Quest Updated: Is It Escapism?
One of the most common ideas about gaming claims that we play games as escapism. But the term “escapism” isn’t necessarily a good thing. It implies a running away, a hiding from a reality we don’t want to face. This is a problem I have with another genre I love: Sci-fi and Fantasy literature.
A click across to Tumblr’s ‘fantasy’ tag will show (assuming you’ve filtered explicit content of course) quite quickly images bearing the words (or similar sentiment) that the maker of said picture needs fantasy because reality is so awful.
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I’m certain that their reality must be so utterly terrible, what with living in greyscale and all.
Why do I pour derision on this view of ‘escapism’? It’s so limiting. It places these forms of entertainment/art/whatever into a box for “people who don’t like the real world”. It diagnoses those who engage in them as somehow incompatible with the tangible, material world where you can’t be a half-elf-half-orcish monk-illusionist mage (why a link? Because the song is awesome. That’s why). Indeed, by definition, escapism is an attempt to hide in a fantasy so that reality can pass you by for a while. And while that is at least implicit in the term virtual reality, it isn’t really it at all.
You see, gaming, much like fantasy books and films, actually isn’t a far cry from reality. We actually look for realism in many games (not all, of course). Especially in genres like military shooters and RTS games, we look for realism in order to validate the experience. Of course, we don’t want pure realism, otherwise we’d be in ‘Ender’s Game’, but we want to feel as if our experience of these situations mirrors with some verisimilitude, the real deal.
What’s more, I think that if gaming was actually about escapism, this article in the New Yorker couldn’t really exist. While, evidently there is an element of cathartic escapism for Yousuf Mohammed, an Iraqi who enjoys Battlefield games, especially with levels set in his home country, it is bound to the reality of his situation. He isn’t running away from his problem. That is a short-sighted view of the imaginative engagement he, and all gamers, are actually engaging in.
Much like with my previous column, Taking Down Titans, here I’m thinking about the empowering way in which games allow us to look at troubles that should dwarf us, and by breaking them down into polygons, button sequences and logic puzzles, show us that they are surmountable. Games, at their best, are as escapist as gourmet cooking is about satisfying hunger. Escapism is the bare foundation on which a much more complex engagement with the real world is happening. It’s not that games aren’t offering ‘escapism’, its that they do more than that. It isn’t that it’s wrong to use gaming to escape from the world a moment; it’s that saying games are escapist limits them down to mere ephemeral dreaming.
If games, or any sort of fantasy or role play, were only about escapism, they would hold little to no real world meaning. They would only be a little refuge, a temporary womb of polygonal innocence where we can be free from the weight of the world. We wouldn’t come back empowered, or with new ideas about how the world is. Mass Effect couldn’t raise profound questions about humanity’s place in the vasty unknown of the cosmos. Heck no.
Games are more than escapism. Escapism is just hiding out for a while. Gaming is grinding to level up life skills.
Like breaking EVERYTHING in case of coins. Or something. It’s probably a metaphor.