Railway modelling is not fun

My friend Mike Cougill has made a few posts recently about model railroading and “fun”. He even went so far as to pose 20 questions on the subject. As he has recently revealed, these reflect his self-questionning, and he has answered some of the questions. I had a problem with the questions, as Mike had (intentionally, I am sure) left out any sort of definition as to what fun might mean. It got me thinking – I am sure that getting people thinking was Mike’s aim. It usually is.

Fun” is an interesting word. Originally the way to have fun was to play a trick, hoax, etc on someone – so fun came at another’s expense (for example, the bawdy and riotous story “Tom Jones” treats it this way). Definitions change over time (awful used to be a major compliment!) but the element of spontaneity is still a key part of most current definitions of the word “fun”, although playing tricks on others is not the usual meaning. It is also lasts for only a relatively short-term, so activities need to be repeated, or replaced with new ones. “Retail therapy” is a good example of this: and being of short term effect, it needs repeating. There is nothing wrong with fun, but it is rather ephemeral.

Enjoyment, is something more enduring albeit possibly at a lower intensity than fun. If we don’t enjoy something, we generally don’t want to do it. After a spot of retail therapy, we might enjoy the fruits of our purchases – maybe a spot of operating with our new purchases. Maybe a bit of weathering. You get the point: something which is enjoyable.

Satisfaction, though, is something altogether more permanent and rewarding. It is the reward that enables us to overcome obstacles. It does not deny fun, nor does it preclude enjoyment. Far from it: many things that go towards satisfaction may be fun and enjoyable, but when we find that we need to acquire and hone a new skill, it is the promise of eventual success that keeps us going. It also enables us to challenge our assumptions, and deny our frustrations, indeed these are essential requirements: without obstacles, assumptions, frustrations and lack of skill to overcome, where would be the satisfaction?

I mentioned enlightened impatience last year, the point being that one can turn impatience to advantage by using it to enforce discipline. If I know a job should take, say, 10 hours of careful work, and spend 8 hours on it, then I have sold myself short. Not only that, but I will end up redoing it – properly this time – and at the of the process will have spent 18 hours on a 10 hour job. That really annoys me, hence the discipline. The result, knowing that even though some parts of the modelling job may not have been enjoyable at the time and maybe none of it was “fun”, is very, very satisfying. And I know that when doing it: it keeps me going.

Fun is superficially attractive: it shows we have a sense of humour. Really? Do we really need to patronise our audience and ourselves by bringing things down to the lowest common denominator? I think the famous phrase “Model Railroading Is Fun” is glib, and ultimately misleading. The only people who gain from it are manufacturers, magazines with a vested interest in encouraging retail therapy to keep the advertising revenue coming in (no accident that MRJ, which is not dependent on this source of income is the most “finescale” magazine out there, and this is even more true of “The Missing Conversation“), and the lazy and superficial which can’t be bothered to try harder and are looking for an excuse to hide behind. I may get some flak for that last remark, but if you read it in context there is nothing pejorative about a considered choice.

Building a model railway, be it a small one with a few highly detailed scratch-built items of equipment or a large empire with the focus on operation (for which purchasing a lot of RTR equipment is necessary and not purely “retail therapy”) is a hobby with the opportunity to provide a life-time of satisfaction, with enormous benefits for one’s mental, intellectual and physical well-being. And on top of that, I have learned so much about the outside world. Not just the physical environment, not just the technical side, but things like social and economic history, different cultural impacts.

No, one thing the hobby isn’t is fun. It’s far more than that – although we can and do have our fun moments.

Calling it “fun” sells railway modelling short.

8 thoughts on “Railway modelling is not fun

  1. chrismears

    Reblogged this on Prince Street Terminal and commented:
    I enjoy the way in which Mike Cougill thinks about the hobby. I envy his willingness to ask not only good but seemingly new questions and I completely agree so many of his viewpoints. As rich as his questions were it was Simon’s really terrific blog post, which I’m sharing here, that I found really focused my attention on the original twenty questions and my response to them.

    We spend a lot of time trying to justify our involvement in model railways to those outside the hobby. These models we build are amazing works of engineering and of art. They are something to be proud of and the time invested in them was wisely spent not just for the satisfaction of a model’s completion but for the growth we triggered in ourselves as we honed the craft of the hobby and our mastery of its skills. It disappoints me when we reduce all of this work down to something as flippant as “Model railroading is fun” or quip that we don’t really take it seriously. What’s so wrong with discussing the hobby maturely? The trains are only the muse, it’s our reactions that inspire these great discussions and those are great intellectual pursuits.

    It’s not that model railroading isn’t fun but we’re really selling ourselves short by always returning to that point. Further, we’re promoting the idea of how trivial this all is but not sharing the true depth of satisfaction one can derive.

  2. sed30

    Railway modelling is want you make it. When you model in a minority scale (3mm) like I do it can be frustrating but lead to an enormous sense of satisfaction because your model is unique. I would agree it is not only about the modelling. The social side lead me to meeting my wife of 30 years through a friend I made upon joining the local model railway club – that has been the fun bit! My hobby still plays a large part in my life today so the “fun” continues. Steve

    1. Trevor

      Very well said, Simon. I’m particularly struck by the connection you’ve made between “fun” and “lowest common denominator”. That resonates well with me.
      I’m reminded of how frequently people dismiss an accomplished, driven modeller as “elitist” when what’s really going on is they envy that person’s skills and drive – but won’t bother making the effort to attain the same level of expertise.
      You’re right – we sell ourselves short when we sell the hobby as “fun”. It’s not fun: It’s work, even for the most-skilled modellers. But it’s satisfying, rewarding, pleasurable work.

      1. Dunks Post author

        Thanks for following this up with your own blog-post, Trevor. It has interested a stimulating debate, thankfully without any of the rancour that often characterises forums. Is this an endorsement of the blogosphere, a sign that the Internet is becoming more mature (at least in terms of our hobby) or just your Canadian-ness rubbing off on other people?

        Chris’s last paragraph above is an extremely succinct way of putting it: it’s not that we don’t have fun nor enjoy ourselves, there’s just so much more to it than that.


  3. snitchthebudgie

    Reblogged this on esngblog and commented:
    Sorry, but part 2 of our ‘fun’ is another re-blog from Simon Dunkley’s site. He rightly points out the Mike Cougill has forgotten to define ‘fun’, and goes on and explores what model railroad ‘fun’ might be.

  4. pschmidt700

    I initially was quite put off by your views, Simon, when I first read this post, taking umbrage with your analysis of fun viz. the hobby. I even filed your comments under “elitist.”

    A curious thing occurred, though. I found myself ruminating on your essential premise over the past few weeks. The more it crossed my mind, the more I find what you state to be the case. Over the decades, I’d conflated fun, enjoyment and satisfaction. It’s really satisfaction that drives me, and drives others, to do their best, and to try to improve.
    Fun is fleeting, satisfaction is more constant.

    I think I’ve got the message

    1. Dunks Post author

      Thank you, Paul.

      I am glad that after you went away, you came back and shared the result of your reflections. If phrasing a succinct précis is anything to go by, then you definitely got the message!


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