Last week, I had the great pleasure of attending the 2015 Frontiers of Democracy conference. One theme that came up several times was fun.
In a session I facilitated, for example, I asked participants to share how they personally engage in civic work and then reflect on what they learned from each other’s approaches.
At the end of the session, one group reported that they’d had a quite engaging discussion about whether or not fun was required for sustainable civic impact.
Fun makes the work more enjoyable – making it easier to mobilize and engage others, and sustaining those who choose to take on the work. Fun brings people together, transforming a group of individual actors into a true community, capable of engaging in the work together.
But fun could also be superfluous, an add on that only works in some contexts, or even damaging – undermining the seriousness of an issue with frivolity.
We talked about gamification, using the tools of gaming to make civic experiences more fun.
We talked about the natural fun that comes about when people in a room simply like each other and enjoy each other’s company. One person described how much fun she has making signs or doing so-called boring work with a group she works with. The work may be dull, but being with the people is just fun.
There was also good discussion about whether fun was the right word – perhaps it was more of a public spiritedness we were looking for?
Later, in a conversation about engaging communities with city planning, someone else talked about the importance of engaging the arts – using music and dance to create a festive atmosphere. An event should be fun, so that community members would actually want to attend.
And finally, as the conference drew to a close, another person wondered if the concern about fun was actually a byproduct of the professionalization of civic work. If you feel like the host, you want to make sure your guests are having fun.
It strikes me – and perhaps I’ve been reading too much Wittgenstein – that we’re not talking about the same type of “fun” in all these scenarios.
There is certain type of forced fun, which does feel like a host trying to entertain guests. There can be a paternalistic danger in this approach, too – a tendency to say, “we’d better make civic work fun because that’s the only way we can get the people to do what is best for them.”
As if we aren’t people too. As if we do this work because we are somehow wiser or more self-aware.
The irony here, of course, is that at any good party the host is the only one worried about people having fun – everyone else is busy simply having it.
Perhaps that’s another type of fun – or a public spiritedness, if you will. When people come together, when people talk together and spend time together and simply get to know each other – that is fun. There’s no forced socializing or carefully constructed ice breakers, just people coming together.
And I think it’s only appropriate that I end with one of the panelists from my session. After this great discussion about different types of civic work, after this engaging debate about what is fun and whether or not it is required, he turned to me and smiled, saying simply:
That was fun.