Gaming Opinions

Gaming’s escapism to sane in an insane COVID-19 world

Photo by Rohit Choudhari on Unsplash

Is it me, or is “escapism” one of those words that seems to be a dirty word, without really being dirty in the sense that the late, great George Carlin told us? It doesn’t really get a good rap, what with the psychology studies that shit all over it as a contributor to a variety of unhealthy behavior, and the literal definition of it being “an escape from reality”.

Escapism is like one of those things you’d speak of as someone’s terrible secret as if they were engaging in some kind of scandalous behavior. “Hey, don’t tell anyone,” you say in a low, quiet tone to a confidant around the water cooler at work “but I heard that Nick does some pretty hardcore escapism on weekends” — as if you’d talk about it the same way if Nick was doing hardcore cocaine during his Saturdays and Sundays.

And pairing escapism with something else that’s carried its own stigma throughout its history, despite evidence to the contrary? Now you’re just asking for the negative connotations to come running out of the woodwork, like ants to a piece of dropped picnic food. There’s plenty of partners in crime for escapism that has been portrayed as pulling a fast one over people, but perhaps none so visible and who have generated as much public debate as with video games.

With every neglected child, untimely death, and other such incidents that involve games, escapism is there to be touted as the villain, the sort of boogeyman that whispers in the ear of the unfortunate victim and leads them to a grisly, unfortunate end. The more the game offers the experience of escapism through immersion (I’ll just set aside the “I” word for another article since that’s another “dirty term”), the more the blame is set on the game’s ability to allow someone to escape what they would rather not deal with — that their escape was somehow framed as an insane way of dealing with a difficult, yet sane, world.

But what if the roles were reversed? What if that escape into gaming was actually the sane method of coping and the world itself was a bit insane, out of its gourd, off its rocker — you get the idea. What if, for all its stereotypical siren lure of fantasy, imagination, and identity change, games seemed more logical than what was happening in the real world?

Hello, COVID-19 pandemic, you can enter from stage right now.

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

In many ways, the mere idea of a global pandemic is the stuff of cinema or fiction. It’s the kind of thing you witness in the form of a viral zombie apocalypse, or in a persistently fatal disease that kills off bit-part actors and the occasional main cast character as others struggle to cure it in 90 minutes, or anything else that otherwise doesn’t exist in reality. For a while, people didn’t really believe it was happening. Some few still don’t.

Yet here we are, months into stay-at-home orders and masks as a requirement, sports, movies, and travel operating with restrictions or at a fraction of their normal levels, and a staggeringly high amount of unemployment as workers are furloughed or laid off in a variety of industries. Do they say this is the cliched “new normal”? It sounds pretty damn abnormal to me.

Is it a small wonder then, or any kind of surprise for that matter, that those of us inclined to do so use games as a way to escape? That games provide a kind of order, even if it’s a fantastical kind, that brings sense for a few hours to a chaotic reality? It shouldn’t be.

Persona 5 Royal promotional image. Photo credit: Atlus

I spent just shy of 100 hours spread out over the course of almost 60 days on the release of Persona 5 Royal, a game in which you take on the role of rebellious high schoolers out to change a world filled with injustice and the corruption of those much older than them.

On its surface, a world in which you change the hearts of the corrupt by stealing the Treasures of their souls while inexplicably fighting all manner of monsters with no martial training seems ridiculously insane, not even close to comparing to the real world. But games, for all their imagined, fictional worlds and sometimes trope-filled characterizations have an order to them.

Get the best available equipment and levels and you’ll finish the mental dungeon and beat the corrupt boss.

Destroy all the towers of the opposing team so you can access their nexus and win the match.

Run your daily quests, gear up your character, and the raid, and its loot will be yours in short order.

Get to the end of the castle, defeat the villainous spiked turtle thing, and save the princess.

Meanwhile, in reality, even as the world slowly attempts to get back to a sense of normalcy, there’s no certainty as to the endgame.

How do you beat the virus? Is it a vaccine, or new social policies, or enforced at-home orders? Is it all three? How do you balance recovery from what’s had to be done globally with safety? How do people who lost their jobs get back to work? How do businesses that shuttered (or even those that haven’t) get back to where they were before?

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Compared to that, it doesn’t seem like what games are doing is so out there, so unordered, so insane to people. And maybe that’s why people inclined to play games are using them as that escape. When you look at how right now no one has all the answers, games seem to have all of them, at least in their boxed-in, self-contained experiences.

There will always be an unhealthy level of escapism for games because crossing the line into a substitution for reality rather than a temporary reprieve is never a good thing. But engaging in the activity at all shouldn’t be seen as an unhealthy escape from very real problems — especially when those problems don’t have many solutions or even ones that everyone can agree with.

No one knows for sure when things will be back to the way they were before in the real world — or even if they ever will be. In that sense, games, with their contained experiences set in imagined worlds, filled with characters both skilled and as powerful as we the players make them, provide at least some stable sanity, if only for a few hours, out of days filled with uncertainty.

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