It’s not a new sentiment when people say something like “I come to games to escape,” nor is it unusual for them to follow that up with, “I don’t want to see politics in my games.” That’s a fair point, because politics and life, in general, are hectic. I remember reading a letter to the editor in an old Dungeons and Dragons magazine called Dungeon saying exactly that, in reference to the inclusion of homosexual characters. It’s a harmless statement when it’s honest. It’s worse when it’s really just a veiled way of saying, “I don’t want to see representation that makes me uncomfortable.” This article isn’t to address that side of escapism. This article is to address escapism with an intent on exploring the pros and cons of it. When is it healthy? When is it bad?
The benefits are apparent. Life is hard for almost everybody I’ve ever met. A band called AJJ has a lyric that resonated with me that goes, “Everybody has their own idea of what it is to suffer, and that’s a huge bummer.” I don’t think it is wise to totally immerse yourself in that suffering, hour by hour, day by day; we need breaks to preserve our sanity. A game can do exactly this, and we require different things from them when we escape.
Stepping away from your problems can allow the mind to refresh. A shower can offer clarity, for example. A eureka moment can come at the exact time you are trying to escape. Games offer exactly this kind of relaxation. When we unwind, rather than obsess, we can see a bigger picture. In all the stimulus of a game, we might suddenly draw an association that we can take back to the real world that might help us cope better. Art is a potent vessel for learning.
There are bad forms of escapism. Alcohol abuse is a definite example of this, as popular as it may be. A jog or a book revitalize the mind and body, and I can’t think of a single reason a game wouldn’t be grouped with these healthy options. The exception might be online games where toxicity can run rampant. Of course, a good online community of friends is the exception to that exception. Recognizing one another’s skills, helping each other to accomplish goals, and expressing a love for them as individuals away from the divisive world outside the game is an extraordinary way to spend your time.
But even games can be unhealthy when that escapism becomes avoidance. I can’t stress enough that the two things aren’t even semantically similar. Escapism is a break, while avoidance is hiding. Escapism is a vacation, avoidance is burying your head in the sand. The former can actually lead to growth. Avoidance freezes you, while the problems grow and grow, waiting for you. Do not imprison yourself and let your problems become your jailkeepers.
I’ve seen these arguments play out between a gamer couple. One used games to escape. The other used them to avoid the real world. They argued and argued, using the word escapism even when they were talking about two different things. At the crux of the problem was that one party was refusing to acknowledge that he might even be using games for escapism, so it would be even harder to admit that he was avoiding his problems. The term, “escapism” has “escape” at its root and that has a connotation of running, even though that’s not the case. Meanwhile, avoiding problems actually sounds like the healthier of the options. For a tough person, they will try to “avoid” conflict rather than “escape from it.” Do not conflate these verbs with their respective nouns.
Like most things, escapism is healthy in doses. Games might be your own personal equivalent to a spa day. People, often moms, might try to chide you for using games as escapism. There’s a very easy argument to be made against their derision. Think about the many ways people escape, and emphasize that games are your version of that. But never ignore the possibility that what you might actually be doing is avoiding the real world. That’s where the argument gets complicated. Make sure your terms are properly defined in all discourse so everyone is on the same page.