playing D&D. Then there is X who has squandered his talents but who is a mighty figure in the SCA. SO mighty that he has no conversation outside of the SCA and its activities.

Nonsense, you say? Exaggeration? Not at all - such people abound.

And I submit that this sort of thing is not innocent, is not just a matter of a choice of hobby, or leisure time activity, or of a choice of goals. I will also submit that, regardless of whether hobby activities are wasted time, when one's hobby dominates one's life to the point that one's career is compromised, when one's social life and mental horizons become constricted to one's hobby and fellow hobbyists, then it does represent wasted time insofar as it becomes a way of life. Fandom may be a way of life, but as such it is appalling.

Is fandom any better than stock car racing?

There is one point in Mark's comment that is worthy of further discussion. Indeed it is worthy of far more discussion than there is scope form here, but it is one of the broad, basic questions of life. I quote, "Does life have a goal that should better occupy these hours?" The question was meant, I suppose, rhetorically, with the assumption that the answer is no.

It is part of the conventional wisdom of the times that the answer is no, that each of us should do our own thing, because all things are equal. I will note in passing that there are many who disagree, including the chap who feels that one's leisure should be spent in improving one's self, and the fellow who believes that one should work unceasingly for the cause to the great benefit of all. And one should note that most people feel that doing one's own thing should not include murder and rape. although there are those who are willing to include these too - particularly if the victims are suitable.

For my own part, I would not agree with a flat no; I do not think that all activities are equal and that there are no goals in life. For one thing, I rather fancy that goals are built into us, and that our choices are not purposeless and random. We behave as though we had goals for ourselves that guide our choices of activities. And I do think it is worthwhile to try to understand what we want out of life, and to use that knowledge to guide our choices, and that the unwitting surrender to obscure compulsions is not at all desirable. But then, that's only my answer ...


And a poor answer it is, too. Sometimes my younger self raised questions that he had neither the wit nor the wisdom to answer.


This page was last updated November 2, 2004.

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