Josh Woods ~
I recently gave a presentation on disc golf at a sociology conference. At the end, someone asked, “What’s so important about disc golf?”
Of course, she didn’t ask the question quite like this. It was subtler and nicer, but that’s how I took it.
In response, I meant to pause, collect my thoughts and offer a brilliant, if candid, reply. I did not. Total train wreck. I sounded like Forest Gump hopped up on Mountain Dew Amp. After spewing a long, meandering, half-formed stream of ideas, I closed with this: “Disc golf is fun … and that’s the most important thing, ever.”
My response was … well, not good. But it got a laugh and the person asking the question seemed strangely satisfied with it.
In previous Parked articles, I’ve droned on about the social and economic significance of disc golf. Yet, in classic academic fashion, I overlooked the most obvious, most important thing: Fun.
What is Fun?
In an article published in Sociological Theory, Gary Alan Fine and Ugo Corte define fun as “a collaborative and unscripted sequence of action that produces—and is perceived as producing—joint hedonic satisfaction.”
At home in this definition are two key ideas. First, fun is a collective experience. You may find pleasure in playing a video game on your smart phone or throwing putts in your backyard, but the fun they’re talking about requires at least two people. Fun is greater than the sum of its parts. In a sense, it’s magical, because when people come together and have it, each of them receives something greater than what could be achieved alone.
One of disc golf’s founders, Ed Headrick, was famous for saying, “Whoever has the most fun, wins.” No offense to the late, great Headrick, but this idea misses the basket. Fun is not an individual pursuit. It can’t be won by a single competitor. It’s a group effort, a team sport.
Second, fun can be intended or hoped for, but can never be fully scripted. Fun marks the moment when planned behavior ruptures and spontaneity takes hold.
Consider the case of Miguel “Papa” Sandoval and his missed-piñata ace.
A disc golf club in Morgantown, West Virginia recently held an end-of-season banquet. Nick Buysse, a club organizer and connoisseur of fun, brought two piñatas to the party, packed with disc golf swag, to be thrashed by guests via high-speed discs. On its own, Nick’s offering surpassed the fun threshold for all of us, but when Papa Miguel stepped up, things went wrong and exactly right.
Missing the red-blue dinosaur piñata completely, his throw inadvertently found the chains of a nearby basket. As shown in the video below, the clamoring surprise, Miguel’s one-legged hop, the high fives all around, the neck-craning guffaws, the we-ness of celebration and the purity of laughter from cameraman Kris Broman make this an unquestionable case of fun.
A Time for Fun
Fine and Corte argue that the chance for fun depends on notions of time. “Fun is outlawed in the face of intense temporal concentration,” they write, as when someone is staring down a death putt from thirty feet. Although the time devoted to compulsory seriousness varies across clubs, leagues and tournaments, all kinds of fun—jokes, teasing, goofing around, snowflake catching—are common before and after rounds, and sometimes crop up during them.
Given the unpredictability of flying discs, even the most frustrating moments of competitive play sometimes give way to fun. Watch a few “disc-golf-fails” compilations and you’ll see how unfortunate throws can sometimes become sources of laughter for everyone.
Here’s a notable fail by yours truly, caught on camera by James McDonald on hole 17 at Dorsey’s Knob in Morgantown, West Virginia.
I remember feeling disgusted at first, but as this lackluster throw became an epic roll-away, the disappointment lessened and eventually transmogrified into a comical moment that is still being recounted by club members to this day.
“Fun has an emotional tail,” Fine and Corte write. Fun moments are retold later and become part of a group’s repertoire of stories, jokes and collective memories. A club’s timeless moments of fun encourage the positive retelling of past events, moderate tension between members and help build a sense of groupness.
Disc golf played at night or during an unusual time of year can create a break from the usual disc golf experience and generate memorable collective pleasures. Why else would so many people play disc golf in snow?
The Fun Factories of Disc Golf
Place is another “structural affordance” of fun, per Fine and Corte. Part of the recipe for recreational fun involves the appropriation of public spaces. Skateboarders colonize unauthorized skateparks in urban settings, beer-league hockey players take over parking lots outside arenas at two in the morning, softball players appropriate local taverns.
Disc golfers remake public spaces in all these venues, taking over free-form urban landscapes for midnight object-golf sessions, hanging out in parking lots after rounds, gathering in bars as favored locals, and, of course, building, maintaining and playing disc golf courses in public parks. These vast tracks of unsupervised, public space offer disc golfers a meaningful, often mind-altering social experience at a remarkably affordable cost.
Disc golf clubs have no rights to these lands, but the feeling of collective ownership is real. And there’s nothing quite like this experience in normal life—this sense of attachment to a third place, to our place, that is owned by no one and everyone. By marking the territory, socially and emotionally, the course itself becomes a staging ground for fun, a lubricant of spontaneity, a fun factory.
As Fine and Corte put it, places like these “provide bounded domains of pleasure, privileging fun and separating the spaces of fun from those of ‘ordinary life.’”
Fine and Corte had a reason for spending so much time thinking and writing about fun. Surely fun has a dark side, but collective pleasures, they argue, are often the means by which groups flourish amid rivalries, conflicts and other obstacles to solidarity. Fun is a foundation for group stability.
As every club member knows, if playing disc golf in organized groups ceases to be fun, people stop showing up. Fun isn’t merely a self-gratifying byproduct of club life. It’s the reason many clubs exist.
Like I said at the conference, disc golf is fun and that’s the most important thing, ever.
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Parked is made possible in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.