Thoughts on Escapism


Whatever type of games we play, however long we play them, after “fun” there’s usually one primary reason we play in the first place—escapism.  Of course, there are questions of “how much is too much”, “what we’re escaping from“, and such.  Those are loaded questions, dealing with a very loaded topic.

If you cast a wide enough informational net over Google, you’ll end up with differing opinions on the matter.  A lot of the information you find is well-written, stating their points clearly, taking as much time as necessary to illustrate their points.  As well-made as their points are, I can’t really agree with many of them.

Case in point, from Destructoid, an article titled, “Fun isn’t enough: why video games have to move beyond simple escapism”:

Video games should not just be ‘fun.’ They shouldn’t just serve as ‘entertainment.’ […] It may seem odd to demand more than just simple entertainment from a medium that has provided us with nothing but for the past thirty years, but an escape from escapism is exactly what the medium needs. The time has come for video gaming to move beyond a simple diversion, and become something more.

I agree with the underlying notion of the article as a whole—that games don’t have to be mindless, that they can be just as emotional as any novel or film.  Take one of the most famous examples in gaming history—the death of Aeris Gainsborough.  Final Fantasy VII was released fourteen years ago, and gamers can still remember feeling a torrent of emotions as they watched her die.  So powerful is it, artists still create works based on it.  (Warning: Link contains some pretty graphic imagery.)

There’s a reason it—and other examples like it—remains so powerful.  They strike a deep emotional blow, again just like any film or novel out there could.  That doesn’t mean that they can’t also be means of escape.

It’s important, here, to note that escapism isn’t inherently a bad thing.  Like many other things in life, it’s the contexts and levels involved that may make it bad.  If one works all day, unless they’re one lucky son of a gun it’s in a stressful environment.  As such, it’s not an uncommon desire to come home and blow off steam by, say, popping in a Grand Theft Auto game, or heading on over to Newgrounds to blow thugs up in Fragger.  You kill a few cartoon characters, and when you’re done you can get on with your evening, and go back to work the next day with a smile.  Same if you’re a student who has to deal with tough finals, or whatever else.

Those are the easy parts.  It gets tougher when you’re an adult in a failing marriage, trying to immerse yourself in a world where someone would risk his life to conquer behemoths all in the name of love.  It’s harder still as a teenager who deals with an abusive home life delving into a setting where a man punishes the scum who hurt innocents.

Those last examples are easier to point to and say they’re “over-doing it” or using games an an “excuse” to not deal with their own lives.  In some cases, that’s true, to be sure—but it’s not true in other cases, even if the situations seem identical.

The problem with simplifying the issue of who’s “escaping their life” verses who’s “escaping a problem for a short time to let their minds relax” is the people involved.  The adult who otherwise has no seeming personal “issues” and only plays games after work might well be “escaping their life”, while the young person playing video games while their parents sleep off a bender in the front room may just be trying to keep his or her mind from focusing on the problem to the point of being unable to think of a way out.

Adding to the confusion is the issue that gamers can’t tell the difference between games and reality.  A study in Britain four years ago didn’t only deal with the gamers, but the researchers also questioned parents and figures in the industry.  That study showed that, over all, gamers didn’t have a problem distinguishing games, even the most violent ones, from real life.  That study also showed that young gamers may find more violent games unsettling, but that shouldn’t exactly be surprising.

Another issue is “entertainment” versus “escapism”.  Trent Hamm over at The Simple Dollar says that video games shouldn’t be ways to de-stress, that we should simply lay in a dark room.

If you wish to be entertained, seek entertainment. If you wish to de-stress, de-compress, or escape from the situation, do that. Go into a quiet room, turn off the lights, sit down, and close your eyes. Breathe in slowly and deeply. Try to clear your mind of all thoughts. Let the relaxation wash over you.

That’s a great idea, actually—it is.  The problem is that we’re not always capable of that.  To dip a little into psychology, some of us need to “keep our minds busy” with other things, to let the stresses be shoved “to the back burner”.  For too many of us, if we sit in a quiet room and close our eyes, we’ll go stir-crazy as the thoughts build up and up and up.

Meditation is a wonderful tool, and not nearly enough people make use of it—but that fact does not and can not be used to say that using an external entertainment as a temporary escape is a bad thing.  That fact—that there are other methods of de-stressing that perhaps are more useful even if too few people use them—does not mean that those tools are the only viable methods.

Gamers aren’t the only ones who use something external to relax, either; some people drive when they need to think, others put on music, others turn on the television.  What all those things have in common is not only that they’re more generally accepted, but that you can use something external to de-stress without necessarily going “too far” with it.

We want simple answers.  We want to say, “This is the problem, and that is the solution,” then dust our hands off and go on about our business.  When it comes to people, however—actual living, breathing, thinking, feeling people—things are rarely that simple.

Some people work out problems best when they have their minds “kept busy”.  Focusing on keeping your race car centered on the track in a video game (or casually driving around town in real-life, or singing along to one’s favorite song) takes up a good portion of our mental energy—but not all of it.  We can use the rest to suss out a solution to the problems we may be facing.

When we try to examine the very real issue of people “escaping their life” through external means, the problem we usually run into is the focus on the external means themselves.  What we should be focusing on is the people—the individual people concerned.

To be fair, though, that’s not an easy undertaking.  It might not be impossible, but it’s pretty close.  You have millions of gamers around the world, each affected by their cultures, their upbringing, their own opinions and beliefs—and things the sciences of the mind can’t even figure out just yet.

It’s easier to say that violent games cause this or that person to flip out because they escaped from their lives into a setting that either at least plays down the consequences of large-scale violence or downright encourages or romanticizes them—but “easier” is not “better”.  The causes to look at are between the ears of the gamers themselves.  That’s what we need to look at.  When confronted with someone potentially “escaping their lives” into a video game, we need to ask how they’re doing, not what games they’re playing.

Games, like novels and films, are tools of enjoyment, of fun.  Like any tool, however, they can be over-used or used in lieu of actually working on whatever problems they may be facing.  Like any over-use or mis-use of a tool, however, that’s an issue relating to the user, not the tool.

If we can get to the point where the look at the individual, find out what problems they may have in life, find out just who they are as individuals, we’ll be closer to dealing with the problem of escaping one’s life.  If we can get past the assumption that the methods are the important factor, we can work on the actual problem itself.

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