Finding fun in overcoming obstacles

As restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic relax, I sometimes find myself missing the challenge of meeting them. I had gotten used to getting my work done without going to the office; thinking up ways to get out of the house and take holidays without needing to board a crowded bus or train; finding reading material with only infrequent trips to the library; and learning about my local take-away places. Doing what I like without having to worry about these things seems almost boring.

I’m reminded of Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia (1978), in which the eponymous Grasshopper argues that playing games is fundamental to the ideal life. The Grasshopper defines a game (in short) as “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” and goes on to argue that this is exactly what people might do in a Utopia in which they were free to do whatever they liked.

The COVID-19 pandemic, or even my ordinary life without any pandemics, hardly qualifies as Utopia. And I didn’t get to choose the obstacles posed by the pandemic. But given that they were there, and not an overwhelming burden for someone able to continue nearly all of his work without interruption, I found myself taking the Grasshopper’s advice.

Of course there are plenty of other challenges that one might undertake, many of them at least arguably even more difficult and/or meaningful than finding ways to occupy one’s time without leaving the house: learning new skills, writing computer software or novels, and so on. But the intensity of these activities gives them a character I’m more inclined to describe as “work” than “games”. The Grasshopper may consider them games according to his definition but even he may not at the same time describe them as “entertainment”.

In other contexts, I occasionally hear assertions that a little hardship will somehow improve people (especially young ones). Yet I’ve never heard anyone volunteer to take a punch in the face, say, for the benefit that such suffering might bring their character, or invite a foreign army to overrun a country so as to provide its citizens with some lessons in handling deprivation. Not even I envy the Victorians who have been ordered back into isolation as I write this.

If there is any benefit to suffering, I suspect it ends when there’s no longer any reason to suffer. Who’d recommend ignoring the opportunity to end some suffering? But, at least for a while, I could treat staying at home as game that was itself an interesting way of passing the time.

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