Within clearly circumscribed limits, of course
I hope everyone involved with the movie Office Space is rich enough to retire at this point. According to Box Office Mojo, which tracks the amount of money made by films, Office Space barely broke even in theaters when it was released in 1999. Fourteen years later, I’d wager I don’t know a single semi-culturally literate American who doesn’t’ know—and love—that movie.
Its appeal is obvious enough. Who among us hasn’t wanted, like Milton, to burn down the office? Who hasn’t wanted to take the printer out to an empty field for a gansta rap-fueled total beatdown?
According to recent news by the Associated Press, another company, Rage Room, is offering something similar in Serbia.
Per the article:
Since it opened in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad in October, the Rage Room has drawn a flurry of attention in the Balkan country where two decades of war, political crisis and economic hardship have driven many people over the edge… Included in the roughly $6 fee is the right to smash a chair, a table, a bed, a coat-rack and a book-shelf, along with items such as framed photographs, empty cans and plastic containers. Clients must wear a helmet, protective glasses and gloves. Afterward they get to unwind to relaxing music, leaving the clean-up to staff.
“Dozens have come so far,” Pausic said, “people of all ages”—adding that it's also popular among women. He said that visitors usually need about five minutes to destroy everything inside.
The Rage Room isn’t the first of its kind. Unsurprisingly, that dubious distinction belongs to a company from the country of backyard wrestling and No Fear stickers. In 2008, a Dallas-based company called Anger Room tapped into the simmering, usually benign (but not always) frustration that undergirds our working lives by offering customers rooms modeled after offices, kitchens, and living rooms to destroy at will. Armed with a baseball bat, helmet and coveralls, customers are let loose in rooms are filled with mannequins, TVs, computers, tables, chairs, plates, and microwaves.
“Why not do everything you’ve dreamed of doing when you’re mad without paying the insane cost and severe consequences of your actions?” reads the website. “Here you’re not crazy, just angry and we’re here to help.”
Quoth the Geto Boys: “I think my mind just goes outta control.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the news out of Serbia is that it didn’t happen sooner. Anger—whether in the work place, or over the kinds of lousy living conditions generally found in places like Serbia—is hardly an American phenomenon, and customers describe the experience in positive terms, expressing the sense of relief and release that comes from smashing things to bits.
But is this something we should really be encouraging? Should every office install a breaking-stuff room for its employees right beside the regular break room?
Suppressing one’s rage is hardly a good thing. Burning down the office is funny in Office Space but, in reality, workplace frustrations (and attendant mental illness) too often turn deadly. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 8,666 workplace homicides between 1997 and 2010, 1,512 of which (17 percent) were committed by work associates—the classic “going postal” scenario. Given the alternative, “getting it all out” within the safe confines of a controlled environment doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
Sanja Marjanovic, a Belgrade-based psychologist interviewed for the AP story argued that things like deep breathing and yoga—practices which preemptively control frustrations instead of just venting them—are more helpful to well being. “Venting anger does give you an immediate sense of relief,” she said, “but in the long run, one becomes accustomed to feeling angry.”
The "Magic Circle"
Image via FoxyNC
Yoga and deep breathing are certainly good techniques for mitigating stress and anger, as numerous studies have shown. Marjanovic’s claims about the adverse effects of controlled violent expression seem a bit tentative, however, if examined in the context of “play,” a universally human activity that psychologists have studied for decades.
Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, arguably the father of modern thinking about the way we play, proposed in his seminal 1938 book, Homo Ludens, that play is circumscribed by a system of implicit rules that distinguishes it in people and children’s minds as a distinct from real life—the so-called “magic circle.” Updating Huizinga’s theories in the 1960s, French sociologist, Roger Caillois,defined “play” as conforming to six basic precepts. Among them, play must be “ free, in which playing is not obligatory; if it were, it would at once lose its attractive and joyous quality as diversion”; “separate: circumscribed within the limits of space and time, defined and fixed in advance”; and “governed by rules, under conventions that suspend ordinary laws, and for the moment establish new legislation, which alone counts.”
More contemporary psychologists have concurred that a clear line exists in participants’ minds between play and real life. In an interview with LiveScience, psychologist Michael Thompson, co-author of the 2000 book, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, said that there was “no such thing as violent play.
“Violence and aggression are intended to hurt somebody,” he continued. “Play is not intended to hurt somebody. Play, rougher in its themes and rougher physically, is a feature of boyhood in every society on Earth.”
So is destroying a room with a baseball bat a form of play, or does it fit into some other category? According to the terms offered by Huizinga and Caillois, the Rage Room seems to fit pretty squarely in the definition of play, however violent and destructive. Users know what the rules are, and they know they don’t apply outside the Rage Room. According to Caillois’ definition, the Rage Room is, indeed, “free,” “separate,” and “governed by rules.” (It also conforms to Callois’ three remaining imperatives, that play be “uncertain,” “unproductive” and “make-believe.”)
Still, just because players understand play to be separate from real life, doesn’t mean there can’t be some carryover. It’s an issue that’s been debated hotly with regard to violent sports and violent video games.
Research is still being amassed with respect to both those issues; recent studies strongly suggest that prolonged exposure to violent video games increases aggressive feelings among subjects in a lab setting. The Rage Room is probably much closer in spirit and effect to violent sport because of the physical exertion involved (and, despite the average linebacker’s desire to knock Tom Brady on his ass, no one actually wants to kill him, like we “kill” opponents in video games).
With regard to sports, there’s no convincing evidence that violence on-field leads to violence off. Several studies have drawn correlations between athletes and domestic violence, for example, but as Ronald B. Woods notes in his book, Social Issues in Sport, there are too many confounding factors. Athletes may commit more violent acts than non-athletes, but they’re also more likely to come from tough backgrounds, to binge drink, to have negative attitudes towards women. If successful, athletes are also primed to develop an inflated sense of self and entitlement (see Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds).
There’s nothing directly linking the controlled, strictly regulated violence of, say, football with outside violence in any causal sense—though it can sometimes feel like it. “While there is no question that violence occurs,” Woods notes, “when it involves football or basketball athletes it receives exhaustive media coverage… Rather than rely on sensational examples from the press, we need solid data such as rates of occurrence to compare with the data for other groups of people.”
Paper jam? Cue the Geto Boys, hand me a bat, and let me at that printer.