Entertainment Isn’t Dumb

If you watched the Super Bowl this year, you probably saw Microsoft’s heartwarming commercial about children with disabilities using an adaptive Xbox controller to play games with their friends. In case you missed it, here it is:

First of all, these kids are absolute heroes for what they are living with and somehow doing with a smile. Nothing makes you more aware of your own fragility, mortality, and good fortune than observing someone, especially a child, with a major health issue. Owen (in the commercial), for example, is only nine years old and has already had to endure 33 surgeries.

There are many forms of entertainment: movies, music, TV shows, sports, video games, board games, books, and more. It is very, very easy to dismiss all of these things as a luxury or even a waste of time. You’ve heard the argument before: “Imagine if all the money and energy that goes into the entertainment industry were put into something productive, like curing cancer”. This is a seductive, but wrong, argument.

Entertainment Value

When we say something has “entertainment value”, we often mean that it’s funny or amuses us in some way. But I believe entertainment has much more value than we give it credit for.

Other Worlds

Speaking generally, entertainment is a portal to another universe. Whether that world is of an employee at Dunder Mifflin in The Office, an NBA player in NBA 2K19, or as Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo, when you’re engrossed in a well-done fictional universe, it’s akin to a state of trance. And that’s powerful for someone dealing with tragedy, or even everyday life (which can be painful in its own way).

This might sound like an escapist argument and in some respects that’s true. But there’s nothing wrong with escapism when faced with a problem that one cannot will away with more effort. There’s a wonderful Twitter thread from Brianne Kimmel that illustrates this point beautifully:

Brianne’s story is a demonstration of the power of entertainment to take us into other worlds, providing at least a temporary relief from the problems we have no power to solve ourselves.

The Measurement Problem

One of the biggest reasons we don’t value entertainment the same way we value a cancer drug is because there’s a measurement problem. You can measure the number of patients who take a drug and how many of them are cured. But you can’t measure how a movie makes an individual feel, let alone a population. Did the viewer feel 10 units of joy, 2 units of contentment, and 3 units of laughter? It’s absurd to even write that sentence. Feelings are subjective and simply not measurable. And speaking from personal experience, devaluing the emotional and spiritual aspects of life is a major problem that leads to cynicism, depression, and more.

eSports Are Absurd?

Another common gripe you hear these days is about the rise of eSports. For those who aren’t familiar, eSports is a descriptor for competitive video gaming. It’s common for people to say things like:

  • “eSports aren’t real sports”
  • “eSports professionals are bums who want to pretend they’re athletes”
  • “Professional eSports? Get a real job”

But there’s one thing most people aren’t paying attention to when they criticize eSports: eSports is inclusive. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 6’10” forty year old former professional basketball player or a 4′ ten year old with a developmental disorder. Almost anyone can play. And with inventions like the Xbox Adaptive Controller, video games (and as a result, eSports) are becoming more inclusive. And that’s something worth celebrating. Who cares what we call it?

I’ve personally used video games as an almost meditative way to escape reality. It’s difficult to explain in words but when you’re engrossed in a game, it becomes possible to almost enter the world you’re playing in. And for someone going through any kind of physical or emotional trauma, that can be a beautiful thing. It’s even more empowering if the person playing has a physical disability that prevents them from moving properly in real life. But that disability (thankfully) doesn’t translate into the game.

TV is a Pointless Waste of Time

TV has a bad reputation. What other form of entertainment has earned “idiot box” as a nickname? But for all the hate directed at TV and its relatives (movies and Netflix), it’s another wonderful tool to enter other worlds.

Taking it one step further, watching some form of video entertainment (TV, movies, Netflix) with others is, in a way, like entering a shared dream with those people. The best TV shows and movies have a way of affecting your emotions and thoughts that’s similar to being in an engrossing dream. On some level, you know it isn’t real but you can *almost* forget that fact because of how enthralling the events in the dream are. The art of filmmaking has all sorts of techniques to enhance this effect, from soundtrack choices to the camera lens used for filming.

To recap, not only is TV a way of entering a dream-like state but it’s a way of doing it with others. That’s powerful. And certainly not a waste of time.

“There Is So Much More To Life Than Curing Cancer”

To quote Brianne Kimmel again, “there is so much more to life than curing cancer”. Not to downplay that goal; it is incredibly important. But not all of us are going to be capable of – let alone interested in – curing cancer. Our talents may lie in writing, directing, acting, or simply making others laugh. It is ALL valuable.

To make this personal, I used to believe that while Unlimited Brewing was a cool idea, it wasn’t world changing. After all, we’re not working on curing cancer or any kind of disease. We’re just helping people drink beer (and other beverages) in more unique ways. It’s low stakes.

Attendees enjoying beers made for The Economist at Cannes via Unlimited Brewing

But I’ve slowly realized that this attitude is a cop-out. Through our marketplace, customers have designed unique beers for their weddings, restaurants, corporate celebrations, birthdays, and more. While it’s impossible to directly measure how these beers made people feel, that doesn’t mean we didn’t provide value. And by embracing the value that we’re providing to our customers, it allows us to do our job better.

If you’re making any form of entertainment, don’t allow anyone to fool you: entertainment isn’t dumb. For your viewers, customers, and users, the stakes may be greater than you can possibly imagine.