Seconds of Pleasure

Phone games, listicles, masturbation booths, and the return of rational recreation
IN the late 1990s, a new Windows computer came with some free games: Solitaire, Minesweeper, or the standout of the bunch, Ski Free. A computer back then could connect to the internet, but often only via a dial-up connection that could handle loading only one page at a time and made an entire household unreachable by phone. If we were on the internet, it was the only thing we were doing. The first browser to have tabs, NetCaptor, was developed in 1997, but the need for them was inconceivable to many then. Tabbed browsing wouldn’t catch on until a decade later; today the average user has over 10 tabs running at any given time.

We could argue for continuity between the old games and the new: Minesweeper a forerunner to Angry Birds; Ski Free a precursor to Flappy Bird or Temple Run. But something of a break has occurred in the way we relate to such games. While a few people did sneak in some Solitaire at work while their bosses’ eyes were turned, most of the time these games were enjoyed for the way they could sustain players’ concentration and attention for several hours at once. Thus Minesweeper is more like Sudoku, and Ski Free akin to the extreme sports games found on a PlayStation or Xbox. These require something closer to full attention and some critical-thinking skills, and most important, they are typically enjoyed during “leisure time” rather than in or around the workplace. By contrast, today’s internet tab entertainment and mobile-phone games are designed to be a perfect supplement to the workplace, and it is almost impossible to enjoy and experience them in any other way than through their relationship to work.

Living in what Walter Benjamin had predicted would be a “culture of distraction,” we now experience and enjoy hundreds of apparently mindless things that function to fill our time — not only mobile-phone games and internet tabs but also phenomena like social-media notifications and YouTube clips. The opening of a “masturbation booth” in midtown Manhattan as a marketing stunt plays on the same logic, that we urgently yearn to steal seconds of pleasure in the middle of the work day.

The most popular time to play mobile phone games, check social media, and visit list-based websites such as Buzzfeed is on the way to and from work or actually from our work computers. The most popular time to tweet is between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., after two hours at work has begun to breed dissatisfaction and the need for distraction. The most popular time to post a link on Reddit is during work hours on Mondays and Tuesdays, with the week stretching out ahead of us. These distractions, far from being as useless as they pretend to be, are productive and powerful tools that transform us into suitable workers. They set into motion a strange guilt function that turns one into a good capitalist and ultimately makes more money for the company.

Though nostalgia for Ski Free is tempting, I am not arguing that the old days were any better than these distracting times of ours. Instead, I want to develop an argument I made in my book Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism that we are in a bizarre second wave of what the Victorians called “rational recreation.” That project emerged after 1832, when Britain was as close to political upheaval as it ever came — "within an ace of a revolution," according to historian E.P. Thompson. Through such useful and instructive "rational" amusements as parks, museums, and the promotion of team sports and social clubs designed to group people together in easily manageable clusters, those in power hoped to contain and control a restive population  by organizing their enjoyment.

Today, rationality demands the opposite: mobile phone games and internet tabs encourage individual enjoyment and appear totally useless and uninstructive. Yet while the enjoyments themselves may be different, we are seeing another wave of controlled recreation today that attempts to organize us through our enjoyment, making us work harder for capitalism.

Distracting games and websites appear to be totally useless and nothing more than a complete waste of our precious time. But precisely because these distractions are seen as completely wasteful and useless, they make the mundane work we perform for capitalists seem so much the more “productive” and “useful” by contrast. They stimulate a feeling of guilt that sends us back to work eager to make reparations. After we have “wasted” five minutes on Cookie Clicker, we feel like we are carrying out an act that is both productive and reparative when we return to work afterward. Reporting on a recent study, The Entrepreneur, a business magazine, reported that productivity on CRM (Microsoft’s data management server) could be massively increased when workers were allowed to play games. Likewise, the company Snowfly specializes in improving company productivity by employing regulated game use in the workplace. In short, we input data quicker after playing Candy Crush.

The idea is the game simply offers a much needed refreshing break, but I think there is more to it than this. By seeming useless and wasteful these distractions not only consolidate our impression that capitalist productivity is comparatively useful and positive, but they also make us feel indebted and keen to make amends. They renew our commitment to capitalist production when we might otherwise be reflecting on how unfulfilling our working conditions are.

While hardly as egregious as masturbating in a midtown phone booth, a quick level of Angry Birds is at least akin to watching porn while being paid to sit in front of a spreadsheet. It produces a feeling of having at least slightly transgressed. What New York City’s masturbation booths show us is that these acts are not really transgressive at all. Rather, they are a licensed transgression that not only allows society to continue unharmed but actually reinforces our desire to pay back what we owe for our little acts of nonconformism.

This investment in cycles of distraction and compensatory productivity can preclude the sort of social interaction that can foster worker solidarity. Just a decade ago, when working as a chef in a hot and physically demanding gastropub kitchen, I pretended to be a smoker so that I could get hourly five-minute breaks and escape the intense summer heat. These five minutes were spent talking to my workmates and colleagues. The main subject of discussion was, of course, the only thing we all had in common: work. More specifically, the time was used to discuss our working conditions, even if that discussion took the form of rants or moaning about our long hours, shift patterns, and managers, rather than any organized assessment of our place in the capitalist machine. Now, smokers or not, we take our breaks alone so that we can try to set a new high score on Smashy Road.

These acts of self-distraction are strangely positioned: They are neither allowed nor disallowed. Most employers will allow at least some level of procrastination, and some encourage it. But this downtime must be structured as useless, indulgent, unhelpful, and even slightly sinful. These little moments of distraction, tiny misuses of our employer’s time, characterize the modern experience of work and supplement it, turning back to support and endorse the very process we think we are distracted from and resisting.

The usual line would be that a culture of distraction prevents us from concentrating on what is really important and doing truly worthwhile things. This often is nothing more than the age-old generational complaint that young people ought to do something better with their time, and worse, it endorses specific ideas of what “worthwhile” time expenditure consists of, just as Candy Crush does in the very act of distracting us. A culture of distraction doesn’t stop us doing really important things; it makes us believe that there really is something that is really important: capitalist production. Distractions only serve to focus our faith in that myth.

Bown, an assistant professor and the co-editor of Everyday Analysis and the newly launched Hong Kong Review of Books, is the author of Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero Books)