When I was but a wee lad, I occasionally watched some of those terrible afternoon children soaps, the kind I now instantly zap away from if I’m greeted with them when turning on the television. On one such lazy television-dominated afternoon, which my memory has mostly obscured, I remember watching a show/episode where the lead character (a boy of some unspecified sort) came into possession of a watch which could stop time. Obviously this concept isn’t unique, and predictably the boy used it for all sorts of mischief such as giving his greatest enemies wedgies.
What was supposed to be light entertainment inexplicably triggered the philosophical center of my wee developing brain, and I found myself immensely intrigued and fascinated by the idea of a time-stopping watch. Not because it would allow me to perform criminal acts involving my math teacher’s underwear (that sentence is bound to be misinterpreted), but for a different reason entirely. I think I found it so appealing because such a watch would give me the ability to escape in a rather harmless way. Wouldn’t it be great if, on a whim, we could just push a button when everything around us was moving slightly too fast? When we needed a break? To just wander about in a world which, just this once, followed OUR pace, OUR rules.
I think we all need to escape from time to time. That it’s an inherently human need, something that partly makes us into who we are. I can’t tell you why that is. I haven’t exactly widely studied humanity’s escapist tendencies. I do know they’re very real, and that *I* certainly can’t always stay here. Perhaps it’s due to how society is structured, due to the roles we play and to a certain extent are forced to play.
Maybe it’s because life, almost per definition in this entirely futuristic year of 2011, is so involved, so complex, so damn BUSY, that we need to take a breather sometimes. But no, I don’t even think it’s down to the context, down to the times. People have been escaping for centuries. Their means were different, sure, but the goal was the same: to get out, become detached from everyday concerns and problems, and go somewhere else. Somewhere better. Somewhere more in line with whatever ideals they defended, or perhaps the opposite: a place where they could forget all about them, where their ideals, truths and beliefs lost their significance.
Is escapism the privilege (or sad, inevitable fate) of a certain economic class though? Is it, in that sense, part of entertainment? It’s certainly true that, if our primary concerns of survival weren’t put to rest, our most basic needs like a roof above our heads not satisfied, we probably wouldn’t be playing World of Warcraft. Purely practically it seems like an insurmountable barrier. But then, escapism is far broader than that. I think what defines it is a sense of getting lost, of however briefly forgetting, of moving away from our everyday realities. I suppose in that sense getting drunk is also escapism. Which isn’t exactly a privilege for the wealthiest of people.
Becoming a space astronaut
The beauty of the kind of escapism games like World of Warcraft provide though, is that they allow us to not just detach ourselves from THIS world, but also very effectively and tangibly (a total misnomer in this case but it gets my point across) move into ANOTHER world. Of not just ceasing to inhabit this place, but also coming to inhabit another. That’s a fantastic thing. Books and movies and poetry and whatever else floats your boat allow us to do that as well, of course. Any sort of cultural experience which manages to craft a world entirely its own and present it to us, alive and real, gives us the possibility to escape in ways which are as intellectually stimulating as they are emotionally engaging.
But games take it one step further. And I’d like to argue games like WoW take it one step further still.
By virtue of games’ inherent interactivity, we suddenly gain the ability to not just “inhabit” a world in our imagination, through the feeling of being immersed in a book or film, but to ACTUALLY (virtually – this is so confusing) inhabit it. Become a part of it, run around in it, “do” “stuff” in it, “meet” characters which would otherwise be confined to paper and ink or would always be just out of our personal reach on a television screen. This has some massive repercussions.
No longer are we just fleeing from our everyday lives in the literal sense of escaping them and the problems that they bring along with them, we’re escaping into another life. Or more correctly, a complement of our everyday lives as it’s almost necessarily intertwined with our “real” lives. It allows us to LIVE out our wildest fantasies and dreams in a safe zone, without having to worry about the consequences. Live them out, instead of just reading about them or seeing them happen before us on a screen and letting our imagination do the rest (making clear here for a moment that I am a big movie geek and can very much enjoy reading a good book – I just think games have some amazing strengths of their own which often seem to be neglected). I can BE a SPACE ASTRONAUT or a military commander or a guy who kills Greek gods in his free time or a racecar driver or Razzmatazz, the night elf hunter whose heroic deeds have saved the world about two dozen times so far.
Aside from tickling that wonderful childhood pleasure center of our brains, this escape into a virtual life serves another important function. Where our real life problems often seem to slip from our fingers, grow over our heads or are simply too big for one person to get a grip on from the start, games offer us problems we CAN deal with. I get a huge amount of satisfaction out of that as I’m a terrible control freak, and everyday life tends to frustrate me with the number of things that I simply cannot control. It’s just such a wonderful change of pace to, just for a while, reside in a world where every problem has a solution, everything is in my hands.
In that sense you could call it productive escapism (even though I don’t like the word productive as it seems to imply economics): we’re actually doing things within this world we escape to. The problem-solving as a fundamental feature for games means they’re intellectually engaging, and the interACTIVITY means they’re more active than passively absorbing a movie, for example. Less productive forms of escapism would also include getting very drunk, although to be fair that probably has benefits of its own games can’t begin to replicate.
There’s more to this, but going into it all would lead me into a million different directions. The worlds games present us with have easily discernible rules which, given enough investment on our parts, we can figure out and often manipulate – much moreso than the “real” world’s. There’s only as much complexity as the designers decided to put in there – if only our actual Creator had been this gentle. Then there’s another feature of games I’ve already alluded to: where the real world moves incredibly fast, we can set our own pace in games, slow things down if we’re so inclined.
On wedgies (cont.)
World of Warcraft, being a game (it’s true), builds on all of these. Where it goes further in my view is in firstly, providing us with a world which is probably more fleshed out, more prone to exploration and freedom of movement (more real?) than the worlds normally found in games. Secondly, the fact that WoW enables us to create our own characters, customize them and make them our own, also has some pretty big implications. I won’t explore those here as that’d be beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say the consequences for how we perceive our bodies and craft our identities are huge.
Getting back to the main question of escapism, what’s incredibly interesting with a game like WoW is that it actually presents us with this bizarre mix of the actual and virtual world. We’re never REALLY escaping as we’re always having to deal with other people. I guess in that sense the most pure, ULTIMATE (yes) form of productive escapism would be RPing. As in RP we truly transcend our own actual bodies, worlds, and ultimately identities, and come to take on other bodies, identities, and inhabit other worlds. For all of us who don’t RP I don’t think we can ever truly sever the connection with the real world in a game like WoW due to the omnipresence of other human beings, but I don’t think anyone’ll argue that the potential for escapism isn’t incredibly strong.
Personally, I appreciate that we’re given this potential, the realisation of which pleases me enormously. The child in me is happy that he’s able to live out all his wildest fantasties. The control freak’s happy he can finally solve every problem. The stressed student who’s grown weary of the current pace of society is happy he can slow things down a bit. And the escapist is happy he can push the button on that watch.
THAT’s what WoW is missing. Virtual wedgies.