Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Opportunity Cost of entertainment

One of the concepts that I remember clearly from my Economics 100 class in my first semester of university is the idea of opportunity cost: the notion that the cost of any action is all of the other actions that could have been taken instead of that action. That means that the cost of any purchase or choice, in essence, is not only the cost attached to it, but also the entire set of purchases or choices that were not made in order to make that purchase or choice. It's a daunting idea if you allow it to be, but it makes a lot of sense as a method of measuring the value or worth of any good or action and giving an absolute value against which any other values can be measured. And for me, the area in which I most often apply the idea of opportunity cost is in the entertainment I enjoy - particularly when it comes to re-experiencing media.

When given the option, I will almost always rather read, watch or play something I haven't experienced before. I know people who can - and do - rewatch movies or the same episodes of TV repeatedly, but I tend not to. I might watch a movie six months or a year after seeing it initially, but even my favourite movies are ones that I watch once a year or so. I don't understand why I would try something I know I enjoy and appreciate when there's something new out there to experience. But here's the paradox: I often find that I get as much - or more - out of a book, game, movie, or show during the second (or further subsequent) time through. So why do I like the variety, particularly at the expense of the admitted depth that repeated exposure to a book/game/show/movie will provide?

The reasons why

Perhaps the biggest reason why I choose new experiences is that I have a very strong desire to continually broaden the scope of my knowledge and awareness of a particular area. This might be a genre, the works of an author/writer/director/actor/creator, or even as a result of an allusion from another work. I am almost always interested in having a very broad (some might say "encyclopedic") knowledge of a genre, and that can come at the expense of increased depth on understanding of members of that genre. Some of the reasons for this desire are internal - I am interested for my own sake - but some is external, the result of either my desire to keep up on pop culture, the need to know what's going on with students, or just as part of the general zeitgeist.

Another reason is that I do tend to have strong recall of the things I do watch, and although there is no replacement for actually re-experiencing something, I do recognize that my inherent memory and critical abilities allow me to not have to watch things as frequently in order to have the same appreciation as others might. I tend to enjoy a broad scope of material for its own merits (not just as a product of having mastery of a genre), which means that I have to spread myself thinner to enjoy all of the different material adequately.

The ramifcations

Regardless of the exact reasons for this particular predilection of mine, there are both benefits and detriments (as one might expect of any economic analysis); I'll start with the benefits. I do have a broad awareness and knowledge of a wide variety of genres, and I get to enjoy that knowledge often. It is a benefit to me as a teacher, both in regard to the wealth of information I can share and as a way to interact (and admonish) students. I have a strong sense of what I like and don't like, and what is worth and not worth my time, so I tend to be able to avoid things that will not be worth my time. I also get to draw from my repository in recommending and sharing with others, and I enjoy being able to not only appreciate but also to discuss a breadth of material.

The detriments are also present. I often find it difficult to narrow my focus sufficiently to be able to intake all of the media I would like to, so I have to continually exercise judgment in the immediacy and necessity of my intake. I have written before about this process and how I find it difficult - at times almost paralyzing - to choose one item over another. I actually have to work through the sense of guilt, shame, or obligation in choosing to watch a TV drama, over, say, The Wire. Until this last December, almost any time I chose to watch an older movie that was not The Godfather gave me reason to hang my head a little bit. I still have a list of books to read, games to play, shows and movies to watch, and every time I choose something that's not on that list, I have a little twinge that I need to justify, even if it is just to myself.

Board Games

One area in which I do find this tendency of expanding my horizons at the expense of re-experiencing media challenging is in playing board games. I very often will choose to play new games, rather than replaying games I already know. In the past few years, I have played 68 new games - 11 in 2011, 29 in 2012, 15 in 2013, and 13 so far in 2014 - with 50 (or so) of those becoming part of my "repertoire" - that is, games that I can play at any time with minimal re-learning. Most of that happened in 2012, but I'm off to a banging start already in the first few months of 2014, with a lot of new plays yet to come. This trend has been assisted by a gaming group that has not really stopped buying new games for almost four years, as each of us have purchased several new games each year, as well as my first real intensive forays into the world of board gaming as an intentional hobby.

There are rewards in playing a wide variety of styles and mechanics and themes, but most of those rewards are not necessarily present in the gameplay itself, but in the wider understanding of game theory and how it is applied in different circumstances. For example, I generally know how worker placement games work now, and it is far easier for me to learn a new game like Stone Age or Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar and to apply my general knowledge to a new game and to have greater success than I might have otherwise; at the same time, I recognize that each game has its own set of strategies and idiosyncrasies, and there is only so much that you can learn or apply without playing a game repeatedly enough to get a real grip on its features, feel, and flow; I would argue that, for a game with adequate replayability, that that process is only beginning to take place at five plays, given that those plays are within a time span that is short enough not to have entirely forgotten how the game works.

This is the inherent problem with this tendency in playing board games: you need to replay a game repeatedly to really be able to appreciate it; but there are always more games to play (124 on my list currently) and replay. I am continually attempting to rework my "to play" list to feature fewer and fewer games, although there are still a lot of games that I feel the need to play just to have played them; in some cases, I might feel the need to play them again just to log that second play. I hope to be able to find the balance between learning new games and replaying familiar ones, and I recognize that the balance may only come with time after having continued to play more games for the first time and further reducing my list (hopefully without expanding it much further in the process).

The (re)solution

While I admit that this entire argument is perhaps the very definition of a "first-world problem" - truly insignificant in almost every way - I still know that it is something that I need to deal with regularly. There are a few possible resolutions, several of which I already employ. I keep lists of items to read, to watch, and to play which are easily accessible and updated at any time. I continually evaluate those lists as to whether certain items need to keep being included or whether they can be eliminated without compromising any integrity (again, a ridiculous idea, but here it is anyway). I do tend to alternate between media that I feel the need to watch or read and those which I feel more of an obligation, usually to a rate of three or four to one.

Then, of course, there is perhaps the simplest solution: get over myself, get rid of my lists, and enjoy whatever I enjoy in the moment for the sake of enjoying it. That, however, would require me to overcome another economic concept: loss aversion, the notion that it is far more difficult to get rid of something once you already have it. Although I might not own these items, per se, I do take some of my identity from having these lists, and I would posit that one of the reasons that I even feel the need to analyze myself in a post like this is that I am too tied up in these enterprises. This is an extension of the "simplifying" I have been processing for a few months, so maybe the best thing for me to do is just to forget any sense of obligation - either to myself or to others - and just to watch, play, and read what I can when I can. But if this post is any indication, I still have a bit of a process before that fully happens.

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