When I was a child with seven siblings, we used to play a paper-and-pencil version of Battleship, the strategic guessing game. We didn’t have home computers, copiers, or printers, so we laboriously drew our own Battleship grids on notebook paper. We usually played at the dining room table with hardback books shielding our papers from one another’s view. It was fun.
When I was twelve in 1967, Milton Bradley introduced a version of the game played with plastic ships and little plastic pegs on a plastic pegboard. My parents bought us the game one year for Christmas. We played with it, but somehow it wasn’t as much fun as the paper-and-pencil version.
There is a certain pressure in American culture to turn every activity into entertainment and to commercialize it so someone profits from it. What distinguishes entertainment from other forms of leisure? The pleasure in entertainment comes primarily from experiencing an activity rather than performing or participating in it. For most Americans, nearly all their leisure time is spent in entertainment—watching videos, listening to music, posting on social media platforms, viewing sporting events. Even activities that require participation, such as shopping, are pushed toward entertainment. In shopping malls, most of the pleasure to be derived comes from the experience of being in the mall, and there are amusement rides, theaters, food courts, and other attractions that have no intrinsic connection to shopping, right in the mall.
Reading is another form of entertainment that requires participation. Reading is more active than watching a video or listening to a podcast. So it is unsurprising that many Americans never read another book after graduating college or high school, and reading is in decline across all demographics.
Entertainment is often commercialized. The experiences entertainment delivers often require special equipment or a location devoted to a particular activity. The technology required to deliver your favorite streaming shows is much greater than that required to deliver a book. The plastic Battleship game required a plastic game board and pieces. The apparent upside was convenience. I didn’t have to draw my own Battleship grids any more. But that convenience also reduced my enjoyment. I put less effort into the game, so I got less enjoyment from it. Enjoyment requires effort. Entertainment is a trap because it separates pleasure in an activity from effort. We end up comforting ourselves for a hard day at work with effortless (for us) programming from our favorite streaming service.
Not that mindless pleasures are always bad. We all need a break sometimes from effort of every kind. But if we want to be happy, we need to recognize the seductive nature of entertainment and refuse to make it our default. Plan more participatory activities. Turn off Netflix and read a book. Build something. Play Battleship with paper and pencil.