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That's Entertainment

I took for granted that what I understood as the fundamentals of entertainment were obvious to everyone. I was so wrong. So, in this piece, I'm going to lay it out in black and white.

Over the years, I've often been dumbfounded by the lack of understanding as to what constitutes entertainment. Given that I worked in an entertainment industry, I wrongly assumed that everyone in the industry was passionate about entertainment. However, the reality is that members of each discipline are passionate about their particular aspect of the industry and they make erroneous assumptions on what engages users.

This is my theory of entertainment.

Entertainment is the experience of increasing the relative proficiency of a desired aspect of our being.

Yes, that is a pretty broad statement, but it needs to encompass so many activities that we find to be entertaining. For instance, I exercise quite often. I thoroughly enjoy it. It is entertaining. When a child plays with a toy, that child is entertaining themselves. The dictionary definition of entertainment is "the action of providing or being provided with amusement or enjoyment". In reading that, you can see how it is still ambiguous and open to far too much interpretation. 

If you think about work, it is know as an "occupation" because it occupies our time and it is quite often occupying time we would rather spend doing something else. How often has someone said something to the effect that work is not supposed to be fun, or else it would not be work.

When you are increasing the relative proficiency of a desired aspect of your being, what you are doing is bettering some aspect of yourself that you either consciously or unconsciously want to improve upon. Comedian Dane Cook has a comedic bit about how every man wishes he were part of a heist. That may not be universally true, but deep down that yearning for adventure and camaraderie definitely does exist in most men. When a film like Heat is made, it is very entertaining. It brings forth elements and examines topics are a relevant to that deep down desire. By the same token, a similar film that is filled with cliches, poor dialogue, or nonsensical situations would be less entertaining because the viewer is not improved in anyway.

The opposite also holds true. When people have a passionate dislike of a certain type of entertainment, it almost universally is based on how that form of entertainment challenges an aspect that the audience is protecting. Some people dislike rap music. They go so far as to claim that is isn't music at all. That comes from protecting their belief of what constitutes music an it does nothing to better them in that desired proficiency. In fact, it challenges that proficiency by potentially invalidating it.

Think about any activity that you love doing. Are you the master of that activity, or is there still more for you to improve upon? If you are a master, how entertaining is that activity to you compared to when you first started it.

I always bring things back to products. If you really want to engage an audience, your product has to have value. So what is this abstract (and highly variable) notion of value? You could say it is almost exactly the same thing. The value of an item is relative to the desirability of that item to the end user. I worked on a project once where a counterpart attributed value to in game items based on an arbitrary amount of money that game time would be worth. He had a very elaborate spread sheet and formula to determine how we should price things. Unfortunately, for all the logic involved, it made no sense. It was rational and value is irrational.

Entertainment is similarly irrational. Ever wonder why some game or film franchises die off quickly while others endure? It's because the audience has more to glean for the experience. Just because big explosions and flashy graphics works in one experience, that doesn't mean it's a recipe for success. In game terms, the games that require a skill mastery are the ones that will be most enduring. In fact, I believe that the recent trend to reach more gamers is part of the current problem in the games industry. By dumbing down the control schemes or overly automating game mechanics, the user is robbed of challenge. Tasks become boring very quickly because, as I defined, there is no increase in relative proficiency. Making games for players from six to sixty is feasible only if the mechanics rely on a proficiency that is universally underdeveloped.

Classic games like the Mario series is a perfect example. The proficiency of controlling Mario's odd jump physics (such as mid air jump control) is something that we almost universally struggle with. It is easy understand what we have to do, and we can improve our ability, but few ever master it. When it is mastered, it becomes boring. The game avoids this by presenting greater challenges. This is starting to sound familiar now, isn't it?

I go on and on with examples, but I believe the definition/theory that I have put forth is simple enough to grasp. It is important to accept this, especially in today's maker movement culture.

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