On Play Hell

Our activities split into work and play. And positive and negative extremes are described as heavens and hells. So there are four possible work-play extremes: work heaven, work hell, play heaven, and play hell.

Among common scenarios we discuss and imagine, we know of many work hells, such as galley slaves. We have fewer work heavens, such as where one gets work credit for a play-like activity. We also have a great many play heavens. But we rarely talk about play hells.

But consider: it might take you years to find out that you are embarrassingly bad at your chosen hobby or sport. The radical science theory you pursue for decades could just be just wrong. You might go out dancing every evening hoping to catch someone’s attention, only to always see him or her go home with someone else. Your so-called best friend could spread nasty rumors about you. Your kids could despise you. Your lover could cheat on you. You could get divorced. These are play hells, most every bit as hellishness as typical work hells.

In the US today, only 14% (24/168) of adult hours each week are devoted to formal work. Since we devote far more time to play than work, I’d guess that most of the actual hells around us are play hells. Yet such play hells seem neglected. There are far fewer charities devoted to helping folks cope with them. And there are far fewer regulations designed to reduce them. The law also slights them – rarely can one sue about harms that arise from romance and friendship. Storybook heroes sally off to rid the world of work hells far more often than play hells.

I suspect we inherited this tendency from our foragers ancestors. Foragers have many rules about fights, hunts, and sharing the product of work, but far fewer rules on romance and friends. To foragers, work was more overt, play more covert.

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  • efalken

    Throughout most of our history existential angst was a luxury few could afford. Montaigne could write his essays, the rest were chafing wheat most of the day. They were too busy making sure they didn’t run out of food in winter. 

  • Mercher

    All your examples of play hells involve some activity going on for a time, with a single moment of hell (discovering the theory is wrong or whatever). But once play gets hellish, you can just stop (that’s kind of the definition of play).

    So that alone could explain why talk of play hell is rare: play hell is a rare thing.

    • JVA

      Too bad Robin did not apply Occam’s razor himself.

    • gwern0

       Yeah, I don’t see why on earth you would expect ‘play hell’ to be at all common. The point of ‘work hell’ is that it’s extrinsic: you get something in exchange for the miserable experience, which hopefully offsets the misery; the experience itself is irrelevant except for how it influences what wage people demand. Since if the experience was intrinsically desirable, you could probably force people to pay you to ‘work’, it stands to reason that jobs will overall be miserable.

      But with ‘play’, the experience itself is the reward! Any ‘play hell’, something that is really worse than the alternatives, should be very quickly selected away since it is failing at the only purpose it has.

      • Drewfus

        So have you ever negotiated for higher pay based on how much you hated your job?

      • gwern0

        Yes.

      • gwern0

        Reading _Shop Class as Soul Craft_, Matthew Crawford 2009, I ran into a relevant bit on pg136-137:

        “My efforts to read, comprehend, and write abstracts of twenty-eight academic journal articles per day required me to actively suppress my own ability to think, because the more you think, the more the inadequacies in your understanding of an author’s argument come into focus. This can only slow you down. The quota demanded that I suppress as well my sense of responsibility to others—not just the author of an article but also the hapless users of InfoTrac, who might naïvely suppose that my abstract reflects the contents of that article. So the job required both dumbing down and a bit of moral reeducation.

        …It will be objected: Wasn’t there any quality control? My manager would periodically read a few of my abstracts, and I was once or twice corrected and told not to begin an abstract with a dependent clause. But I was never confronted with an abstract I had written and told that it did not adequately reflect the article. The quality standards were the generic ones of grammar, internal to the abstract, which could be applied without my supervisor having to read the article. In this sense, I was not held to an external, objective standard.

        It will further be objected that if the abstracts produced by Information Access Company were no good, then “the market” would punish it; the company should have been beaten out by one with a higher regard for quality. The company has been bought and sold several times since I worked there, but appears to still be in business. Maybe things are better there now, and quality has improved. I honestly don’t know. In any case, the time scale on which the market administers its omniscient justice may be quite a bit longer than crucial episodes in the working life of a mortal human being. Being an early entrant into the market for electronically distributed abstracts, IAC enjoyed a temporary quasi-monopoly. I suppose it was fairly free to set standards as it pleased, and may have calibrated the production quota, and corresponding quality, to some threshold of “good enough,” beneath which the user walks away in disgust.8 Recurring purchases, after all, may continue even when the alignment of interests between producer and consumer is only partial, or even accompanied by a felt antagonism. Frequently we come to hate things that we nonetheless continue to depend on (like Windows). Further, a product made under conditions of harried intellectual carelessness, such as InfoTrac circa 1992, may generate its own demand by corrupting our standards in the same direction, and our initial harsh judgment of it will come to seem reactionary. The very existence of the product makes the lower standards suddenly seem respectable or inevitable.

        In writing abstracts of academic journal articles, I thought I would learn a lot. Quite apart from the pay, the job seemed to promise an intrinsic good to me as a worker: satisfying my desire to know. This satisfaction is in perfect harmony with the good of the user of InfoTrac, who also desires to know, and the good of the author of an article, who wants to be understood. The standard internal to the job, properly conceived, was the very one that presumably animated both parties I served: intellectual excellence. But this good was nowhere accommodated by the metric to which I answered, which was purely quantitative. The metric was conceived by another party to the labor process, a middleman hovering about with a purpose of his own that had no inherent tie to the one shared by the principals. This purpose, of course, was that of realizing a profit from my labor.

        As I have said elsewhere in this book, work is necessarily toilsome and serves someone else’s interest. That’s why you get paid. But, again, if I had been serving the user of the database directly, his interest in high-quality abstracts would have aligned with my own interest in experiencing the pleasures of comprehension. It may or may not be the case that selling my labor directly to the user would have given him a high-quality product at an attractive price and have provided me a comfortable livelihood; one would have to calculate whether such a transaction makes sense or not. And let it not be forgotten that my work would need to be marketed and distributed, as IAC did, and its technical bugs worked out, and this would contribute to the cost. Let it further be conceded that I never would have undertaken to launch such a product as InfoTrac on my own, and that the entrepreneurs who did so took risks. I have no beef with them. They made something, then sold it to others (the media conglomerate Ziff) who seem to be in the business of owning things. What I want to emphasize is that the presence of this third party seeking to *maximize* a surplus skimmed from my labor, in a manner not sensitive to the limitations of pace arising from the nature of the work itself, *must* drive the work process beyond those limits. It is then all but guaranteed that the work cannot be animated by the goods that are intrinsic to it. It is these intrinsic goods of the work that make me want to do it well. They closely track the “quality” of the product, that aspect that proves such an elusive metaphysical concept to those who merely count their surplus but which is a central and concrete concern for both the maker and the user of the thing itself.”

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        What I want to emphasize is that the presence of this third party seeking to *maximize* a surplus skimmed from my labor, in a manner not sensitive to the limitations of pace arising from the nature of the work itself, *must* drive the work process beyond those limits. It is then all but guaranteed that the work cannot be animated by the goods that are intrinsic to it. It is these intrinsic goods of the work that make me want to do it well. They closely track the “quality” of the product, that aspect that proves such an elusive metaphysical concept to those who merely count their surplus but which is a central and concrete concern for both the maker and the user of the thing itself.”

        A modern paraphrase of the thesis in Karl Marx’s early writings, “The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.” AT least an important aspect of Marx’s thesis.

    • Siddharth

      But consider this: suppose you find out that your partner of 5 years has been cheating on you. The resulting hell lasts atleast a couple of years. And I imagine that the pain never really goes away.

      Or: suppose you find out that because you smoked cigarettes for 30 years, you now have cancer and have to spend the rest of your life in and out of chemo.

      You can certainly stop playing, but in these and several other similar cases, stopping won’t do you much good. Also, the timescale on which play hell occurs seems to be similar to the timescale of play heaven. 

      The other thing you mention: play hell is rarer. That is different from your first point which was about the intensity and escapability of play hell. I would argue that play hell is not as rare as you would think. Think about all the angst people routinely suffer from not being popular. I would categorize that as play hell.

      • Anonymous

        One addition: Play can be a bad habit. Obvious addictions like gambling or substance abuse, but also common things like getting in pointless arguments with strangers online. You know you shouldn’t do it, you know it’s not worth it, but a part of you just has to.

  • Brcoelh00

    If “play hell” you mean being addicted, then yes, this is not good. But if that time people spend playing is compose most to non-addicted, then for a hedonist, this state of affairs makes a world less productive, but not less happy. I suppose this last case is “play heaven”.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ gjm

    Where does that 24/168 figure come from? Most people with jobs (I thought) work a lot more than 24 hours a week, at least in theory. Most people without jobs work a lot less. Is 24 hours per week an average over the whole population including those who are very young, very old, unemployed, etc., or what?

  • http://twitter.com/MoreScaryRobots MoreScaryRobots

    Play activities are, by definition, voluntary. Consequently, people who find themselves in “play hell” will be perceived to have brought that outcome on themselves. We generally feel less need to regulate what people do to themselves than what they do to others, and feel less sympathy for people who suffer bad outcomes as a consequence of their own actions.

    Also, if you’re classifying romantic relationships as “play”, that’s a case where humans actually *do* seem to spend endless amounts of time discussing forms of “play hell”. Some rather substantial fraction of the world’s literature and music is about relationships that go wrong. But perhaps this is because this activity isn’t strictly “play”, as there’s a biological imperative to reproduce lurking behind it.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Without slavery, work is voluntary as well.

      • Anonymous

        Unless one needs money to avoid suffering or harm. Being cold or hungry can be just as unpleasant as being whipped by a slave owner.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        Even if you must work, you needn’t work for any particular employer. Even if you must date, you needn’t date any particular person.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        Without slavery, work is voluntary as well.

        Rather sounds like it should have been a Mitt Romney quote.

      • http://twitter.com/MoreScaryRobots MoreScaryRobots

        People in many societies cannot opt out of work without suffering significant negative consequences — loss of status, reduced access to mates, even various rather unpleasant forms of death (exposure, starvation). This doesn’t fit any sensible definition of “voluntary”.

      • Drewfus

        This doesn’t fit any sensible definition of “voluntary”.

        Garbage. The imperative to work for a living does not make choosing to work an involuntary act. It remains a choice. Are the billions on Earth who really have to work, effectively slaves? Then what is slavery? More to the point, what is wrong with slavery, given your definition?

        What motivation do you have in trying to make a system that responds to the imperative of working for a living  – by providing jobs – seem like no moral improvment over a society that condones the holding of slaves? It is just cheap talk.

      • dmytryl

        Drewfus: the difference is that usually there is a bit of economical bargaining, i.e. you can go to someone who pays more, or alternatively, your employer can’t drop the wage below some point or you’ll go to other employer or do something else.

        If that is not possible – e.g. if we are on an otherwise uninhabited island and I own this island and I have a gun, and you don’t have a gun, and you don’t own any land on the island, and I play by the rules of capitalism and don’t outright enslave you using the gun to threaten you, I can ‘hire’ you to grow crops on my land, then give you as much as necessary for your bare survival, and forbid you from growing any food for yourself – then it is entirely indistinguishable from slavery. You can go on strike, then I can eat out of reserves or even grow me food myself for a bit until you get hungry and quit striking. I can set the price of land arbitrarily high, so that you would only be able to buy 2 square meters with your entire life’s labour if you never had to spend a single penny. Trust me, you wouldn’t see this as any different from being outright enslaved, if you were in the disadvantaged position.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen R. Diamond

        The imperative to work for a living does not make choosing to work an involuntary act. I

        It makes choosing to work a less voluntary act than play, which is the only claim the parent needs.

        Voluntariness is surely a matter of degree. (Although it sounds just wrong to me to say an ordinary person “chooses” to work.) The spectrum goes something like slavery-serfdom-indentured servitude-wage labor-independent contractor. Then you come to the gradations of play, although there may be some overlap, inasmuch (as one poster pointed out) addiction seems to be the kind of troubled, involuntary play that Robin suggests shouldn’t be a subject of popular preoccupation. .

      • Anonymous

        “The imperative to work for a living does not make choosing to work an involuntary act. It remains a choice.”

        This logic is problematic because it can be used on other forms of duress as well. If I make you sign a contract by pointing a gun to your head, it is still a choice – you could choose to take the bullet instead. Surely srdiamond is right that voluntariness is a matter of degree, but the consequences of extreme poverty are very effective threats.

      • Anonymous

        “More to the point, what is wrong with slavery, given your definition?”

        It’s not a market (from the perspective of the slave). A wage laborer can trade one master for another and negotiate for better conditions. However, I would not call the need to sell wage labor voluntary if it is the only available source of life-supporting income.

      • http://www.facebook.com/CronoDAS Douglas Scheinberg

        Work is voluntary only to the extent that *eating* is voluntary. (And I can easily point to examples of people who have proven that eating is voluntary – hunger strikers and anorexics.) And, by that standard, even the labor performed by slaves is voluntary; they still have the option to endure whatever punishment their owner will inflict upon them for refusing to work.

  • Stefano Bertolo

    Might this not be one of the attractions of being a workaholic (placing an upper bound on the play+hell quadrant by increasing the size of the work quadrants, where the hell/heaven mix is easier to manage because more overt)?

  • Drewfus

    I suspect we inherited this tendency from our foragers ancestors. Foragers have many rules about fights, hunts, and sharing the product of work, but far fewer rules on romance and friends. To foragers, work was more overt, play more covert.

    The suggestion being that play rules could exist, and be just as effective as work rules. Why assume this? Are there ‘low hanging fruit’ play rules that we leave hanging for no good reason? Name one!

    More likely is that play is just intrinsically more cognitively taxing than work is. Play rules are correspondingly harder too, as a consequence. I would go so far as to say that if play was as easy as work, it would be work – that is, a formally organized activity. If rules are possible and effective then we know by necessity how a process works (social or otherwise), in detail. Therefore the process can be managed, and therefore it is work (even if enjoyable to participate in).

    Most likely play operates at somewhere near our cognitive limits and there is no further room for imposing rules or controls. Play rules are pending bigger brains or AI implants.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I’ve been reading Colin Ward’s “Anarchy in Action“, and in the chapter summary for “Play as an Anarchist Parable” he quotes a section from his book on “Work”:

    WORK IS
    Hated
    Long
    For someone else
    Essential for livelihood
    Concentrated
    For fixed hours

    LEISURE IS
    Enjoyed
    Brief
    For yourself
    Inessential for livelihood
    At your own pace
    In your own time

    These are columns in the original, but I’m not sure if Disqus would allow me to insert an html table. Anyway, I thought the comparison of stylized facts was rather Hansonian.

  • richatd silliker

    As my buddy Al {Einstein} would say, “All there is in the universe is work.”

    As for hell.  It’s an adventure that you are not ready for.

  • R Srs

    But play is not the opposite of work. A relationship for example is neither play nor work but both. Perhaps at any given time it is more one than the other, and at other times it may be impossible to say if one is working or playing. Likewise there are moments of play at work, and there is nothing to say these moments cannot qualify as work just as much as moments of drudgery. The work/play dichotomy is one of several that are not helping you to analyse human lives as they are actually experienced.  

  • Maximum Liberty

    “Foragers have many rules about fights, hunts, and sharing the product of work, but far fewer rules on romance and friends.”

    This seems a bit overstated. Rules on courtship were often highly elaborate. Kinship relations were often extremely detailed compared to now. Some groups of clans had marriage patterns that defined who could marry whom. Initiation into adulthood was a bigger division then, and the transition into adulthood was a big set of rules around a lot of things, especially including courtships and appropriate relations to the rest of the community. And as status went up, the rules about both courtship and friendship got more elaborate.

    Max

  • http://www.facebook.com/yudkowsky Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Reaction to title:  I expected this article to be about “Why are our videogames set in hell?”, i.e., why do we deliberately play in fictional hells?

    So far as the actual observation goes, I agree with the commenters who note that play hells are sometimes (though not always, maybe even not often) mitigated by being able to walk away, relative to work hells.  I also agree with the commenters who think that because something is technically voluntary – where having to work is something that most people know better than to think is voluntary, but having to work at dating is processed as voluntary, for some reason – is what accounts for the moral difference.  You could then ask what’s the difference between work and unsuccessful dating when your brain drives you to keep trying both – I think that would be the key next question accounting for the difference.

    With all that said, so far as my own commitment to heroism goes, I find this kind of silent suffering both horrifying and motivating-to-action; “The vast majority of people are quietly unhappy” is something that I do, and would have before reading this, listed as one of my top battle cries.  The one who goes to the singles bar night after night, never succeeding in going home with anyone they desire – those who are virgins at 30, and the sort of psychological damage that does to someone – those who have rumors spread about them, so that all their social interactions are made of dolors and not hedons – for their sake, and for their sake alone, would be sufficient reason to tear apart and remake this world.  Maybe it wouldn’t really, actually be consequentialistically proper to tear down a world that had only one personal hell, but a realistic number is probably more like 30% to 90% of the population.  My bounds are wide because I have little personal experience of most experiential clusters of Earth, and economists do not yet measure or report such things.  But anything over 10% seems like clearly sufficient cause to reject a world.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

      having to work at dating is processed as voluntary, for some reason – is what accounts for the moral difference.  You could then ask what’s the difference between work and unsuccessful dating when your brain drives you to keep trying both – I think that would be the key next question accounting for the difference.

      For most young people, “working at dating” is thoroughly enjoyable. The hunt is as much the purpose as the booty. I recall thoroughly enjoying myself while being unsuccessful at singles bars. 

      The one who goes to the singles bar night after night, never succeeding in going home with anyone they desire – those who are virgins at 30, and the sort of psychological damage that does to someone

      Having worked as a clinical psychologist for some 12 years (years ago), I would dispute these are important causes of “psychological damage.” Even among those who think that was how they were damaged. The real damage was done long before.

      • Michael Vassar

        Aah, a clinical psychologist.  I’ll have to take your word on it then LOL

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        At least that’s superior authority to Yudkovsky’s grandparent comment, which (one assumes) relies only upon his own experiences (and his fantasies concerning their role).

        Or superior to yours, which is to issue the standard “rationalist” type caveat–that tells no one anything they didn’t already know.

    • Drewfus

      I also agree with the commenters who think that because something is technically voluntary – where having to work is something that most people know better than to think is voluntary, but having to work at dating is processed as voluntary, for some reason – is what accounts for the moral difference. You could then ask what’s the difference between work and unsuccessful dating when your brain drives you to keep trying both – I think that would be the key next question accounting for the difference.

      If neither work or play are particularly voluntary, then there is no basis for moral judgement in either case, let alone comparatively.

      Moral statements, judgements and behavior must presuppose voluntary action, just as the law (with rare exceptions) must presuppose that actions with legal implications are voluntary.

      Once behavior is deemed to be deterministic, or mostly deterministic, then all moral bets are off. For some commenters here, i would replace the phrase ‘moral bets’ with ‘moral posing’.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      The main reason to be wary of tearing apart the world to remake it is uncertainty about if we could really do better. If we are really sure a post-tear world will have a lot less personal hells, and if we can reasonably bound the cost of tearing and remaking, then sure we should go for it.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        The main reason to be wary of tearing apart the world to remake it is uncertainty about if we could really do better.

        Oh, that’s what he’s proposing? I had thought the heroic corrective consisted of teaching social skills to nerds. Isn’t that the actual program being pursued?

  • http://bensix.wordpress.com/ BenSix

    Since we devote far more time to play than work, I’d guess that most of the actual hells around us are play hells.

    I’d be very interested to know what “formal work” means in this context – how it’s been distinguished from the time that’s spent at work – but even if one assumes it’s true, once you’ve subtracted time for sleep, commuting, cooking, washing, shopping, preparing for bed or coming round after awakening, laundry, housekeeping and, if you’re a parent, doing chores on behalf of your kids the time spent on “play” is massively reduced.

    Still – it’s an intriguing concept. A feature of “play hell” that separates it from “work hell” is that most people actively dislike labouring. The full horrors of “play hell” only tend to be obvious in retrospect, when you’re getting older and realise all of the things you could have done instead of watching episodes of Friends

    Or, indeed, writing comments on the Internet.

  • Plingkster

    I have serious questions about how y’all are framing the concept of play.  To me Play Hell is an oxymoron.  If it’s hell, it ain’t play.  If you are referring to what happens when you can’t actually arrive at the play state, well one could either consider that work or part of the game typically known as strategizing. 

    So in the first case, this Play Hell is actually related to the work required to arrive at play, which of course is what WORK itself is… Why else work other than to be ABLE to play??

    Beyond the obvious rituals, contests, and role playing… Isn’t Play a state of mind?  And isn’t play by necessity something we enjoy?  So how can there be a Play Hell? No child would understand the concept except perhaps as the frustration of being sidelined in a game.  But then at that given moment, they are not playing, merely hoping to play!  And anyhow, that is the price you pay to play, and if you can’t accept that, you’re in the wrong game.  Same goes for dating I would guess.  Look, and here’s the second case, there’s a whole strategy component to contests, and dating is a contest, right?  And if you don’t dig the strategizing part of the process, then again, get out of the game.  You can always find someone to take you to bed, after all.  You can always find someone to marry you if you get so exasperated.

    Of course then there is the issue of losing. Perhaps that is the actual Play Hell… but then if you’re not enjoying the game itself, and all you care about is the endgame, then you’re a loser from the start:)

  • http://ancientislander.wordpress.com/ Islander

    I’d just like to point out that much (sometimes most) of people’s “free” time consists of work.

    When people get home from their “formal” work, they usually need to cook for themselves or their family, do laundry, pay bills, clean, take care of their children, shop for groceries, etc. This is household work, not play.

    The time people spend travelling to and from work is equivalent to work, since it’s necessary in order to make a living. This can easily consume 30 minutes to 3 hours per day, or 2,5 to 15 hours per week, depending on your circumstances.

    If we subtract the time needed for sleep, formal work, travel to and from formal work, and household work, from the number of hours in a week, there’s not that much left.