Back when I worked on videogames magazines, I once got drunk with a friend of mine and invented a system of games reviewing that would be an alternative to the X out of 10 scores given by the rest of the industry. It was called The White Room. Basically, imagine there’s a white room. The walls are perfectly blank, there are no windows, and there’s a nice chair in it. Picture that. Peaceful, right?
Now: you have a choice, and the choice is the ‘score’. Would you rather play the game you’re supposed to be playing, or sit in the white room and silently think about whatever you like?
An enormous amount of games fail this test. So do an enormous amount of films, TV shows, books, comics and other forms of media. Things I would rather sit in a featureless white room than consciously (or passively) participate in ever again include: Two And A Half Men, any Facebook game, Fruit Ninja, Sudoku, every single film by the Wayans brothers, Minesweeper, Def Jam Icon (a sequel so disappointing that I still think about it from time to time with a shudder), every book that Dan Brown has written, and, obviously, Angry Birds. I would sit in silent contemplation rather than subject myself to any of them for a second longer than I already have, and that would be fine by me.
Now, your list will be different to mine. But you should have a list. Just because iPads, phones, laptops and MP3 players make it possible for you to be entertained every second you’re awake, that doesn’t make it desirable. Angry Birds isn’t teaching you anything, but it isn’t giving you any space to think, either. Playing Puzzle Bobble is making you better at playing Puzzle Bobble, but it isn’t helping you decide how you feel about the world, or mentally work on whatever projects you’ve got going on, or decide what you want to do in the future. Solitaire isn’t even that much fun, but it will still eat away at the only life you will ever have.
Make the list. Chuck away the chaff. I’ve mentally written books and rehearsed jiu-jitsu positions and thought of jokes and firmed up my own feelings about the world and my place in it on tube trains and the walk to work, in the spaces when it’s oh-so-tempting to just fill the void with something, anything that’s superficially entertaining. You could probably do something even better.
HOMEWORK: This week, don’t just turn to a game or TV show because you’ve got nothing better to do – decide whether it’s a better thing to do than sitting and thinking for a while. If you’re feeling brave, ditch your MP3 player – I did that for a couple of weeks, and I was amazed by how much clarity of thought I had while wandering around. Decide your own level. But sit in the White Room for a while.