Thinking about Escapism




Noism wrote a blog post about escapism that linked to an old Canon Puncture podcast that in turn linked to one of Noism’s blog posts from way back.  This has reminded me about a post I’ve been meaning to make for a while about the word – escapism.  For some reason the word just bugs me.

So, me, Aaron and Pete are playing a campaign set in Mobu City.  There’s lots of social commentary and bits about immigration there.

But really, what I love about the game is getting to role-play giant spiders and seeing a dwarven gambler and a dwarven drunk try to run a brewing business while brushing, banging and vomiting amongst the seedy under-side and powerful lordlings and wizards of a crazy-Tolkien-circa-1684-pastiche fantasy city (why 1684? I have no idea).  The social shit just happens because it happens.  I don’t sit around and plan it.  It isn’t what drives the campaign.

What drives the campaign are the things Aaron and Pete see as important to their characters, the things they strive for and drive towards.

The social commentary, the deeper bits of the game are just there.  When we kvell about the game during dinner or during post-game talks, sometimes we’ll talk about it but more often than not we’re talking about funny moments (Drink O’Declan’s!) and crazy shit that happens (“I can’t believe Judd had Aaron’s character gut-shot in the first game; that’ll teach him not to play a bad-ass elf.”).

I feel like sometimes, from things I say online that it seems like when we game we get together and put on smoking jackets and have deep games with deep thoughts.  That isn’t so.  When I’m GMing, like lots of people, I’m looking at the things the players dig and bringing about consequences based on the characters’ actions that are true to the NPC’s and will test the PC’s mettle.  I’m not thinking about saying something about society.

When I say that it is worth analyzing and picking apart our fantasy worlds, I mean it but that doesn’t mean I want to do it right at the table during play.

Back to escapism.  I love visiting fictional places with my friends but the word, escapism, rubs me the wrong way.  Maybe because to me, right or wrong, it seems to render the experience as meaningless.  It feels dismissive.

“But Judd, what meaning does it really have?”

This shit we’re making up together (at the table, I mean) doesn’t mean anything?  Shit.  I think it does.  Doesn’t it?

I don’t want to escape the real world.  I’ve got problems like everyone does but I like the real world.  I feel like gaming gives me an altered focus.  It allows me to engage in focused day-dreaming with friends.  If I wasn’t gaming, I’d still be day-dreaming about these fictional places and gaming allows me to do this in good company, gives the day-dreams focus.

I’m going to wrestle with this for a while, try to figure out what it is about escapism that rubs me the wrong way.

Comments are welcome.

14 thoughts on “Thinking about Escapism

  1. My general thought, coming from a discussion of fantastic literature:

    “Fantasy is sometimes called the literature of escape, but that does not meant that it is the literature of running away. To engage in escapism (often amplified as “pure”) is to abandon the world for one that does nothing but blind you to reality. While that potential is present in the fantastic, it is not an effect of it. “The fantastic” doesn’t do that; we do with our decisions about how to engage the stories and ideas. Escapism is a social practice and a cultural stereotype, not an inherent characteristic of the fantastic. It is an exaggeration of the word escape itself, which does not mean “to lose oneself in another world,” but to elude something that constrains you. If people feel that the “real world” as others construct it around them is confining or limiting, they generally chose to find ways around those constraints. The fantastic has often tried to explain what did not make sense, or give us a new context for looking at the world, and whether that comes from an ancient fable, an oral performance, a surrealist novel, or a LARP, the act of dismissal of the fantastic as “escapist” misunderstands what escapism is, and why people engage in it. Fantastika can give us all sorts of new angles of vision on the moment, if we approach it with that goal.”

    I think redefining escapism as eluding something that constrains you would be a fascinating thing to do.

  2. I dislike the term “escapism” simply because it seems to suggest that I don’t want to live in or can’t face reality. Like you, that’s not at all the case. I do, however, greatly enjoy gaming as an immersive hobby.

    So yeah… I prefer “immersionism” over “escapism.” I’m not running from anything by hiding in something imaginative. Rather, I’m actively engaging in something imaginative.

    Not sure if that made sense, but the difference is in active agency and the fact that I’m not hiding from or ignoring life.

  3. I’ve never thought about the term escapism enough to be bothered by it. One could say that thinking about escapism isn’t in, itself, escapism. Hrm.

    Or maybe I’m just shallow.

    On the show “Sports Night” characters who weren’t part of the crew often dismissed their job as “just sports.” But those who were on the crew had a different take on it, that it was important. I sometimes think of gaming the same way. Sure, its “meaningless” in that its “just a game”, but that’s something only someone outside the hobby would say. My wife would tell you how much more relaxed I came back from game nights, and I reaffirmed and made new friendships, so, I’d be hard pressed to call it meaningless.

    Am I saying its just a matter of perspective, and we shouldn’t worry about it? I guess.

  4. Maybe because to me, right or wrong, it seems to render the experience as meaningless. It feels dismissive.

    To me it doesn’t feel that way. I know “escapism” has a negative connotation in our culture, but I’d rather reclaim it: everybody wants to escape something. Nobody has a perfect life. Some people go to the gym and play sports (I do those too), some people watch TV and movies, some people play on the Wii, some people read, etc. etc. All of it is about escape in the sense that it’s either thinking about very little, or thinking about somebody else (a character in a story, say), and it’s necessary for us to keep us sane and relaxed. Okay, we bring baggage to all of those things, but we’re not particularly conscious of it, and being unconscious of it is part of its value.

    • I agree. I think the best fantasy RPG stuff occur when we’re done and we look at what we’ve wrought and say, “Holy shit, wouldja look at that?”

      And you’re not alone with your thoughts on the word, escapism. I’m processing out loud here.

  5. I think a lot of fantasy/spec fic works on the idea that people find “escapism” in dealing with a narrow set of problems, problems they don’t really face in real life, or at least, problems which are resolved in a clean, quick way. That is, I’d rather deal with dragons I can kill and be done with than look at being in debt another 4 years while living a very austere life and scraping along.

    That said, the issue I have with the trend people sometimes use when they bring up escapism is when I ask why a given problematic thing is in their fiction/game (“Hey, why are all the black people evil?” “This is fantasy! Not real!” “Yeah, so was Birth of a Nation, it kicked off a wave of lynchings across the country…”) And really, all that has nothing to do with escapism but says a lot about people and what they consider to be a “fantasy” in their heads.

  6. Tolkien said this about “escape”:

    “I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
    — J.R.R. Tolkien

  7. Great post, Judd; I struggle with the term as well.

    My general feelings align with what Rafe posted above. It always burns me when I see the rare instances of the hobby being covered in the mainstream media, and the idea of “escapism” inevitably comes up as the basic summary of what it’s all about… even from the mouths of many gamers themselves.

    Gaming is something I find incredibly interesting. It is a thoroughly enjoyable mental exercise for me; I often think of it as an extension of my great love for fiction, but one that I can share with a group of people in a collaborative, social endeavor.

    I don’t game to escape my life. I game for the same reason other people play in local sports leagues, join HAM radio clubs, join knitting circles, start Meetup groups for dining out, read books, watch movies, etc. It’s a source of pleasure and stimulus that, among others, makes my life wonderful.

    If that’s escapism, then what is a life lived without it? Subsistence? Mere presence? Doesn’t seem like a life worth living to me.

  8. Sometimes the world beats you down so hard that you not only don’t know how to solve your problems, but you forget the very feeling of being able to solve problems. At times like that, facing and solving some make-believe imaginary problems rekindles the feeling of competence and empowerment in your belly. Hope may only be an state of mind, an illusion. But it is a necessary illusion. And gaming can give us that!

  9. I also immediately thought of Tolkien’s quote brought up by Irminsul and incidentally also thought of the not-so-recent argument I had about race and Tolkien.

    What bothers me is not really an abundance of thinking about the gaming but the lack of the quality and really provocative thinking about gaming. Same could be said for thinking and writing about fantasy literature. We had to wait for full maturity of China Mieville to start getting some serious writing on Lovecraft for example.

    For example, it is easy to say that since LOTR has races as a part of a narrative, it must be racist game but it is really hard to explain its enduring popularity in quite diverse social (and often fringe) groups (from hippies to skins) especially if you imply that everybody who likes Tolkien must either be a racist or at least turning a blind eye to its inherent racism. It is basically lazy thinking that I am objecting to.

    It is similar with the gaming I suppose. Robin D Laws has already written that it would be cool if we (the gaming community) finally could get a marxist critique of D&D (you advance by killing and looting) and that it would signify maturity of the medium (being able to think itself in such way). But my question would be what kind of marxist critique. Some easy, neo-zhdanovist and vulgar (obvious product of a capitalist society that indoctrinates young minds…) or one more sophisticated (for example one that is incorporating nuances like the fact that most D&D characters are outsiders and fringe elements that was nicely grasped by Mieville in Perdido Street Station) that would echo that old Brechts joke that we (communists) probably know everything but that for propaganda purposes we must select questions that we will claim that we have no answer to.

    So I suppose that my answer would be: We need more writing and thinking about games and escapism if we do not want to be relegated to bad stereotypes.

    • Isn’t the Marxist critique of D&D incredibly obvious to anyone with half a brain? I mean, does it really even need saying?

      In any case, I don’t agree that such a critique would signify maturity. Maturity is recognising a thing for what it is, and D&D is first and foremost a game to be enjoyed as a game.

      Now, I recognise that to some people, applying critical theory to things like D&D is fun, and perhaps you are one of those people – in which case, fair enough, go ahead. I’d just question the assertion that it would signify “the maturity of the medium” as opposed to just being “another thing people do with it that they think is fun”.

      • The exact quote was that it would be interesting to see a Marxist analysis. I think it’s telling that you’re reading the lack of one as an indication of immaturity in the field.

        Also, if that essay were a person, it would be driving a car by now.

  10. but who says that you can not do both? i mean why not have a cake and eat it? isn’t the whole OSR movement about that that we should treat a game (or more precisely said this particular game) differently than, for example, literature? different rules, different context and all that.

    and people do all kind of weird shit and yet we tend to think about that too. why games would be any different?

    as for the maturity angle I have already posted a long replay on your blog so I would hate to hog more space here.

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